Ambition and the sense of powerlessness among young Chinese
Anthropologist Biao Xiang (center) with the current and former directors of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, Michael Berry (left) and Yunxiang Yan (right). Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.

Ambition and the sense of powerlessness among young Chinese

In a lecture at the Center for Chinese Studies, anthropologist Biao Xiang said the sense of powerlessness felt by young Chinese today is curiously similar to that felt by the young generation in China before the 1980s, when the reforms that transformed the country into an economic powerhouse were first introduced.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 02, 2023Biao Xiang, a celebrated social anthropologist and public intellectual, spoke at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies on April 13 on how ambition in Chinese society today has become a source of widespread sense of powerlessness among the young.

By ambition, he specified that he was using the Chinese term 上进心 /进取心, which translates as a desire to do better/an enterprising drive forward, or more literally as “the heart for moving upward and forward” or “the heart for progress and achievement.” The term began to be used by Chinese primary teachers on student report cards sometime in the 1980s, he observed, when ambition began to be transformed from a vice into a virtue.

Currently the director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany and a former professor at the University of Oxford, Xiang’s research spans multiple aspects of migration and mobility in China, India and other parts of Asia, as well as the forces shaping life in China today.

His published works include the monographs, “Global Body Shopping: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry” (Princeton, 2007), for which he won the 2008 Anthony Leeds Prize; and “Transcending Boundaries — Zhejiangcun: The Story of a Migrant Village in Beijing” (跨越边界的社区, 2000 and Brill, 2005), based on ethnographic research among migrant workers in the country’s capital.

More recently, Xiang published a long interview with Chinese journalist Qi Wu; “Self as Method: Thinking Through China and the World” (自己作为方法, 2020 and Springer, 2023), in which he uses plain language and concrete observation to discuss his life, as well as the historical and theoretical frameworks he uses to understand it.

A “common concerns” approach

Xiang stressed that he was at a preliminary stage in his research and seeking feedback on both his case study of ambition and his “common concerns” approach to research. That approach, he said, “start[s] with experience itself … the pains, the frustrations, the difficulties that people have in their experiences… [We] look at the world not as a given condition out there, but… as processes through which people are [living]… The most difficult part is to get right what people are really worried about.”

The ultimate goal of such research is to give people tools for individual meaning making in their lives. “There’s a hunger for social analysis among young people, especially in East Asia and China,” added the scholar. “So I think the role of scholars should change. [We should] provide tools with a high level of affordance, meaning that, like a handle, people can put their hand on a concept, start playing with a concept [and] turning the handle.

“And a door will open and there will be another room. [What kind of] room it is, we don’t know. It will be up to the public to find out, based on their own life experience and questions.”

The privatization of ambition in China

Xiang outlined one of his preliminary hypotheses on the cause of powerlessness experienced by young Chinese today, tracing it to the historic understanding of ambition in the country. Over more than a century, ambition has come to be closely tied to self-negation at the individual level and over-identification with the collective in China — “a kind of near total identification of the private [with] the public,” he said.

In contemporary China, the “collective” is no longer a Chinese society struggling to overcome backwardness and catch up with the West — a vision enunciated by Chinese intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, together severe self-negation and self-criticism, in response to the shock and humiliation of colonial intervention.

Rather, the collective today is a hegemonic social understanding of the “good life,” said Xiang, a kind of “collective coercion” that forces people to have ambition and compete in a society where social life has been formalized into a rigid set of symbols of achievement: going to the right school and the right university, getting a good job, purchasing property, etc.

The subordination of the individual to this rigid hierarchy of achievement, said Xiang, has been a severe blow to social identity, which is typically formed through social milieu, or “how people in everyday life form all kinds of collectives... which [become] the anchor of their existence. They develop all kinds of social relations and they develop their relation to the world, through which they develop their own identities.”

Xiang attributed the particular fierceness of competition in China to the inclusivity of the competitive “game” in the country, where the idea of an elite meritocracy enjoys mass public support, and a huge discursive apparatus supports competition using a language of sacrifice and stresses the necessity of hardship for progress (e.g., idioms such as “eating bitterness”).

Today, people in China are taking “[this] abstract system, this ranking system, this formal hierarchy… as a reference point to judge what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, what is good, what is less good.

“The situation we face now seems to be almost an uncanny continuation of the situation before the 1980s,” said Xiang. Yet the social anthropologist considered existential fear, and not ambition per se, as the cause of powerlessness.

“This is not only the fear of losing out, the fear of lagging behind. This fear has a deeper existential [dimension], a sense that if you don’t compete, if you don’t prove your value to the world according to certain criteria, then somehow your very existence becomes problematic.

“You have to prove yourself enough be recognized as a justifiable moral being. And how do you prove yourself? The only way to prove yourself is to improve yourself… So your own existence is not a starting point, the most important thing is your external manifestation of your ability and desire to improve.


Xiang's lecture drew many UCLA students. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.) 

“One conclusion that I draw from [this] is the importance of milieu, the importance of sociality,” said the anthropologist, a notion he claimed had been neglected by the intellectuals who had argued for social change in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1990s, he said, “the negation of sociality was further deepened, mainly because of the privatization of social reproduction: medical care, education and housing were all monetized.”

The privatization of these spheres greatly impacted people’s existential conditions, said the scholar. Money became a large determinant of “how happy your children are with where you live, whether or not you feel happy enough to meet your classmates, what you try to talk about over dinner with your older neighbors.”

In response to questions about the role of the state, Xiang said he was focused on meaning making at the individual level. Although he was open to thinking more deeply about the state, he emphasized that the common concerns approach sought to help people think about their lives. “For people like you and me, we can’t really change the Chinese state; this will be a long-term historical process…

“How do you live an ethical and meaningful life in condition[s] where you have very little control and that you cannot change?” he asked. “I don’t think the idea of [changing the state] is reachable for people... who need to live and have [many questions] to answer.”