The country's population of young iconoclasts is expanding so quickly that, like America's beatniks and hippies and Japan's shinjinrui who came before them, they now have their own moniker: linglei. The word's meaning was once derogatory, connoting a disreputable hooligan. Not anymore. This year, the Xinhua New Word Dictionary, which serves as one of the Communist Party's official arbiters of what is linguistically acceptable, amended the definition of linglei to just mean an alternative lifestyle, without an accompanying sniff of disapproval. Unlike countercultural movements in the West, which often germinate in protest activities, most linglei are not motivated by economic anxiety or political dissatisfaction. Growing up in an amnesiac era where Tiananmen is increasingly just a square, not a massacre, they feel little need to push for governmental change. Instead, their rebellion against conformity is largely an exercise in self-expression, a mannered display of self-conscious cool. "People born in the 1970s are concerned about how to make money, how to enjoy life," says Chun Shu, another young writer who dropped out of high school. "But people born in the 1980s are worried about self-expression, how to choose a path that fits one's own individual identity."
While China's economy is now conducive to entrepreneurial
But, in many ways, linglei are like dogs wearing electric collars that know just how far they can stray without getting shocked. No one's jumping the invisible fence, because if they do, they might just end up in a gulag. "We're distracted by all these new things, like new clothes or new computer games," says Chun. "It doesn't give us too much time to think about politics."