Takes of a travel addict

Manchán Magan on China’s pyjama children


It’s been over a decade since I spent three months in China, travelling from the diamond sky-lined eastern cities to the furthest reaches of the Gobi desert in Xinjiang for a TG4 series, but I thought I had a fair understanding of the country until I overheard Brian Keenan talking about seeing giddy young people gathered on a Beijing street at night dressed in pyjamas. When he asked his taxi driver what they were up to, the man just shrugged.

The pyjama children are an enigma. What are they up to? When I was there people knew better than to gather in public. While Freedom of Assembly is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, in practise people knew not to crowd together without permission lest their intentions were misconstrued, especially young people and definitely not at night. So, what’s going on? And why the pyjamas?

Understanding China has always been a struggle. There is no doubt that it represents the future of the world, but we seem reluctant to get to know it. Western media has not been great at offering an honest, accurate portrayal. Journalists are somewhat fettered as their activities are monitored, but tourists are free to go where they like and with a smattering of guidebook Mandarin one can get a good sense of the place.

Every book I read a decade ago was fixated on detention camps, One Child Policy, Falun Gong, foot-binding, cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s policy of killing all birds. It was as if the miracle that one fifth of the world’s population was finally casting aside 5,000 years of subjugation and gradually moving towards liberty and self-determination was irrelevant. The only honest, accurate book was River Town by a Peace Corp teacher, Peter Hessler who has since become a New Yorker correspondent.

Our skewed understanding of China is best exemplified by the fact that when the Chinese stepped up implementation of the One Child Policy in the early 1990s it caused a significant drop in the population of the world, but because it wasn’t officially reported, no one noticed for two years.

A quick glance through online media today reveals a slew of vague or inaccurate statistics: that 33 million Chinese teenagers are addicted to the Internet, that one in five young urban Chinese are overweight or obese, and that 45% of Chinese urban residents risk health problems due to stress, with the highest rates among high school students. One source even claims that “boys and girls are not permitted to be near one meter of each other on school grounds, there’s a regulation haircut and all students think the same.”

This is all either wrong or out of context. The reality is always more complex and only by spending time there can one properly calibrate one’s understanding.

All we really know is that Keenan’s pyjama children are our future. They will impact our lives in ways we cannot begin to imagine. These young people are certainly not like the Chinese who preceded them. This post-Tiananmen Square generation has little in common with their parents, “the tragic generation”, whose youth was stolen by the fanatical excesses of the Cultural Revolution. For them, Mao is just a historical figure, as remote as the Opium Wars or the Tang Dynasty. They come from one child families - mollycoddled “little emperors” who some claim display an exaggerated sense of entitlement and an inability to sustain relationships.

This may be true, but so too could the opposite: they may have flowered under their parents undivided attention into confident, well-adjusted youngsters who will lead the world towards a brighter future. Never before has a culture shifted from mental and societal bondage to free thinking in so short a time. The consequences are unknowable, but perhaps we should stock up on pyjamas.