Mandy Liu, a 21-year-old university student in Beijing, says anyone who has lived in China during the pandemic can see that the country’s future looks increasingly uncertain.
Covid restrictions were stifling and job opportunities were grim. She is due to graduate with a degree in tourism management next year and has submitted more than 80 job applications. She received no offers.
Many young people followed what the Chinese Communist Party told them to do, only to be disappointed, Ms. Liu said. “What we’re seeing is people struggling to survive.”
That discontent has erupted in recent weeks as throngs of students, job seekers and young professionals have taken to the streets of major cities across China to protest against the government’s iron-fisted Covid rules. The unrest highlighted the party’s longstanding concern that a shortage of jobs and economic opportunities for young people posed a threat to social stability.
On Wednesday, Beijing gave in to protesters’ demands and eased many of its “zero Covid” restrictions. But the biggest and thorniest problem remains: A lousy job market with too many applicants jostling for too few jobs could mean that China’s decades of economic prosperity may soon be out of reach for many young people. .
Youth unemployment is still near the highest levels on record, with 11.6 million more university graduates set to join the labor market next year. “Students want to protest because we feel our situation is getting worse,” said Ms Liu, who has not participated in recent protests.
Covid restrictions have drained momentum from an economy already reeling from a housing market meltdown. A government crackdown on fast-growing industries such as technology and private education has undermined opportunities in the private sector, intensifying competition for government jobs and admission to graduate schools.
The shrinking outlook betrayed the expectations of a generation of young people raised in relative prosperity as beneficiaries of a rising economy that provided stable jobs and growing incomes for their parents. The students were told that by studying hard, they too could enjoy a better life.
“The promise was that if you get an education, you’ll get a well-paying job. This is no longer materializing,” said Max Zenglein, chief economist at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “Being the first generation that’s going to be disappointed, that creates a lot of emotional pressure.”
Understanding the protests in China
When Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, addressed the Communist Party Congress in 2017, he said that “a nation will only prosper when its young people prosper”. He repeated the mantra in October ahead of the start of a precedent-defying third term, adding that China’s youth were “filled with optimism and an entrepreneurial spirit”.
But the words rang hollow. Frustration was mounting with growing numbers of unemployed young people and draconian Covid restrictions limiting opportunities for young people to work, travel and socialise.
In July, the unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 hit nearly 20% – the highest level since China began reporting the figure in 2018. The rate has fallen, but is still the highest. three times the national average.
Graduates who have found a job are paid less. The average monthly salary of 2022 college graduates who found jobs was 12% lower than that of 2021 graduates, according to a survey by Chinese job site Zhaopin.
The lack of post-graduation options got so bad that when a top entrepreneur advised students to take a ‘gap year’ to travel to China, the video went viral and came under heavy criticism to be disconnected from the challenges facing young people in the country.
Last month, China delayed the national civil service exam amid a rise in Covid infections. Civil service jobs are considered some of the most stable in the country, with the review dating back more than 1,400 years. Alice Li, 23, is preparing to take the exam when it is rescheduled. She will be one of 2.6 million applicants vying for 37,100 jobs, or about 70 applicants for each place.
The growing demand for government jobs is a testament to how Mr. Xi has reshaped China with an expanded role for the state, forcing businesses away from the needs of the Communist Party.
Ms Li was working at a tech start-up in Shanghai this year when, at the height of the city’s Covid outbreak, her boss informed her that the company was laying off 30% of its staff, including her. After losing her job in marketing, she began to prepare for the civil service exam – an option she never considered until she felt the pain of losing her job.
“It’s hard enough for us to find a suitable job, and harder for us to stay,” Ms. Li said. “I have to believe that the public sectors would be the last to fall during the economic crisis.”
The Chinese labor market is struggling to keep pace with the influx of university students into the country. Over the past two decades, the number of university graduates in China has increased sevenfold.
While the number of college graduates has continued to rise – an 8% increase predicted for 2023 – the pandemic has also deprived students of formative social experiences during college life, adding to their frustration and anxiety.
Iris Feng, a senior at a university in Beijing, said her college life had been dominated by Covid restrictions. Prior to the protests, she said, her school had erected a fence this year to prevent students from entering or leaving campus. Then he added a second layer of fencing and officials installed an alarm that would go off if people got too close. Students had to make an appointment to go to a campus lot or go to the lab to study. The chairs in the cafeteria were removed as students were no longer allowed to eat there.
“College was like living a dull, boring life. I think this sacrifice was unnecessary,” said Ms. Feng, who had not returned to her hometown for two years because she feared not being readmitted to campus.
In a meeting this month with Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, Mr Xi attributed the protests to young people who are fed up with Covid, according to a European official, who was not allowed to s speak out publicly on the issue.
When the protests broke out, some universities allowed students to return home after months of confinement and provided shuttle buses to transport students to train stations and airports. Some have questioned whether the move was a concession to student protesters or a tactic to disperse them and prevent them from staging future protests.
As part of China’s announcement to ease pandemic measures this week, Beijing said schools must hold in-person classes and open libraries, cafeterias and other facilities if there are no no epidemic on campus. But as graduation approaches next summer, the question of what awaits these students as they enter the workforce becomes more pressing.
Elsa Han, 21, wants to work for a tech company after graduation because she doesn’t like the stuffy office culture of public companies or government jobs. Ideally, she says, she would like a full-time position at the large internet conglomerate where she is interning. She knows the odds are slim because she expects over 100 interns to apply for the one vacancy she’s considering.
If she can’t find a job, Ms. Han said, she hopes to travel overseas and leave China. “In the current environment in China,” she said, “I don’t think I’m living a happy life.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed report.