No Choice but to Lie Flat: Youth Unemployment Surges in China

Pity the class of 2022. The job market in China has long been a gauntlet for college graduates as the country’s largely industrial economy does not generate sufficient opportunities in the knowledge industries to satisfy the career aspirations of its growing number of college graduates. However, prospects for the current crop of jobseekers are particularly grim with a record 10.76 million college students graduating this year (Wuhan Evening News, May 24). Recent graduates must navigate an intensely competitive labor market where demand for jobs greatly outstrips supply due to the negative ramifications of the dynamic clearance zero-COVID policy, which has led to mass hiring freezes and  layoffs. Regulatory crackdowns on private businesses, which reached a crescendo last year, have fostered uncertainty in the technology and private education industries, sectors where many graduates had previously found work (South China Morning Post, March 20). According to the annual “College Student Employability Survey Report” released by the recruitment firm Zhaopin (招聘), only 46.7 percent of graduating college students had received job offers as of mid-April, which is down from 62.8 percent last year (Hangzhou Daily, April 28). Not only have fewer graduates found work, but those that have, are earning less this year with an expected monthly salary of 6,295 yuan ($939), a six percent decrease from 2021.

After a devastating April marred by the mass lockdown in Shanghai, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released several positive indicators that the economy has “recovered momentum” in May. For example, industrial production, which fell 2.9 percent in April, rebounded by 5.9 percent in May. On the employment front, the urban unemployment rate fell slightly to just under six percent, but youth joblessness remains high with 18.4 percent of 16-24 year-olds out of work (NBS, June 15). Youth unemployment is typically cyclical in China. As large numbers of high school and college graduates hit the market in late spring, joblessness rates tend to peak in the summer, and then gradually subside.  A recent Bank of America report predicts this dynamic will be quite severe this year, and estimates that youth unemployment could spike to 23 percent in July and August (Asia Financial, June 6).

More Than an Economic Issue

The specter of high youth unemployment is clearly on the minds of China’s leaders. During a recent inspection tour of government ministries, Premier Li Keqiang stressed the imperative to undertake “urgent efforts” to stabilize employment and emphasized the need to increase available job opportunities through the market and social employment programs (China Daily, June 29).

On his inspection tour of Sichuan Province last month, General Secretary Xi Jinping visited Yibin University where he expressed serious concern over the employment situation facing current college graduates. Falling back on his carefully cultivated every-man image, Xi held frank conversations with university students with one new graduate saying “the general secretary talks to us like family” (Sichuan Province Department of Education, June 13). During the discussions, Xi expressed his conviction that “employment is the basis of people’s livelihoods” and told the assembled students that “a happy life is created through labor” (幸福生活是靠劳动创造的, xingfu shenghuo shi kao laodong chuangzao de) (Yibin University, June 17). These remarks sound like avuncular advice, but Xi’s mediations on the inherent value of hard work are both a recantation of the China’s Communist Party’s (CCP) focus on the key role of youth in striving to bring about a “new era”, and a subtle rebuke of the generation-Z and millennial backlash against China’s round-the-clock work culture, which has intensified over the last several years.

Last year, the idea of “lying flat” or doing the bare minimum to get by at work went viral on Chinese social media. David Bandurski, who co-directs the China media project at Hong Kong University, describes this new philosophy as a rejection by many younger Chinese people of the Party’s unrelenting emphasis on struggle and a “deeply engrained culture of overwork without the promise of real advancement” (i.e. the “996” culture championed by Jack Ma and other tech executives, wherein  workers are expected to work 9 AM-9PM, six days a week) (Brookings, July 8, 2021). The combination of zero-COVID limitations on movement and social interaction, along with the intense pressure of a hugely competitive labor market could induce more young Chinese to embrace a “lying flat” mentality toward work. This is problematic for the CCP because the development of early career human capital is essential to achieving nearly every aspect of Xi’s vision of national rejuvenation: becoming a fully modernized socialist economy, boosting domestic technological innovation, and building a world class military.

Youth in the New Era

In April, the State Council Information Office (SCIO) published a White Paper on the “Youth of China in the New Era” (新时代的中国青年, xin shidai de zhongguo qingnian), which idealizes the young generation of Chinese as “confident, aspirant and responsible” patriots, who are wholeheartedly committed to the leadership of the CCP, and driven to pursue “lofty ideals with a firm belief in Marxism, communism and socialism with Chinese characteristics” (SCIO, April 21). In short, China’s youth are the “pioneers and pacesetters” of national development, who “ceaselessly strive to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” However, if  Chinese youth are to fulfill their assigned role as the vanguard of the CCP in a new era, employment is obviously essential in order for them to make positive contributions to national development. Employment is also politically important in another way, as enterprises are one of the primary mechanisms through which the CCP seeks to instill the proper ideological mindset among the population.

The classroom and the workplace play a key role in legitimizing the CCP’s political dominance as they are the primary institutions in which new generations are inculcated through ideological and political work. A hallmark of Xi’s time in power has been to restore the central place of political ideology in the workplace, a process which began with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and then expanded to private businesses (Gov.cn, September 20, 2020; Xinhuanet, October 23, 2016). The increasing centrality of ideology in the workplace is exemplified by the promulgation of  the “five adherences” (五个坚持, wu ge jianchi)- the first of which is absolute loyalty to the leadership of the party, which were initially announced by Xi in May 2014 as a code of conduct for cadres (CPC News, December 18, 2014). These guidelines apply not only to party members with inherently political responsibilities, but also to employees of SOEs, who are engaged in business or technical activities. Last year, the Party Committee of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which is responsible for overseeing SOEs, published an essay entitled Adhering to the party’s leadership and strengthening party building are the ‘root’ and ‘soul’ of SOEs (Qiushi, September 16, 2021). Individual SOEs have also consistently taken care to assert the centrality of  ideological and political work in their undertakings. For example, Sichuan China Tobacco Industry Company recently published an announcement highlighting its unshakable commitment to the five adherences, pledging to strengthen ideological and political work, which it describes as major task that is an essential part of its duties (Renmin Luntan, April 25).

Under Xi, ideological work has also assumed an increasingly central role in China’s higher education system. In 2019, the State Council released its China Education Modernization 2035 Plan, which sets forth the “study and implementation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the primary task that runs through the entire process of educational reform and development and hence, must me dutifully implemented  in all fields and links of educational modernization” (Gov.cn, February 23, 2019).

Reality Hits Home

The CCP’s preferred image of the patriotic, politically correct, constantly striving young person is jarringly at odds with the reality and daily frustrations that many Chinese in their late teens and twenties faced even before the zero-COVID policy scrambled an already difficult job market. According to official statistics, 30 percent of Chinese ages 14-35 are at risk of depression (People’s Daily Online, April 12, 2019). By far the main stressors cited by young workers and students, respectively, are financial and educational pressures. The prevalence of mental health issues among young people in China is likely to intensify as many struggle to obtain work at the same time that they have less access to leisure activities outside the home due to strict epidemic prevention restrictions. One blogger from Fujian province expressed dismay at the situation noting that they dropped their monthly salary requirements from 7,500 to 6,000 to 4,500 yuan ($1,119 to $896 to $672), but still could not obtain employment. “I don’t want to ‘lie flat’ at home after graduation, but why is it so difficult to find a job outside the house?” (Baijiahao, June 16). Another blog post noted the irony that the promise of a 3,000 yuan ($447) per month salary cannot recruit a migrant worker, but can employ a college student (Sina, June 21). This underscores an ironic reality in China’s labor market, there are many jobs available, but most of these are “blue collar” (蓝领, lanling) versus the  “white collar” (白领, bailing ) opportunities usually sought out by college graduates.

Despite the immense difficulties facing college graduates searching for employment, China’s economy is actually experiencing a job crunch in one area­—skilled manual labor. A recent report from Caixin notes that this year, a majority of vocational school students received job offers even before they had graduated. The director of the Shenzhen Institute of Technology’s laser department stated each of this year’s class had received between two to four job offers by graduation (ThinkChina, April 29). The government’s recent decision to stimulate the economy through mass domestic infrastructure spending could further exacerbate this shortage of skilled laborers (Xinhua, April 28).

Conclusion

For the CCP, a large unemployed youth population poses not only major economic issues, but also presents serious social and political challenges. Leaders such as Xi, who were in government during the late 1980s student protest movement that culminated in the Tiananmen massacre, are no doubt doubly cognizant of the danger posed by disillusioned yet educated youth. However, a greater and more immediate impediment to Xi’s designs is apathy taking hold among China’s young people. This is exemplified by the CCP’s simultaneous disdain and frustration with the “lying flat” phenomenon. In seeking to address this lack of enthusiasm for a new era, Xi would do well to remember that it was not ideological work, but the promise of material prosperity that induced the previous generation of young, educated Chinese not only to abandon their dream of political liberalization in the 1990s and 2000s, but also to work hard for China’s national development.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].