Gloria Li is desperate for a job. She graduated in June with a master’s degree in graphic design and began searching last fall, hoping to find an entry-level job that pays about $1,000 a month in a major city in central China. The few offers she’s gotten are internships paying $200 to $300 a month, with no benefits.
Over two days in May, she messaged more than 200 recruiters and sent her resume to 32 companies — and arranged exactly two interviews. She said she would accept any offer, including sales, that she had not previously considered.
“About a decade ago, China was thriving and full of opportunities,” she said in a telephone interview. “Even if I want to pursue opportunities, I don’t know which way to go.”
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China’s young people are facing record high unemployment as the country recovers from the pandemic. They are struggling professionally and emotionally. Still, the Communist Party and the country’s Supreme Leader Xi Jinping say they should stop thinking they are above handicrafts or moving to the countryside. They should learn to “eat bitterness,” Mr. Xi instructed, using a colloquial phrase meaning to endure hardship.
Many young Chinese do not buy it. They claim they studied hard to get a college or university degree, but found a shrinking job market, falling pay scale and longer working hours. Now the government is telling them to endure hardship. But for what?
“Asking us to eat bitterness is like cheating, a way of hoping that we will commit unconditionally and perform tasks that they themselves are not willing to do,” said Ms. Li.
People like Ms. Li were lectured by their parents and teachers about the virtues of deprivation. Now they hear it from the head of state.
“The countless examples of success in life show that in one’s childhood, choosing to eat bitterness also chooses to reap rewards,” was Mr. Xi quoted in a front-page article in the official Volksdagblad on Youth Day in May.
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The article, about the expectations of Mr. Xi of the young generation, mentioned “eat bitterness” five times. He has also repeatedly urged young people “seek self-inflicted hardship”, using his own experience of working in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
“Why would he want young people to give up a peaceful and stable life and seek suffering instead?” Cai Shenkun, an independent political commentator, wrote on Twitter afterwho called Mr Xi’s proposal “an act of contempt towards young people”.
“What kind of intention is behind this?” he asked. “Where does he want to lead the Chinese youth?”
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A record 11.6 million graduates will enter the labor market this year and one in five young people is unemployed. China’s leadership hopes to convince a generation raised amid predominantly rising prosperity to accept a different reality.
The youth unemployment rate is a statistic the Chinese Communist Party takes seriously because it believes idle young people can threaten its rule. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong sent more than 16 million urban youth, including Mr. Xi, to the fields of the countryside. The return of these unemployed youth to cities after the Cultural Revolution in part forced the party to embrace self-employment or jobs outside the planned state economy.
Today, the party’s propaganda machine spins stories about young people earning a decent living deliver meals, recycle waste, setting up food stallsAnd fishing and agriculture. It is a form of official gaslighting, seeking to deflect government responsibility for its policies that are crushing the economy, such as cracking down on the private sector, imposing unnecessarily harsh Covid restrictions and isolating trading partners from China.
Many people are struggling emotionally. A young woman in Shanghai, Mrs. Named Zhang, who graduated last year with a master’s degree in urban planning, has sent in 130 resumes, received no job offers and only a handful of interviews. She lives in a 100-square-foot bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment and barely makes ends meet on a monthly income of less than $700 as a part-time tutor.
“At my emotional low, I wished I were a robot,” she said. “I thought to myself that if I had no emotions then I wouldn’t feel helpless, powerless and disappointed. I could keep sending resumes.”
But she realized she shouldn’t be too hard on herself. The problems are bigger than them. She doesn’t believe in the talk of bitterness about food.
“To ask us to endure hardship is to try to shift the focus away from weak economic growth and diminishing job opportunities,” said Ms. Zhang, who, like most of the people I interviewed for this column, wanted to be identified with only her last name. due to security considerations. A few others only want to be identified by their English name.
The Party’s messages are effective with some people. Guo, a data analyst in Shanghai who has been unemployed since last summer, said he did not want to blame the pandemic or the Communist Party for his unemployment. He blames his own lack of luck and abilities.
He canceled his online games and music subscriptions. To make ends meet, he delivered meals last December, working 11 to 12 hours a day. In the end, he earned just over $700 a month. He quit because the work was physically too exhausting.
In other words, he failed to eat bitterness.
Mr Xi’s instruction to move to the countryside is as out of touch with young people as it is with the Chinese reality. In December he told officials “to systematically direct graduates to the countryside.” On Youth Day a few weeks ago, he responded to a letter from a group of agricultural students working in rural areas, praising them for “looking for self-inflicted hardship”. The letteralso published on the front page of People’s Daily, sparked debate over whether Mr. Xi would begin a Maoist-style campaign to send urban youth to the countryside.
Such a policy would undermine the Chinese dream of social advancement that many young people and their parents hold dear.
Wang, a former advertising executive in Kunming in southwest China, has been unemployed since December 2021 after the pandemic hit his industry hard. He talked to his parents, both farmers, about moving back to their village and starting a pig farm. He said they were vehemently against the idea.
“They said they spent a lot of money on my education so that I wouldn’t become a farmer,” he said.
In hierarchical Chinese society, manual labor is looked down upon. Agriculture scores even lower because of the huge wealth gap between cities and rural areas.
“Women wouldn’t consider being my girlfriend if they knew I delivered meals,” Wang said. He would fare even worse in the marriage market if he became a farmer.
It is clear to some young people that Mr. Xi to solve unemployment are out of date.
Mr. Xi “talks about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation all the time,” says Steven, who graduated from a top British university with a master’s degree in interactive design and has yet to find a job. “But isn’t the rejuvenation about everyone not engaging in physical labor?” Due to the rapid development of robots and other technologies, he said, these jobs are easily replaceable.
Of his school’s 13 Chinese graduates, the five who chose to stay in the West have found jobs at companies in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Only three of the eight who have returned to China have been offered a job. Steven moved back to China this year to be closer to his mother.
Now, after months of fruitless job hunting, he, like nearly every young worker I interviewed for this column, sees no future for himself in China.
“My best way out,” he said, “is to persuade my parents to let me run away from China.”