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Double life of ‘Beijing drifters’ depicted

ZHOU ZEPENG and XIAO SUOWEI | 2023-02-02 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Travelers at Beijing Railway Station begin their journey home on Jan. 7, 2023, as the Spring Festival transport season approaches. Photo: CNSphoto

Most extant studies depict Chinese youth’s individualization process through the lens of “hard-working individuals.” In the institutional individualization process dominated by the state and the market, young professionals pursue individual success while actively embracing consumerism to compensate for the lack of collective life. This analytical framework emphasizes the ways the “state-market” relationship shapes minds and focuses on portraying a utilitarian individual who values their personal interests, but has limited public concerns. By presenting the complex lives of “Beijing drifters” within the youth group, this article reflects on the utilitarian individual paradigm, to enrich understandings of the lifestyles and psychology of contemporary Chinese youth. Beijing drifter, or “bei piao,” is a term that refers to someone who works in the capital city but does not have permanent residency there.

Theoretical perspective

Since the reform and opening up, the intensity of social mobility and the growing influence of individualism indicate that Chinese society is moving along the path of individualization to a certain extent. Chinese scholar Yan Yunxiang coined the term “hard-working individual” to describe the young generation in China, and he argued that individual success has become the primary standard for self-identification and social evaluation. The new institutional emphasis, coupled with official recognition of “success” and “wealth” on an ideological level, encourages individuals to take initiative and responsibility for their own lives. Driven by the desire for success and fear of failure, hard-working individuals have become a tagline and a goal for the new generation of young people.

An examination into the complex life of Beijing drifters from the perspective of institutional individualization reveals a tension between the pattern of institutionalized life and the pursuit of finding one’s true self in the world. The “institution” in this study refers to the competitive institutional environment driven by the state and the market with the labor market as the core, including mobility, work systems, consumerism, and so forth. The systematic compression of individual life by institutional environments enables Beijing drifters to live a standardized, patterned, and even atomized life, which is called an “institutionalized life pattern.”

There are two connotations for institutional individualization. One includes the structural institutional elements that promote and maintain individualization under the “second age of modernity.” In Western European society, the concrete manifestation is a series of institutional conditions under the state welfare model, including the developed labor market (the driving force of individualization), the education system, welfare systems, and other structural conditions. The other involves the institutionalization of life modes, meaning that people no longer rely on traditional habits to organize their lives, or plan their own lives based on dependence upon the system. Therefore, the institution also abstractly refers to the standardized, patterned logic of life. 

In this sense, institutional individualization has a “double face.” The seemingly “personalized” and free life actually remains manufactured by institutional standard setting and embedded in the completely consistent “individual-culture” model, trapping people through an unmet need for autonomy and self-realization, and the need to repeatedly confirm the meaning of life. Therefore, individualization becomes a combination of “liberation” and “alienation,” in the dual experience of meeting personal needs and seeking institutional dependence. The emergence of this contradiction and its influence on people’s states of mind creates the possibility for a new social and cultural community.

Dilemma and reflection

In the market economy promoted by the state, the national policy to promote mobility, privatization of the labor market, development of the housing rental market, formation of a consumer society, and other market-oriented institutional conditions have encouraged young people to leave their hometowns and move to big cities in search of better lives and higher social status.  

At the same time, the mobile and competitive labor market also compels them to enter a mode of life dominated by utilitarian logic, calculating every life choice with extreme rationality. The utilitarian life allows them to live a nearly standardized Beijing drifter experience. They have an independent living space, utilitarian time planning, and utilitarian social relations in line with their schedules. Faced with this institutionalized life pattern, most Beijing drifters work habitually hard to support their continuous progress, from which they receive a sense of achievement. Upon admitting the importance of hard work and self-development, many rationalize their life choices with their personal gains.

However, utilitarian orientation is only one aspect of the hard-working Beijing drifters. Sometimes, they go through mental health challenges. The most extreme manifestation was physical illness. Some used the terms “emotionless,” “lonely,” “work is king,” “depression,” “emptiness,” “lack of meaning,” and “no real happiness” to describe their life as Beijing drifters. Such mental health challenges stem partially from doubts about the existential meaning of hard work and also the gap between the harsh reality and the imagined reality of urban life.

In view of such a sense of meaninglessness, many studies have pointed out that Chinese youth often reconstruct their autonomy through materialistic means such as consumption and entertainment. The respondents in our study confirmed that they would find joy through consumption. Bars, KTV, board game cafes, and shopping malls are all their go-to places. However, most of them do not agree that entertainment can provide meaning and even criticize this notion. 

“The pursuit of one’s true self” represents the idealistic side of Beijing drifters, but it is an indescribable expression, full of uncertainty and confusion, full of detachment and contradiction. The ambivalence of Beijing drifters when faced with institutional individualization lies in their reliance on the utilitarian life mode to better establish themselves in society, while they have no way of making peace with their desire of “pursuing one’s true self.”

Social life

“Youth Space,” a public space established by urban youth to facilitate conversations and emotional exchanges, has expanded in China since 2012. Youth Space is appealing to Beijing drifters who actively face several dilemmas and are trying to change their lifestyles. Many respondents cited the importance of social interactions to improve their outlooks when they felt something was wrong. The spontaneous activities held on Youth Space meet their social communication needs to a certain extent. We will describe the social communication constructed by Youth Space from two perspectives: the form of communication (a “pure relationship” between strangers) and the content of communication (public life’s extension beyond individuality), as well as the “true self” of Chinese youth contained within this public space.

In Youth Space A, young people who were total strangers established an intimate form of communication in a short timeframe, which was different from their experiences in daily interpersonal relationships. This Youth Space relationship had two characteristics which were not intuitive or predictable. One was a non-competitive atmosphere. The other was that it transcended material desires and focused on heart-to-heart communication. Social interaction in the space occurred out of free will. People could join a conversation or an activity at will, or leave it, at any time. In addition to formal activities, people often conversed more deeply when they had similar interests. When young people attended these events, they would intentionally remain anonymous and conceal their social identities, which was most notably reflected in the widespread use of nicknames and aliases. As we can see, social interactions in the space were different from the utilitarian relationships of daily life, which catered to Beijing drifters’ expectation for equal and free social bonds. These relationships also distanced themselves from consumerist, materialistic, and romantic relationships. In summary, activities in A mainly revolved around three basic topics: reflections on daily life, knowledge exploration, and public concern.

Respondents in our survey used “sincerity” to describe how they felt about social interactions in Youth Space A. Here sincerity was in some degree equivalent to expressing “one’s true self.” It had two dimensions. One was self-identity, which is the expression of the real self, while the other was the desire for conversation, meaning that one’s identity fundamentally depended on the conversational relationship between oneself and others. Youth Space A helped in this regard. The “pure relationship” between strangers and the emphasis on freedom, diversity, and anonymity were conducive to seeking one’s true self. At the same time, the sincere self was explored through various interactions, allowing young professionals to fill the void of loneliness and experience personal connection in public life. For Beijing drifters, the social interaction in Youth Space A had a “utopian” color, which provided an outlet for feelings of “losing oneself” in institutionalized life.

Therefore, we can see a paradoxical picture: the internal contradiction of institutional individualization becomes the driving force for young people as they construct their “true self,” but they become strained by institutional logic and fall victim to institutional dependence. Through experiencing the true self, social interactions in Youth Space A are seen as a “patch” for the institutionalized lifestyle, which slightly reconstructs the individualized life pattern, but does not touch the foundation. Therefore, the concept of the true self wrestles with institutional constraints, forming the tension in young people’s daily life. However, in the work-leisure cycle, fatigue might be alleviated or even eliminated by consumption, entertainment, or individual reflexivity, yet the appeal of life beyond the institution cannot be fully realized under the establishing framework. 

In a sense, the double life of Beijing drifters seems to be divided between the utilitarian patterns of daily life and the “antidote” of social interactions in Youth Spaces. In fact, it is the tension between institutional constraints and the search for one’s true self which constitutes all contradictory aspects of the Chinese young people’s struggle in today’s era. 

In summary, this article attempts to promote specialized research in three aspects. First, it makes up for gaps in the discussion of Chinese youth’s autonomy and reflexivity within the framework of “hard-working individuals,” to present the “split” nature of contemporary youth as they attempt to construct their true self. Second, it enriches and deepens understanding of the dual nature of institutional individualization. Finally, it also discusses common problems when applying the individualization theory to the particularities of Chinese society.

Zhou Zepeng and Xiao Suowei are from the School of Sociology at Beijing Normal University.

Edited by YANG XUE