Dreaming of Ukraine

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China's Lost Generation Finds Itself in Ukraine

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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The latest viral story in China is the rags-to-riches tale of a young man named Mei Aicai. A working class high-school graduate who scored abysmally on China's college entrance exam, Mei now owns his own business, claims title to three-quarters of an acre of land, lives in a split-level house, and is married to an eighteen-year-old who -- the Chinese internet universally agrees -- looks like a model. One more thing: Mei achieved all his good fortune after leaving China for Ukraine.

For the Chinese public, the moral of Mei's story is clear: for anyone who lacks family connections, elite academic credentials, and a big bank account, it's now easier to achieve upward mobility in Kiev than Shanghai.

It's not hard to imagine what would have happened to Mei, with his modest background and limited education, had he remained in China. Faced with a slowing economy, high housing prices, widening income inequality and a tough job market for college graduates, millions of young Chinese now feel stuck on the lower-middle rungs of their country's ladder of success.

This widespread feeling has coalesced into an identity known as diaosi. The term is commonly translated into English as “loser” -- although its most literal translation would be a vulgar reference to the male anatomy -- and was originally used to describe young, under-employed internet-obsessed males. But over the past five years, it has escaped its derogatory connotations, transforming into a more pliable identity available to anyone who wants to distance himself from China’s money- and status-obsessed culture.

For some people in China, such distancing is a voluntary pastime. But for Mei's many peers, it's not a choice at all. For them, the diaosi identity is an expression of their straitened economic circumstances. When the Market and Media Research Center at Peking University, China’s top academic institution, recently leased a nationwide online survey of China’s working class, it was no coincidence that it bore the title “The 2013 Diaosi Living Conditions Report.” Sixty two percent of the 213,795 working class people who responded to the Peking University survey identitied as losers.

The men ranged in age from 21–25, women from 26–30 (though the diaosi identity more commonly attaches to males). They average $471 per month in income (by comparison, Beijing’s average monthly income in 2013 was $936). They generally can't afford to own their own homes, in part because 71 percent give money to their parents on a monthly basis (averaging $173, or roughly one-third of their monthly income).

The consequences are rough, especially for men, who are widely expected to own their own homes before marriage. Perhaps the least surprising finding of the Peking University survey is that half of all self-identified diaosi are single, and 72 percent say they are unhappy with their lives.

Enter Mei Aicai. His Ukrainian success story first appeared on Chinese news portals on December 8, and it was almost immediately characterized online as a “diaosi counter-attack.” Mei was praised for avoiding the diaosi fate by taking up residence in a place where his natural talents weren’t suppressed by China’s academic culture (and its obsession with testing), and an expectation that he had proper connections (and the taint of corruption so often associated with them).

In an interview with one news outlet, Mei also suggested that China suffered by comparison with Ukraine not just economically, but culturally. Mei emphasized that Ukrainian women, unlike their Chinese counterparts, marry for love, rather than money. That sexist comment has been echoed for days in online comments by young male diaosi frustrated by China’s materialistic dating culture.

Diaosi aren’t politically organized, and they don’t represent a coherent social movement. But they are representative of the diminished expectations that many young Chinese have as China enters a prolonged period of slower growth and rigid income inequality. If the Chinese government truly hopes to reform its economy, it’ll need to find a way to make sure that they don’t continue to feel like losers in a game rigged against them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net