Yang Lan: The generation that's remaking China
The night before I was heading for Scotland, I was invited to host the final of "China's Got Talent" show in Shanghai with the 80,000 live audience in the stadium. Guess who was the performing guest? Susan Boyle. And I told her, "I'm going to Scotland the next day." She sang beautifully, and she even managed to say a few words in Chinese. [Chinese:送你葱] So it's not like "hello" or "thank you," that ordinary stuff. It means "green onion for free." Why did she say that? Because it was a line from our Chinese parallel Susan Boyle -- a 50-some year-old woman, a vegetable vendor in Shanghai, who loves singing Western opera, but she didn't understand any English or French or Italian, so she managed to fill in the lyrics with vegetable names in Chinese. (Laughter) And the last sentence of Nessun Dorma that she was singing in the stadium was "green onion for free." So [as] Susan Boyle was saying that, 80,000 live audience sang together. That was hilarious.
So I guess both Susan Boyle and this vegetable vendor in Shanghai belonged to otherness. They were the least expected to be successful in the business called entertainment, yet their courage and talent brought them through. And a show and a platform gave them the stage to realize their dreams. Well, being different is not that difficult. We are all different from different perspectives. But I think being different is good, because you present a different point of view. You may have the chance to make a difference.
My generation has been very fortunate to witness and participate in the historic transformation of China that has made so many changes in the past 20, 30 years. I remember that in the year of 1990, when I was graduating from college, I was applying for a job in the sales department of the first five-star hotel in Beijing, Great Wall Sheraton -- it's still there. So after being interrogated by this Japanese manager for a half an hour, he finally said, "So, Miss Yang, do you have any questions to ask me?" I summoned my courage and poise and said, "Yes, but could you let me know, what actually do you sell?" I didn't have a clue what a sales department was about in a five-star hotel. That was the first day I set my foot in a five-star hotel.
Around the same time, I was going through an audition -- the first ever open audition by national television in China -- with another thousand college girls. The producer told us they were looking for some sweet, innocent and beautiful fresh face. So when it was my turn, I stood up and said, "Why [do] women's personalities on television always have to be beautiful, sweet, innocent and, you know, supportive? Why can't they have their own ideas and their own voice?" I thought I kind of offended them. But actually, they were impressed by my words. And so I was in the second round of competition, and then the third and the fourth. After seven rounds of competition, I was the last one to survive it. So I was on a national television prime-time show. And believe it or not, that was the first show on Chinese television that allowed its hosts to speak out of their own minds without reading an approved script. (Applause) And my weekly audience at that time was between 200 to 300 million people.
Well after a few years, I decided to go to the U.S. and Columbia University to pursue my postgraduate studies, and then started my own media company, which was unthought of during the years that I started my career. So we do a lot of things. I've interviewed more than a thousand people in the past. And sometimes I have young people approaching me say, "Lan, you changed my life," and I feel proud of that. But then we are also so fortunate to witness the transformation of the whole country. I was in Beijing's bidding for the Olympic Games. I was representing the Shanghai Expo. I saw China embracing the world and vice versa. But then sometimes I'm thinking, what are today's young generation up to? How are they different, and what are the differences they are going to make to shape the future of China, or at large, the world?
So today I want to talk about young people through the platform of social media. First of all, who are they? [What] do they look like? Well this is a girl called Guo Meimei -- 20 years old, beautiful. She showed off her expensive bags, clothes and car on her microblog, which is the Chinese version of Twitter. And she claimed to be the general manager of Red Cross at the Chamber of Commerce. She didn't realize that she stepped on a sensitive nerve and aroused national questioning, almost a turmoil, against the credibility of Red Cross. The controversy was so heated that the Red Cross had to open a press conference to clarify it, and the investigation is going on.
So far, as of today, we know that she herself made up that title -- probably because she feels proud to be associated with charity. All those expensive items were given to her as gifts by her boyfriend, who used to be a board member in a subdivision of Red Cross at Chamber of Commerce. It's very complicated to explain. But anyway, the public still doesn't buy it. It is still boiling. It shows us a general mistrust of government or government-backed institutions, which lacked transparency in the past. And also it showed us the power and the impact of social media as microblog.
Microblog boomed in the year of 2010, with visitors doubled and time spent on it tripled. Sina.com, a major news portal, alone has more than 140 million microbloggers. On Tencent, 200 million. The most popular blogger -- it's not me -- it's a movie star, and she has more than 9.5 million followers, or fans. About 80 percent of those microbloggers are young people, under 30 years old. And because, as you know, the traditional media is still heavily controlled by the government, social media offers an opening to let the steam out a little bit. But because you don't have many other openings, the heat coming out of this opening is sometimes very strong, active and even violent.
So through microblogging, we are able to understand Chinese youth even better. So how are they different? First of all, most of them were born in the 80s and 90s, under the one-child policy. And because of selected abortion by families who favored boys to girls, now we have ended up with 30 million more young men than women. That could pose a potential danger to the society, but who knows; we're in a globalized world, so they can look for girlfriends from other countries. Most of them have fairly good education. The illiteracy rate in China among this generation is under one percent. In cities, 80 percent of kids go to college. But they are facing an aging China with a population above 65 years old coming up with seven-point-some percent this year, and about to be 15 percent by the year of 2030. And you know we have the tradition that younger generations support the elders financially, and taking care of them when they're sick. So it means young couples will have to support four parents who have a life expectancy of 73 years old.
So making a living is not that easy for young people. College graduates are not in short supply. In urban areas, college graduates find the starting salary is about 400 U.S. dollars a month, while the average rent is above $500. So what do they do? They have to share space -- squeezed in very limited space to save money -- and they call themselves "tribe of ants." And for those who are ready to get married and buy their apartment, they figured out they have to work for 30 to 40 years to afford their first apartment. That ratio in America would only cost a couple five years to earn, but in China it's 30 to 40 years with the skyrocketing real estate price.
Among the 200 million migrant workers, 60 percent of them are young people. They find themselves sort of sandwiched between the urban areas and the rural areas. Most of them don't want to go back to the countryside, but they don't have the sense of belonging. They work for longer hours with less income, less social welfare. And they're more vulnerable to job losses, subject to inflation, tightening loans from banks, appreciation of the renminbi, or decline of demand from Europe or America for the products they produce. Last year, though, an appalling incident in a southern OEM manufacturing compound in China: 13 young workers in their late teens and early 20s committed suicide, just one by one like causing a contagious disease. But they died because of all different personal reasons. But this whole incident aroused a huge outcry from society about the isolation, both physical and mental, of these migrant workers.
For those who do return back to the countryside, they find themselves very welcome locally, because with the knowledge, skills and networks they have learned in the cities, with the assistance of the Internet, they're able to create more jobs, upgrade local agriculture and create new business in the less developed market. So for the past few years, the coastal areas, they found themselves in a shortage of labor.
These diagrams show a more general social background. The first one is the Engels coefficient, which explains that the cost of daily necessities has dropped its percentage all through the past decade, in terms of family income, to about 37-some percent. But then in the last two years, it goes up again to 39 percent, indicating a rising living cost. The Gini coefficient has already passed the dangerous line of 0.4. Now it's 0.5 -- even worse than that in America -- showing us the income inequality. And so you see this whole society getting frustrated about losing some of its mobility. And also, the bitterness and even resentment towards the rich and the powerful is quite widespread. So any accusations of corruption or backdoor dealings between authorities or business would arouse a social outcry or even unrest.
So through some of the hottest topics on microblogging, we can see what young people care most about. Social justice and government accountability runs the first in what they demand. For the past decade or so, a massive urbanization and development have let us witness a lot of reports on the forced demolition of private property. And it has aroused huge anger and frustration among our young generation. Sometimes people get killed, and sometimes people set themselves on fire to protest. So when these incidents are reported more and more frequently on the Internet, people cry for the government to take actions to stop this.
So the good news is that earlier this year, the state council passed a new regulation on house requisition and demolition and passed the right to order forced demolition from local governments to the court. Similarly, many other issues concerning public safety is a hot topic on the Internet. We heard about polluted air, polluted water, poisoned food. And guess what, we have faked beef. They have sorts of ingredients that you brush on a piece of chicken or fish, and it turns it to look like beef. And then lately, people are very concerned about cooking oil, because thousands of people have been found [refining] cooking oil from restaurant slop. So all these things have aroused a huge outcry from the Internet. And fortunately, we have seen the government responding more timely and also more frequently to the public concerns.
While young people seem to be very sure about their participation in public policy-making, but sometimes they're a little bit lost in terms of what they want for their personal life. China is soon to pass the U.S. as the number one market for luxury brands -- that's not including the Chinese expenditures in Europe and elsewhere. But you know what, half of those consumers are earning a salary below 2,000 U.S. dollars. They're not rich at all. They're taking those bags and clothes as a sense of identity and social status. And this is a girl explicitly saying on a TV dating show that she would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle. But of course, we do have young people who would still prefer to smile, whether in a BMW or [on] a bicycle.
So in the next picture, you see a very popular phenomenon called "naked" wedding, or "naked" marriage. It does not mean they will wear nothing in the wedding, but it shows that these young couples are ready to get married without a house, without a car, without a diamond ring and without a wedding banquet, to show their commitment to true love. And also, people are doing good through social media. And the first picture showed us that a truck caging 500 homeless and kidnapped dogs for food processing was spotted and stopped on the highway with the whole country watching through microblogging. People were donating money, dog food and offering volunteer work to stop that truck. And after hours of negotiation, 500 dogs were rescued. And here also people are helping to find missing children. A father posted his son's picture onto the Internet. After thousands of [unclear], the child was found, and we witnessed the reunion of the family through microblogging.
So happiness is the most popular word we have heard through the past two years. Happiness is not only related to personal experiences and personal values, but also, it's about the environment. People are thinking about the following questions: Are we going to sacrifice our environment further to produce higher GDP? How are we going to perform our social and political reform to keep pace with economic growth, to keep sustainability and stability? And also, how capable is the system of self-correctness to keep more people content with all sorts of friction going on at the same time? I guess these are the questions people are going to answer. And our younger generation are going to transform this country while at the same time being transformed themselves.
Thank you very much. (Applause)