Why Chinese Kids Really Love the Internet

Doctoroff: Digital Liberation in a Rule-Based Society

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Tom Doctoroff
Tom Doctoroff
Young Chinese today are consumed by all things digital. Internet bars, bursting with netizens, are the size of football fields. More than 600 million individuals carry mobile phones and more than 60 million blog, double the number in the U.S.

What is less understood is how they engage with new media -- and whether their emotional urges and self-expression are fundamentally different from Western kids.

Chinese youth are a unique cohort. On one hand, they are tremendously ambitious. They have grown up in an economic go-go environment with the need for success, both professional and financial, reinforced by parents, grandparents and teachers.

On the other hand, China remains a profoundly rule-based, regimented society. Restrictions on self-expression, both implicit and explicit, are omnipresent. Students, always in uniform, never question teachers. Pedagogy focuses on drills and memorization. Unlike American high schools, there is limited "subcultural tribalism." There are no marching bands, choirs, debate clubs or swim teams. College criteria are strictly academic. And media in China is 100% state-controlled. By global standards, there is little content and few platforms for non-censored self-expression.

Western individualism is enticingly conveyed via glossy fashion magazines and illegal DVDs, not to mention iconic brands such as Nike and Apple.

This tension between projection of ego and alienation avoidance is a powerful dilemma for most Chinese. One focus group quote says it all: "I would love an uber-sexy motorcycle but, you know, I don't want any trouble with the police."

Given this conflict, digital liberation is manna from heaven, despite the snooping of 50,000 net police. The anonymity of new media is a blank canvas for self-expression.

Consider the following findings in a recent IAC/ JWT survey on American vs. mainland young digital "mavens." While 42% of Americans agree that they live some of their life on line, 86% of Chinese youth do. Asked whether they have a "parallel" online life, only 13% of Americans said yes, compared to 61% of Chinese.

Is the online world a channel for repressed citizens to spew venom at corrupt officials and "anti-China" CNN? Yes, but it is much more. Cyber space is a chance to have a second life. It is a fantasy-driven virtual journey, albeit one that mirrors real world aspirations of "standing out while fitting in."

Marketers can tap into the power of digital liberation by ensuring their communication campaigns address unquenched thirst for bold ego affirmation. These motifs include: Liberation from a regimented social; Fitting in without sacrificing individual identity; and Recognition of talent without real-world restrictions

Video games are perhaps the most ubiquitous vessels of primal discharge. Almost 50% of global "World of Warcraft" players are young Chinese men. The omnipresence, even addictive power, of violent video games gives free reign to depravity in a virtual world that violates reality-based norms.

One avid fan says, "Online, I can be gay. I can be king of darkness. I can be whoever I want to be. No one can judge me."

Mindless fun can be compelling too. Shan zhai are lighthearted copycat ads that poke fun at established brands ("Just Don't It"), celebrities, or cultural icons (puppies painted like pandas). Pizza Hut's "Yummy Band," a virtual gang of goofy instrumentalists, encourages surfers to "be happy students" by "defeating" exam stress with music.

The most potent liberation occurs when inner feelings are conveyed across a digital comfort zone, sometimes in a larger than life manner. DeBeers "Love World" site, for example, enables men to create a "planet" of "love monuments" and deposit them safely into girlfriends' e-mail boxes.

China's young generation grew up in sheltered, protective households. As a result, Chinese youth are not confident in their "coolness." They crave peer acceptance.

A desire to seek out and connect with like-minded people explains the success of 7Up's "World Travelers Unite!" site and Ford's "Excitement Challenge." During Ford's online event, individuals shared experiences, transformed from "boring to bold," and generated 600 million clicks on Ford.com.

Blatant status projection is frowned upon, given values of "saving face" and "understatement." The internet, therefore, provides a platform to shine. Millions of admirers can, almost instantly, applaud uniqueness.

Chun Xu, an online novelist, became a big name within a year. The Dorm Room Boys, two twenty-year-old students, became lip-syncing sensations, securing Motorola and Pepsi contracts in the process.

For modern Chinese, narcissism is more alluring than Buddhism. Virtual stars -- web filmmaker He Ge, sports blogger Li Chenpeng, cypto-sexy superstar Sister Lotus and even the "Sichuan Rescue Pig" – are proof that, online, it only takes a moment to become larger than life.

Pepsi's "Get on the Can" competition generated epic buzz. The same enthusiasm greeted Pringles' "My Own World Record," Nokia's "Who Has the Best (Dance) Moves?" and Colgate's "Star Search" initiatives.

Young Chinese are not escapist in a Japanese sense. And they are fundamentally optimistic about the future. But they need an occasional break.

Tom Doctoroff is JWT's CEO, China and area director, North Asia based in Shanghai. He has lived in China since early 1998.
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