China’s Gen Z: Identity Explorers, Seekers of the Truth

6 min read.

Credit: South China Morning Post 

In 2020, the oldest of the Generation Z, or Gen Z, who are defined as young people born from 1995 through 2010, hit what must be the first major setback in their young lives. The global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curveball at them, at a time when the members of Gen Z are just entering the workforce, armed with a degree or diploma, and a heart full of dreams. 

The coming-of-age of Gen Z has been highly anticipated by marketers. In China, the Gen Z is more often referred to as the post-95s and post-00s generations. These behavioral differences will become more apparent as the post-00s begin to enter the job market in a few years’ time. Therefore, this article will discuss China’s Gen Z as a single consumer segment but where applicable, mark out the differences between the two generations. 

The world that Gen Zs have been born into will present opportunities and challenges which are vastly different from their parents’, and they are learning how to thrive in it. Gen Zs have grown up with digital and mobile conveniences, enabling them to confidently navigate between the physical and the virtual worlds, and with surprising savvy, as they do not easily trust information at face value.

A McKinsey survey defines Gen Z as “truth seekers.” The four core behaviors identified by McKinsey interestingly reflect some observations that 86insider has made about China’s very own Gen Z, who express individual truths by rejecting markers and labels, connect to different truths through involvement in communities, appreciate diversity through truthful dialogues, and unveil hidden truths using pragmatic, and sometimes, cynical lenses.

86insider joins China’s Gen Z on their discovery journey about themselves, their community and the larger world, to decipher what this could mean for brands that want to effectively engage with the next generation of Chinese consumers.

True identity

Stella McCartney Shared collection 
Credit: South China Morning Post 

If there is one thing that Gen Z hates, it’s labels. This is a generation that rejects traditional markers like gender and age, which force them to conform to societal expectations in China’s collectivist society, in favor of a fluid identity. For Gen Zs, the individual self offers an opportunity to challenge, experiment, and change. They are armed with an arsenal of inspiration from diverse online and offline communities, which feed their curiosity on environmental, social and human rights issues. Rejecting all sorts of labels, Gen Z, especially its teenage members, are designing their own identities based on how they see themselves, and their relationships with their communities and the world.

Gen Zs identify more with what brands represent than the products they offer, as they define themselves by experiences rather than possessions. They choose brands which resonate with their own values, and products that offer the freedom to explore and customize. Coca Cola is forging a stronger connection with Gen Zs by creating physical and online brand stores that do not sell any Coca Cola drink, but branded merchandise like clothes, bags and accessories from Coca Cola or its partners. What’s more, customers are invited to customize their products to truly make them their own.

Gen Z’s fluid identity is a major driving force in genderless fashion. “Stella McCartney Shared” is a genderless collection that is described as “a bold, relevant edit of luxurious streetwear curated for Stella’s tribe of global change agents unafraid to stand up for what they care about, represented by next-gen Chinese creators”. The brand’s global campaign is fronted by Chinese creators with a cast of all-Chinese models, in a nod toward the growing importance of Chinese consumers while demonstrating the brand’s solidarity with young changemakers worldwide.

Embracing different truths 

HeyTea creates its presence in Animal Crossing; New Horizons.
Credit: Content Commerce Insider

Members of Gen Z are born digital natives who traverse “phygital” (physical and digital) realities effortlessly. Technology enables Gen Zs to connect with communities that transcend their surroundings. Gen Zs do not distinguish between online or offline friends, gravitating toward those who share their interests and causes. While the physical world keeps them grounded on real issues, Gen Z appreciates the borderless cyberspace that does not discriminate, which allows people from diverse walks of life to participate and have a voice in causes and interests that they are passionate about.

The digital world offers Chinese Gen Zs an accessible space for articulating thoughts in a collectivist society where individual opinions and unreserved expressions are discouraged. Here, young people can express their inner voice while being open to other narratives that represent a multitude of perspectives and truths.

These virtual connections are interesting relationships for brands to explore. Cyberspace levels the social hierarchy, allowing  everyone to participate easily and equally. Each member can share personal stories that resonate with the larger community. For instance, NetEase Cloud Music, working with influential celebrities, has invited women to open up about emotions they have been hiding for years under the hashtag #onlyyoucansee.

Brands that consumers hardly interact with in the real world have become more accessible and approachable in the game world, such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where the players build their own islands and go about life just like any of the other “villagers;”. Bubble tea brand HeyTea builds a museum showcasing its products while Alibaba’s Freshippo brings its supermarket onto an island, and Chinese fashion brand Peacebird asks players to recreate the brand’s outfits for their avatars. The avatars prelude a hyper-realistic virtual environment that will become the norm in the future, where brands and Gen Zs interact through artificial intelligence (AI)-generated idols and influencers.

Truthful exchanges with the world

Nike x Jason Deng: SB Dunk Low “Street Hawker” sneaker series inspired by regional cuisines.
Credit: Sneaker News

Globalization was a key theme for Chinese Millennials, when a more open Chinese economy participated actively in global trade as the “factory of the world.” Globalization has taken a different form for Chinese Gen Zs, as China becomes an economic powerhouse to be reckoned with, with complicated relationships with other global powers, including the United States (US) and India. The on-going Sino-US trade war and the investigations into the origins of COVID-19 have caused anti-Sino sentiments in the global community while nationalistic sentiments continue to rise within China.

Gen Zs believe in the importance of dialogue, as the foundation for reconciling differences in opinion and amalgamating diverse viewpoints to form their own perspective on current issues. Instead of rejecting a concept, Gen Zs would rather engage with it to extract what makes sense for them, and assimilate it into their own identity. 

While global-minded, Gen Zs in China are also increasingly “Chinese” at heart, as they begin to identify strongly with their cultural heritage. Homegrown unicorns, such as cosmetics brand Perfect Diary and toy maker Pop Mart, have benefited from this trend. 

“They (Gen Z) want something that is different from the previous generations, and also want something that is an expression of their values,” said Charlotte Chang, vice president of consumer insights at L Catterton, adding that those elements will be key for homegrown brands to maintain their attention.

In a more turbulent global environment, these young consumers feel the need to defend what is truly their identity, by supporting Chinese cultural aesthetics and entrepreneurial endeavors, and driving the “China Chic”, or “国潮  guochao”, movement at home and overseas. Chinese Gen Z designers and influencers abroad are largely responsible for the ‘Cultural Export’ (文化输出 wénhuà shūchū) of “China Chic.” This wave of ‘China Chic Going Overseas’ (国潮出海 guó cháo chūhǎi) represents a new evolved confidence that creates a nuanced version of chic to show off to the world, through cultural products from fashion to music and cuisine.

Revealing hidden truths

早安打工人 (zǎo ān, dǎgōng rén!) means Good Morning, Working Class and refers to employees without privileged backgrounds who are also ‘losers’ for working for others.
Credit: 唯美图片频道 

They may be young, but Chinese Gen Zs are definitely realists. In fact, they could come across as cynical, often debunking ideals that have been piled on them by previous generations, or stereotypes that are over-sensationalized in the media. 

A video released by Bilibili on Chinese Youth Day last year — 后浪 hòulàng (Next Wave) — received severe backlash from Gen Zs. The video had aimed to celebrate the many opportunities available to young Chinese today, compared to past generations. In their rebuttal, Gen Zs commented that China’s economic progress had left behind part of its society — the video’s “Next Wave” only applied to children from the privileged class who had the freedom of choice in their lives while other “left-behind” youth would not be so fortunate.

后浪 became one of the biggest slangs on Chinese internet in 2020, alongside 打工人 dǎgōng rén (working class), to reflect Gen Zs’ sentiments about their actual struggles in society, which challenge the idealistic impression of this generation in the media. The internet is Gen Z’s “weapon” of choice to fight social injustices. Their expressions come in the form of sarcastic internet slangs, honest criticism, or unabashed backlash against corporate misadventures. For brands, places like Weibo or Zhihu are good for “social listening” to detect the bubbling sentiments among Chinese youth on a variety of issues in their daily lives.

Honesty and sincerity will factor strongly in brands’ future engagement with Chinese Gen Z. “Action speaks louder than words” will be the mantra for brands looking to connect with this generation of consumers. Support them in practical terms, including providing the channel for them to voice their concerns, while facilitating their endeavors to effect social change. Gen Zs are not looking for monumental changes, but building a better city one brick at a time. Real effort will be appreciated more than lofty promises. For instance, brands and internet platforms are helping Gen Z to develop entrepreneurial skills or uncover unique talents, instead of simply building empty castles in the sky.

In conclusion, with their ability to access vast amounts of information at their fingertips, Gen Zs are highly pragmatic and analytical about their decisions. The highly volatile global environment that they live in makes Gen Zs far less idealistic than the millennials before them. Being realists, they endorse diversity, reject stereotypes, and are willing to take the path less traveled to carve out individual futures, by learning different life skills from their favorite school — the internet.

Brands that can effectively connect with them will need to be equally ambitious and versatile, to travel alongside Gen Zers on their journey of identity exploration and truth seeking.