Right now millions of young Chinese are anxiously fidgeting with their phones hoping for a very specific notification. They have spent hours fretting and preparing their ‘pet’ frog for his next jaunt across Japan and are worried sick about him. ‘Why haven’t I received a postcard yet? Has he made any friends? When will he return to me?’
Mobile game Tabi Kaeru currently sits atop the Apple App Store in China, as its younger demographic is swept up in the next entry on China’s long list of hugely popular fads which bemuse Western watchers.
The game works like this; you are given a frog who likes to travel around Japan and visit certain attractions. Your job is to ensure he is well-fed and looked after, with anything from sandwiches to sleeping tents – spending in-game currency to support him. But after you send him off…you wait…and wait. You can only hope your bond with your frog was strong enough to warrant a short missive or a snap on the road. Users online have shared their experience, with some detailing the sleepless nights they have spent waiting in earnest for an update.
Tabi Kaeru’s popularity is indicative of a wider cultural phenomenon concerning China’s youth, and one that the Party is very wary of. Only a few days ago, state-run People’s Daily urged their followers on Weibo to “Enrich yourself, don’t spend your youth raising frogs” – lecturing on 18 ways to do so. The most popular response reads, “I don’t break the law, I don’t hurt anyone, I don’t cause the government any trouble doing this, so what’s wrong with raising a frog?”. Interestingly, my Chinese colleague’s first reaction to reading that response was, “I wonder if their account has been blocked yet.”
The dictum from the People’s Daily echoes similar reactions seen at huge e-sports tournaments where government officials will open proceedings by stating that gamers should look elsewhere for fulfilment. The gaming issue is pervasive, with mobile gamers to number 699 million in 2021. Last year Tencent had to answer the outcry from parents countrywide who were frustrated by their offspring’s obsession with Honor of Kings. Restrictions were set to one hour per day for those under 12, with 12-17 year olds allowed 2 hours.
The infatuation with Tabi Kaeru and Honor of Kings is just one characteristic of China’s youth which is ringing alarm bells for China’s leadership. The country’s supercharged rise to global leadership and the ensuing economic and social outcomes have combined to subdue its youngest generation and breed an attitude to life which can best be described as apathetic.
Integral to this trend is a culture known as sang (丧). The dissemination of sang culture has been prolific amongst the younger ranks of China.
The term evokes the sense of disenfranchisement that certain young people feel as a result of being excluded from some of life’s supposedly greater pursuits, such as home ownership, the accumulation of personal wealth, and the attainment of social mobility.
This widespread demotivation characterizing China’s youth is palpable. In a life which has only known China’s golden years, abundant overt displays of wealth and a molly-coddled upbringing at the hands of the one-child policy, great expectations have been fostered. But reality has not been so sweet.
How is one supposed to stand out of the 1.4 billion and be the next Jack or Pony Ma? The next Fan Bingbing? The average monthly wage for a graduate out of university can’t even buy the latest iPhone. In Shanghai, it takes 42.5 years’ worth of average household income to afford the average living unit – a middle of the road 90sqm apartment wedged in an expansive complex.
Another term you may hear alongside sang is diaosi. This word arrived on the internet in 2011 and became ubiquitous shortly after as it struck a chord with so many. It roughly translates to ‘loser’; no money, a menial job, no romance – a failure. A 2014 Peking University study of 213,975 21-30-year-olds across 50 cities saw 62.2% of respondents consider themselves diaosi.
As many have shared in their reflections on 2017, there has been growing unrest in the divide between the haves and have-nots, much of it spilling out onto the millennial domain – social media. This has inevitably allowed these feelings and attitudes to form the backbone of a community of sorts, the disillusioned and defeated youth.
And of course, brands are taking note. A highly successful branding initiative targeted this ‘community’ in mid-2017. ORZ Tea or ‘Life Sucks Tea’ (the ORZ is meant to look like a person on their knees) served up rather depressing beverages. How about a ‘Sit Around and Wait to Die’ milk tea for ￥21? Or a “Can’t Afford a House” Macchiato for ￥23? The pop-up cafe saw lines down the street, abundant internet chatter, and of course, the ire of the government.
The Xi Era has arrived and with it a re-energized ambition for seeing China’s return to supreme glory. China’s youth are central to this objective, but are the most fickle cog of the machine. This story serves as a reminder that despite China’s meticulous plans to continue its rise to world leader, there are hurdles that aren’t as tangible as a poverty line, or a university ranking list. In this case, the lost ambition of a generation.