Tech addiction makes for unhappy Chinese youth in ‘People’s Republic of Desire’


Chinese youth and technology – not a happy marriage

“People’s Republic of Desire”

The next time a Millennial wanders out in front of your car, eyes fixed on their smartphone, know that that’s a phenomenon not exclusive to this country.

For in the “Independent Lens” documentary “People’s Republic of Desire,” premiering on PBS Monday, Feb. 25 (check local listings), we learn that in the rapidly expanding economy and society of China, there is a huge population of isolated, unfulfilled and alienated young people – just like here – looking to fill a void in their lives. And to do that they turn to their electronic devices, social media, and the internet.

That’s where web celebrities like Shen-Man and Big Li come in. They put their lives out there on YouTube, the former as an unattainable icy goddess type and the latter as a guy who will pull any stunt for attention, and the disillusioned and disenfranchised masses drink it in like water. Only in China, these online celebs don’t make their money from advertisers supporting their channels, but rather directly from patrons who buy them expensive digital “gifts.”

Consider it reality TV with the business model of public television.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities (between the U.S. and Chinese youth cultures),” says Hao Wu, a former tech executive who is the film’s director. “For example, how young people just want to become internet celebrities. They think there’s easy money to be made. And in order to make money, you kind of want to do some really crass content to try to get as many eyeballs as possible. And also why young people right now, they just really want to spend a lot of time online watching other internet celebrities doing what, to the adults, might be really brainless things, just like a lot of stunts, self-made controversy. So these types of things cut across culture.”

It turns out no one is terribly happy in this scenario, certainly not the viewers and not even Shen-Man and Big Li, both forced to support large extended families with their earnings. Yet the relationship between the celebs and their fans thrives.

“I want viewers to think about: Could this story happen here?” Hao says. “And also think about their own relationship with technology, how they’re using technology, what kind of desires they’re looking to fulfill with technology. And whether ultimately that will make them happy or not.”


George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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