Meet Wang Changpeng

Youth expert P.T. Black

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Wang Changpeng would look more at home in LA than he does in Shanghai. But there he is, spending his evenings in downtown People's Square, perched on his tricked-out BMX bike, dressed in black jeans with a studded belt.

Underneath his black cap you can see his studded earring glint, though you have to know him pretty well before he shows you the dice he has tattoed onto his scalp. When not practicing his bike tricks or listening to international pop-punk, bands like Green Day, Incubus, and Blink-182, he works at his friend's bike shop. He is a college graduate making a good salary--and is the envy of his peers.

Wang and youth like him are on the leading edge of a remarkable new development in Chinese youth. Throughout China's big cities, young people are taking great risks to follow their dreams. They are forming rock bands and hip-hop dance groups. They are filming their own movie shorts and designing their own clothes. They scour international Web sites for the latest music in New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Chinese media is getting in the game with shows like the just-concluded Super Girl that portray women courageously following dreams. Magazines are full of stories of ambitious youth who trekked to Tibet, or did charity work in Gansu, or interned at top fashion houses. The topics are different but the message is the same--Chinese youth can achieve anything they want, as long as they have the courage to go for it.

Their ambition is tempered with the powerful sense that, by virtue of being in China, they are operating at a disadvantage. Through Hong Kong magazines and Web sites they know about product launches that allocate the best stuff to the U.S. or Japan.

They also know how hard it is to get their favorite brands. I asked a hip-hop styled college girl if she bought her head-to-toe Juicy Couture outfit from an official store or whether it was pirated. She replied snappily, "I have the money and would buy real JuicyÖbut it isn't sold in China! How can I?"

She, like so many of her peers, knows what is happening overseas and chafes at the backwardness of the mainland. Conversely, they reward those who buck the trend. Adidas' high-end "Adidas-1" campaign has built tremendous credibility for the brand, which is being reflected in sales.

Though they know they are working at a disadvantage, China's early adopters compare their situation to Japan in the 1980s. They confidently believe China will catch up and they are proving to be right. China's breakdancers have surpassed Hong Kong and Taiwan and will soon be on par with Japan, the U.S., and the U.K., for example, and China's scratch DJs are already at the top-tier of global talent.

Thanks to broadcast media and the Internet, these styles are spreading beyond the cities. Two weeks ago, I sat with the bronze medallist in China's national DJ competition. His skills left San Francisco's best turntablists stunned. Where did he learn them? In his bedroom in Guiyang, the sleepy capital of remote Guizhou province.

The recent explosion in direct participation is a dramatic development. As recently as three years ago, Chinese youth could be comfortably described as being observers. They admired success from a distance and in groups of like-minded peers, they would watch their heros and applaud the best. Now they are watching their heros to learn, to see the latest dance techniques or basketball tricks. They are working hard and competing against each other.

Predictably, the heros of this new generation of participants are different from those in the past The massive Yao Ming, though acknowledged as a national treasure and Chinese phenomenon, does not excite these kids. No, their hero is more likely to be Allen Iverson. Standing at only 183cm but dominating the court with speed and discipline, Iverson is an inspirational role model within the grasp of young Chinese basketball players and courts around China are loaded with young boys (and girls) mimicking his moves. Their rooms are postered with his most dramatic action shots. He is a hero because he is dramatic, successful--and imitable.

Kids like Wang Changpeng are not alone, nor are they isolated. They are not rebels bucking the system. They are instead the leading edge of a massive burst in confidence and diversity that will define the future of China's young generations. Their courage and willingness to take risks, and invest time in risks, makes them the most watched and admired kids in their schools and communities. Keep your eye on them.

P.T. Black is a partner a Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China. He can be reached at inquiries@jigsaw-i.com.

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