Daily Herald
'Frontline' follows young adults in a changing China
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 6/17/2008 12:13 AM

"Young & Restless in China," the season finale of PBS' investigative series "Frontline," is scattershot by definition.

It looks at the lives of nine young Chinese citizens over four years, starting in 2004. There are a couple of women from the country, one who stays on the farm, one who comes to the city to work in a factory. A couple of men are entrepreneurs. There are a couple of university-educated women, one of whom uses her MBA to do ad work for a Beijing investment company, while the other typically fights the government as a public-interest lawyer. There's a hotel owner and a doctor. Then there's a young man who's a rapper and a nightclub disc jockey.

They don't seem to have much in common with each other, but they seem to share much with young adults here: the clash between ideals and reality, personal gain and public interest, marriage and career. That's how this "Frontline" works best, comparing the quickly changing Chinese culture to - well, just look around you - our quickly changing Western culture.

"Young & Restless in China" airs at 9 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11, and I have to say on one level it seems to yearn for wish fulfillment: If China is following the West into free-market capitalism, it's only a matter of time before democracy follows. Yet the predictions that June 4, date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, would eventually become a national holiday in China to rival July 4 here have yet to come true.

Even so, there's no denying change is inevitable - and rampant - wherever you go. "My generation is confused," says Miranda Hong, the MBA. "When I was a child, we needed ration tickets to buy things, like fabric and oil. Since the 1990s, it's a totally different world," as technology and consumer goods have come to the major Chinese cities.

Different, and yet still much the same. Ben Wu, one of the "returning turtles" who worked for a while in the United States before going home, has to deal with entrenched corruption as he puts together his Times Square Internet Cafe in Beijing. "There is nothing you can do," he says. "Fish have to live in water. If the water isn't clean, you have to get used to it."

In much the same way, public-interest lawyer Zhang Jingjing has to get used to the notion that Big Brother is watching, especially when she sues some government-run company for polluted water or carcinogenic power lines.

Yet all find themselves straddling both the old and the new world in one way or another. Xu Weimin built a hotel in Shenzhen after being disillusioned by Tiananmen Square. "I decided politics was quite a risky and scary business," he says.

Wei Zhanyan left farm country to make cell phones - for 40 cents an hour. She returns home to follow through on an arranged marriage at the urging of her family, and the "Frontline" cameras are there for an awkward early meeting with her betrothed.

"Are you on summer vacation for this trip?" he says.

"What factory gives summer vacation?" she replies.

A "Frontline" interviewer asks the fiance if he ever thought he would be happy.

"Nope, never thought about it," he responds.

Yet as the cameras return in the years following, somehow they make a go of it.

Wang Xiaolei is less content with his place in the world, but that actually serves a rapper well. "Life is bad. How come my life (stinks)?" he says. "Hip hop empowered me because I could identify with some of those black people in America."

Through it all, they all struggle with life - much the same way young adults struggle here. Miranda Hong considers having a family, but decides she wants to "follow my heart" - in business. Migrant farmworker Yang Haiyan says, "I'd be happy if I could find a good job," but her country counterpart Wei Zhanyan says of her cell-phone factory, "I don't have time to think ... I live like a machine." Meanwhile, even battling the government every day in court, Zhang Jingjing says, "This job is my dream job and purpose in life."

I'm not sure if this "Frontline" offers any insights about China on the verge of the Olympics, except to say the obvious: that the Chinese people are very much like people here or anywhere, and we're all dealing with uncertain times rife with change. Who can say where things go from here?

In the air

Remotely interesting: The American Film Institute goes wild with the special "AFI's 10 Top 10" at 7 p.m. today on CBS' WBBM Channel 2. It will cover the top 10 films in genres like Westerns, gangsters, animation and fantasy.

WFLD Channel 32 is crowing over response to its intensive tornado coverage a weekend ago, when it broke in seven times with weather updates and aired a 75-minute special along with its Fox sibling WPWR Channel 50 at 6 p.m. Saturday. It was the top-rated show in the 18-49 age demographic.

End of the dial: Public WBEZ 91.5-FM's "Worldview" is airing a 10-day series on "My Global Activism Vacation" at noon weekdays, rerun at 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Host Jerome McDonnell is also asking listeners to call in with tales of their volunteering vacations at (312) 948-4880 or by e-mailing worldview@chicagopublicradio.org.

The Spanish Broadcasting System has promoted Joe Mackay to general manager of WLEY 107.9-FM. Mackay was previously director of national sales for SBS and the national sales manager for La Ley.