Gloria Li is desperate to find a job. Graduating in June with a master’s degree in graphic design, she started looking last fall, hoping to find an entry-level position that pays about $1,000 a month in a big city in central China. The few offers she has gotten are internships that pay $200 to $300 a month, with no benefits.
Over two days in May she messaged more than 200 recruiters and sent her résumé to 32 companies — and lined up exactly two interviews. She said she would take any offer, including sales, which she was reluctant to consider previously.
“A decade or so ago, China was thriving and full of opportunities,” she said in a phone interview. “Now even if I want to strive for opportunities, I don’t know which direction I should turn to.”
China’s young people are facing record high unemployment as the country’s recovery from the pandemic is fluttering. They’re struggling professionally and emotionally. Yet the Communist Party and the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, are telling them to stop thinking they are above doing manual work or moving to the countryside. They should learn to “eat bitterness,” Mr. Xi instructed, using a colloquial expression that means to endure hardships.
Many young Chinese aren’t buying it. They argue that they studied hard to get a college or graduate school degree only to find a shrinking job market, falling pay scale and longer work hours. Now the government is telling them to put up with hardships. But for what?
“Asking us to eat bitterness is like a deception, a way of hoping that we will unconditionally dedicate ourselves and undertake tasks that they themselves are unwilling to do,” said Ms. Li.
People like Ms. Li were lectured by their parents and teachers about the virtues of hardship. Now they are hearing it from the head of state.
“The countless instances of success in life demonstrate that in one’s youth, choosing to eat bitterness is also choosing to reap rewards,” Mr. Xi was quoted in a front-page article in the official People’s Daily on the Youth Day in May.
The article, about Mr. Xi’s expectations of the young generation, mentioned “eat bitterness” five times. He has also repeatedly urged the young people to “seek self-inflicted hardships,” 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 instead seek suffering?” Cai Shenkun, an independent political commentator wrote in a Twitter post, calling Mr. Xi’s proposal “a contemptuous act toward young people.”
“What kind of intention is behind this?” he asked. “Where does he want to lead the Chinese youth?”
A record 11.6 million college graduates are entering the work force this year, and one in five young people are unemployed. China’s leadership is hoping to persuade a generation that grew up amid mostly rising prosperity to accept a different reality.
The youth unemployment rate is a statistic the Chinese Communist Party takes seriously because it believes that idle young people could threaten its rule. Mao Zedong sent more than 16 million urban youth, including Mr. Xi, to toil in the fields of the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The return of these jobless young people to cities after the Cultural Revolution, in part, forced the party to embrace self-employment, or jobs outside the state planned economy.
Today the party’s propaganda machine is spinning stories about young people making a decent living by delivering meals, recycling garbage, setting up food stalls and fishing and farming. It’s a form of official gaslighting, trying to deflect accountability from the government for its economy-crushing policies like cracking down on the private sector, imposing unnecessarily harsh Covid restrictions and isolating China’s trading partners.
Many people are struggling emotionally. A young woman in Shanghai named Ms. Zhang, who graduated last year with a master’s degree in city planning, has sent out 130 resumes and secured no job offers and only a handful of interviews. Living in a 100-square-foot bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment, she barely gets by with a monthly income of less than $700 as a part-time tutor.
“At my emotional low point, I wished I were a robot,” she said. “I thought to myself if I didn’t have emotions, I would not feel helpless, powerless and disappointed. I would be able to keep sending out résumés.”
But she realized she shouldn’t be too harsh on herself. The problems are bigger than her. She doesn’t buy into the eating bitterness talk.
“To ask us to endure hardships is to try to shift focus from the anemic economic growth and the decreasing job opportunities,” said Ms. Zhang, who, like most people I interviewed for this column, wanted to be identified with only her family name because of safety concerns. A few others want to be identified only with their English names.
The party’s messaging is effective with some people. Guo, a data analyst in Shanghai who has been unemployed since last summer, said he doesn’t want to blame his joblessness on the pandemic or the Communist Party. He blames his own lack of luck and capabilities.
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 made a little over $700 a month. He quit because the work was too physically exhausting.
In other words, he failed in eating bitterness.
Mr. Xi’s instruction to move to the countryside is equally out of touch with young people, as well as with China’s reality. Last December he told officials “to systematically guide college graduates to rural areas.” On Youth Day a few weeks ago, he responded to a letter by a group of agriculture students who are working in rural areas, commending them for “seeking self-inflicted hardships.” The letter, also published on the front page of People’s Daily, triggered discussions about whether Mr. Xi would start a Maoist-style campaign to send urban youths to the countryside.
Such a policy would devastate the Chinese dream of moving up socially that many young people and their parents hold dearly.
Wang, a former advertising executive in Kunming in southwestern 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 I wouldn’t become a farmer,” he said.
In the hierarchical Chinese society, manual jobs are looked down upon. Farming ranks even lower because of the huge wealth gap between cities and rural areas. “Women wouldn’t consider to become my girlfriends if they knew that I deliver meals,” said Wang. He would fare even worse in the marriage market if he becomes a farmer.
It’s obvious to some young people that Mr. Xi’s proposals for solving unemployment are backward looking.
Mr. Xi “talks about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation all the time,” said Steven, who graduated from a top U.K. university with a master’s degree in interactive design and has yet to find a job. “But isn’t the rejuvenation about not everyone engaging in physical labor?” Because of the rapid development of robots and other technologies, he said, these jobs are easily replaceable.
Out of 13 Chinese graduates from his school, the five who chose to stay in the West have found jobs at Silicon Valley or Wall Street firms. Only three out of the eight who returned to China have secured job offers. Steven moved back to China earlier this year to be closer to his mother.
Now after months of fruitless job hunting, he, like almost 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.”
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