People attend a job fair in China's southwestern city of Chongqing on April 11, 2023. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
CNN spoke to job seekers in Beijing this March
03:22 - Source: CNN
Hong Kong CNN  — 

As the jobless rate among China’s youth soars, the country’s richest province has offered a highly controversial solution: Send 300,000 unemployed young people to the countryside for two to three years to find work.

Guangdong, the manufacturing powerhouse that abuts Hong Kong, said last month it will help college graduates and young entrepreneurs to find work in villages. It also encouraged rural youth to return to the countryside to look for jobs there.

The announcement followed President Xi Jinping’s call last December for urban youth to seek jobs in rural areas in an effort to “revitalize the rural economy,” in an echo of a previous campaign launched decades ago by former leader Mao Zedong in which tens of millions of urban youth were effectively exiled to remote areas of China.

Guangdong’s plan, which was widely panned on social media, coincided with the rate of urban unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds surging to 19.6%, the second highest level on record.

That translates to about 11 million jobless youth in China’s cities and towns, according to CNN calculations based on the most recent available data from the National Bureau of Statistics. (China only releases urban employment figures.)

A crowded job fair in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing on April 11, 2023.

The youth unemployment rate could increase further, as a record number of 11.6 million college students are set to graduate this year and seek jobs in an already crowded market.

“If the earlier Covid-19 protests reveal anything, it’s that large numbers of angry, well-educated youth in China’s cities could present big problems for the ruling Chinese Communist Party,” said Alex Capri, a research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation, referring to demonstrations in November 2022.

“Dispersing them to smaller villages in the country side could mitigate this risk and, possibly, help diminish income disparities between China’s tier 1 and tier 2 cities and the poorer areas of the country.”

Surging unemployment among young people is largely a result of China’s economic slowdown.

The government’s now-defunct draconian Covid policy hammered consumer spending and hit small business hard in the past three years. A regulatory crackdown on internet, real estate and education companies also hurt the private sector, which provides more than 80% of jobs in China.

No good choices

China’s youth are the most educated in decades, with record numbers of graduates from colleges and vocational schools. But they also face a growing mismatch between their expectations and opportunities as the economy slows significantly.

Frustrated by mounting uncertainties and a lack of social mobility, young people are increasingly losing hope that a college degree can bring the same returns it once did.

Kong Yiji, a famous literary figure from the early 20th century, has been one of the hottest memes on China’s social media since February. Kong was a highly educated man living in poverty because he was too proud to do manual labor.

A tourist shop named 'Kong Yiji' in China's Zhejiang province. Kong is the name of a character in a short story by Lu Xun, one of China's most influential writers. The impoverished character always wore a long scholar's robe.

Young college graduates joke that they have been trapped by their education and stuck between difficult choices: pursue a white-collar career and risk unemployment or “take off their scholar’s gown” and work a blue-collar job they had hoped to avoid through education.

“Chinese students, exhausted by pandemic lockdowns and concerned about China’s ever-evolving model of state capitalism, are beginning to realize that a degree may not improve their social position, nor result in some other guaranteed benefit,” said Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“So, not only are Chinese students overeducated to meet China’s workforce needs today, they increasingly believe that such skills will not be valued tomorrow.”

The Kong Yiji meme is the latest trend on social media describing disillusioned youth who are rejecting the hustle culture for simpler lives. Other popular buzzwords have included “lying flat” and “letting it rot.”

Authorities, uneasy about dissatisfaction expressed through memes, have banned the hashtag of Kong Yiji. Last month, they also censored a viral musical parody with highly sarcastic lyrics about the literary character.

Too picky?

State media seems to be shifting the blame for the lack of jobs to the youth themselves. Since the Kong Yiji meme went viral, they have published a series of articles criticizing youth of being “too picky” about jobs and urging them to put aside their pride and do manual labor.

In an article posted last month on its official WeChat account, the Communist Youth League called on young college graduates to “take off their scholar gowns … roll up their trousers and go down to the fields.”

But the articles have drawn even more ire from unemployed youth online, who blame the authorities for failing to create enough jobs.

“Students go to university to avoid working in blue collar positions. That’s not [being] picky,” said John Donaldson, an associate professor at Singapore Management University.

“Students wouldn’t need to make the sacrifices of university, when a good vocational education or even just a middle-school education would suffice.”

Social unrest

Analysts point out that Xi’s countryside policy may also be aimed at addressing the kind of widespread youth unemployment that could trigger social unrest.

In late November, thousands of demonstrators, many of them young people, protested in cities across China against its zero-Covid strategy, with some daring to call openly for Xi’s removal.

Following the protests, the Chinese government scrapped its zero-Covid policy in an abrupt about-face that also came in the face of steep economic challenges.

“All governments should be concerned about disaffected youth principally because it’s a betrayal of social mobility, but also because young unemployed or those without hope can foment unrest,” said George Magnus, an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre.

“This would be especially sensitive in China, where it would also detract from the required compliance with Xi Jinping’s thought and social stability.”

Many social media users have expressed unease with similarities between Xi’s policy and the earlier campaign launched by Mao between 1950s and 1970s.

During the “Down to the Countryside Movement,” many of the tens of millions of urban youth sent to rural areas lost opportunities for higher education and were dubbed by historians as “China’s Lost Generation.”

Xi’s policy echoes that of Mao, said Magnus. But he doubts if today’s generation of young people will accept this policy “meekly.”