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By Yawen Chen and Tony Munroe
BEIJING, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Chinese millennials with a dim view of their career and marriage prospects can wallow in despair with a range of teas such as “achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea”, and “my-ex‘s-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea”.
While the drink names at the Sung chain of tea stalls are tongue-in-cheek, the sentiment they reflect is serious: a significant number of young Chinese with high expectations have become discouraged and embrace an attitude known on social media as “sang”, after a Chinese character associated with the word “funeral” that describes being dispirited.
“Sang” culture, which revels in often-ironic defeatism, is fuelled by internet celebrities, through music and the popularity of certain mobile games and TV shows, as well as sad-faced emojis and pessimistic slogans.
It’s a reaction to cut-throat competition for good jobs in an economy that isn’t as robust as it was a few years ago and when home-ownership - long seen as a near-requirement for marriage in China - is increasingly unattainable in major cities as apartment prices have soared.
“I wanted to fight for socialism today but the weather is so freaking cold that I‘m only able to lay on the bed to play on my mobile phone,” 27 year-old Zhao Zengliang, a “sang” internet personality, wrote in one post. “It would be great if I could just wake up to retirement tomorrow,” she said in another.
Such ironic humour is lost on China’s ruling Communist Party.
In August, Sung Tea was called out for peddling “mental opium” by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, which described sang culture in an editorial as “an extreme, pessimistic and hopeless attitude that’s worth our concern and discussion”.
“Stand up, and be brave. Refuse to drink ‘sung tea’, choose to walk the right path, and live the fighting spirit of our era,” it said.
China’s State Council Information Office did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
While “sang” can be a pose or affectation, despondency among a segment of educated young people is a genuine concern for President Xi Jinping and his government, which prizes stability.
The intensifying censorship clampdown on media and cyberspace in the run-up to autumn’s Communist Party congress, held once every five years, extends even to negativity, with regulations issued in early June calling for “positive energy” in online audiovisual content.
Later that month, some young netizens were frustrated when Bojack Horseman, an animated American TV series about a half-man/half-horse former sitcom star, and popular among the “sang” generation for his self-loathing and cynicism, was pulled from Chinese streaming site iQiyi.
“Screw positive energy,” Vincent, a 27-year old Weibo user, commented under a post announcing the news.
A spokesperson at iQiyi said the decision to remove Bojack Horseman was due to “internal process issues” but declined to give further details.
Social media and online gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd has even gone on the counterattack against “sang” culture. It has launched an ad campaign around the Chinese word “ran” – which literally means burning and conveys a sense of optimism - with slogans such as “every adventure is a chance to be reborn.”
Undermining “sang” may take some doing.
“Sang” is also a rebellion against the striving of contemporary urban China, no matter the cost or hopes of achieving a goal. Tied to that is intense social and family pressure to succeed, which typically comes with the expectation that as members of the one-child generation people will support ageing parents and grandparents.
Zhao’s online posts, often tinged with dark humour, have attracted almost 50,000 fans on microblogging site Weibo. Zhao turned the subject into a book last year: “A Life Where You Can’t Strive for Success All The Time”.
While China’s roughly 380 million millennials - or those aged about 18 to 35 - have opportunities that earlier generations would have found unimaginable, they also have expectations that are becoming harder to meet.
The average starting salary for college graduates dropped by 16 percent this year to 4,014 yuan ($608) per month amid intensifying competition for jobs as a record 8 million graduate from Chinese universities - nearly ten times the number in 1997.
Even among elite “sea turtles” - those who return after studying overseas, often at great expense - nearly half of 2017 graduates earned less than 6,000 yuan per month, a Zhaopin.com survey found, with 70 percent of respondents saying their pay is “far below” expectations.
Home-ownership is a nearly universal aspiration in China, but it is increasingly difficult to get on the property ladder in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
An average two-bedroom home in Beijing’s resale market costs around 6 million yuan ($909,835)after prices surged 36.7 percent in 2016, according to Fang.com, China’s biggest real estate website. That’s about 70 times the average per capita disposable income in the city; the ratio is less than 25 times for New York City.
Median per person rent in Beijing, where most of the estimated 8 million renters are millennials, according to Ziroom.com, has risen 33 percent in the past five years to 2,748 yuan a month in June, equivalent to 58 percent of median income in the city, a survey by E-House China R&D Institute found. The costs often mean that young Chinese workers have to live on the edges of cities, with long, stressful journeys to work.
Financial pressures also contribute to young Chinese waiting longer to get married.
In Nanjing, a major eastern city, the median age for first marriages rose to 31.6 last year, from 29.9 in 2012, official data showed.
“Sang” contrasts with the optimism of those who entered adulthood during the years of China’s double-digit economic growth in previous decades. That generation was motivated by career prospects and life quality expectations that their parents and grandparents, who had learned to “eat bitter” during tougher times, could only dream of.
“Our media and society have shoved too many success stories down our throat,” said Zhao.
“‘Sang’ is a quiet protest against society’s relentless push for achieving the traditional notion of success. It is about admitting that you just can’t make it,” she told Reuters.
It is also a symptom of the lack of channels for frustrated young adults to vent frustration, a survey of 200 Chinese university students by researchers at state think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) found in June.
“The internet itself is a channel for them to release pressure but due to censorship it’s impossible to do so by openly venting,” Xiao Ziyang, a CASS researcher, told Reuters.
“It’s necessary for the government to exercise public opinion control to prevent social problems.”
Sung Tea founder Xiang Huanzhong, 29, said he expects pressure on young Chinese adults only to grow, citing the aging of the population as a particular burden for the young.
Xiang has capitalised on the trend with products named after popular “sang” phrases. The chain has single locations in 12 cities after opening its first permanent tea stall in July in Beijing, where a best-selling “sitting-around-and-waiting-to-die” matcha milk tea costs 18 yuan.
Xiang said he chose tame names for his products so as not to attract censure from authorities, leaning towards the self-deprecating.
He took issue with the People’s Daily’s critical editorial.
“It didn’t try to seriously understand at all,” he said.
Wang Hanqi, 21, a student at Nanjing Audit University, sought out Sung Tea after hearing about it on social media.
“I‘m a bit disappointed that the names for the tea are not ‘sang’ enough,” he said in an interview outside the Beijing stall.
Reporting by Yawen Chen and Tony Munroe in BEIJING; Additional Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Irene Wang in BEIJING; Editing by Martin Howell in SINGAPORE