China’s graduates hit back as Communist Party tells them not to be picky over jobs

The party’s youth wing says having a degree shouldn’t stop young people rolling up their sleeves.
By Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese, Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2023.03.21
China’s graduates hit back as Communist Party tells them not to be picky over jobs Job seekers approach the booth of an employer at a job fair in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Feb. 9, 2023.
Credit: cnsphoto via Reuters

Amid an ongoing shortage of graduate jobs, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine has started telling young people they shouldn’t be too picky about the work they do, even if they hold high-level qualifications from top universities.

A March 16 joint social media post from the Communist Party Youth League and state broadcaster CCTV hit out at growing online complaints from highly qualified graduates about a lack of employment opportunities, as more than 11 million young people graduate this year only to face the prospect of grueling shift work in the gig economy.

The complaints went viral on a recent social media hashtag referencing a scholarly antihero from a story by late revolutionary author Lu Xun after an unnamed graduate complained in a now-deleted post that he was stuck on a scholarly pedestal like Lu Xun’s fictional character Kong Yiji, with no jobs available to suit his qualifications.

The Youth League and CCTV post hit back, saying that “the value of academic qualifications can only be realized when one’s potential is fully explored in creative, practical activities.”

“The reason why Kong Yiji fell into his predicament wasn’t because of his learning, but because he couldn’t let go of the airs of a scholar and was unwilling to change his situation through labor,” the CCTV and Youth League post said.

“The scholar’s long gown can shackle the mind, and temporary difficulties do not equal a lifetime of failure,” it said.

It was picked up in copycat editorials and short videos following the same line, including one short video on Bilibili in which a young woman is shown making deliveries to a home and removing packaging, while musing that having a degree shouldn’t ‘shackle’ the mind.

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Graduating students wearing face masks attend a commencement ceremony at Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications in Chongqing, China, on June 22, 2022. Credit: cnsphoto via Reuters

‘Life for cash’

The propaganda attempt immediately sparked further backlash, however.

“Why is Kong Yiji going viral? Not because young people can’t let go of their airs, but because we produce more than 10 million highly educated college graduates every year, but without job opportunities for them in the current environment,” Weibo user @FengLengMoshi wrote in a comment on the Youth League post.

Some comments supported the government line, but many doubled down on complaints of a lack of good jobs after years of personal investment and sacrifice by themselves and their families to get them a university education.

“If turning screws [menial labor] made enough money to support a family and buy a home and car, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it,” wrote @GloryToKingBukharas. “The problem is that it doesn’t.”

“Workers should be given the remuneration and respect they deserve – we can take off the scholarly gown, but we’re not going to take off our pants as well, which is the respect and remuneration,” wrote @gogoLing0103.

Others cited China’s poor industrial safety record.

“Turning screws can be fatal – you’re just exchanging your life for cash,” @SNM_wind_20093 wrote. “My dad used to transport coal in a power plant, and left due to illness at the age of 44.”

@even_home cited widespread exploitation in blue collar jobs.

“Unless you’re in the big cities, there are a lot of companies that don’t even offer basic social security or weekends,” the user wrote, while @Lin Zhongshanmin quipped sarcastically: “Why not just strip naked and sell ourselves, our skin, our organs!?”

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People attend a job fair in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, on Jan. 29, 2023. Some online commenters are complaining about the lack of good jobs after years of personal investment and sacrifice to get them a university education. Credit: China Daily via Reuters

The Youth League and CCTV post gave the example of a young man who had returned to his rural hometown to take up agricultural work, one among a generation of “new farmers.”

Young people told Radio Free Asia that they are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the government’s attempt to kickstart the economy without relying on export manufacturing to drive growth.

A Chinese student in Germany who gave only the nickname Jacob for fear of reprisals said the government is trying to whitewash the dire situation many highly educated young people find themselves in.

“[Higher education] is similar to a Ponzi scheme, making you struggle to succeed in the wrong environment,” he said. “In the end, you find that all your work has been for nothing.”

“If anyone is unwise enough to believe this, then they will wind up much worse off than before,” Jacob said. “In the end, nobody is going to believe any of this stuff.”

‘Confused and angry’

Germany-based poet Yang Lian said many young people in China feel as if they don’t have a future under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

“They no longer see any opportunities, so why wouldn’t they be confused and angry?” Yang said. “It’s going to be impossible for them to keep young people in line by brainwashing them given the current situation.”

He said the authorities should be grateful that young people were only reacting by “lying flat,” an internet buzzword referring to young people’s refusal to fight for jobs, cars, spouses or apartments, as they had done since economic reforms began in the 1980s.

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Food delivery riders chat with each other as they wait for their online orders outside a shopping mall in Beijing on March 21, 2023. Recently, food delivery drivers have taken a hit on their earnings. Credit: Associated Press

Meanwhile, those who take the plunge into the gig economy are reporting a big drop in earnings, as delivery platforms including Meituan, Dada and SF Express slash rates for food delivery.

“I’ve been doing food delivery for a few months now, and today I’m completely broken for the first time,” a delivery rider who gave only the surname Yu said in a social media video on Sunday.

“Current order volumes are only 25 per hour, and I have made just 100 yuan after ... 13 hours’ work,” he said. “That meant 80 yuan after deductions for the vehicle battery and rental.”

China’s National Consumer Price Index rose by 1% year-on-year in February, 1.1 percentage points lower than for the previous month, while the Producer Price Index fell by 1.4% year-on-year, a fall of 0.6 percentage points from the previous month, indicating an ongoing deflationary recession despite attempts by the government to kickstart the economy through consumption.

And there are scant opportunities in manufacturing, even for seasoned industrial workers, amid a widespread slump in orders triggered by three years of stringent lockdowns under Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy.

Apple supplier Foxconn has declined to renew the contracts of agencies supplying 8,000 dispatch workers and forced others to resign after just six months of work, according to social media posts from Foxconn workers.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Matt Reed.

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