China: the crisis facing the youth today and the struggle for the future

Recent figures have shown youth unemployment in China now stands at over 20 percent – double its pre-pandemic level. When young people in China look around, we see a world filled with turmoil, suffering, and injustice. In our daily lives, we often feel immense tension, pressure, anxiety and pain. Young people might well ask ourselves: what has happened to our world? How did this happen? And most important of all: what must we do about it?

[The following article was originally published here in Chinese, and has been edited and abridged for an international audience.]

A national malaise

The past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered a far-reaching social crisis in China. For years, it has been clear that the decades-long boom in China has been running out of steam. The warning lights have been flashing as economic expansion has slowed, but the pandemic crystalised everything. The social crisis that has come in its wake has brought enormous suffering to the working class and youth, as we have previously reported:

“The Chinese working class has suffered deeply from the harsh lockdown measures that the state imposed in its futile effort to maintain ‘zero COVID’. Millions of people’s daily lives are disrupted by constant orders to do PCR tests, while those unfortunate enough to contract the virus (and their neighbours) are subjected to poorly-administered quarantine centres. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs or have been furloughed, and food prices have skyrocketed in quarantine zones. Many who have been ordered to stay at home cannot properly access daily necessities.”

The pandemic exposed the ugliest aspects of Chinese capitalism that had been well hidden in the past. Instead of patiently listening to public grievances and scientifically adjusting policies, the CCP regime used massive lies and authoritarian rule to maintain its power.

Faced with this, the prevailing mood among a section of the youth has been towards escapism, commonly known as “run-xue” (润学). In 2022, many media outlets noted that whilst authorities were strengthening their efforts to enforce compliance with their ‘zero COVID’ policies on the helpless masses, interest in emigration was dramatically surging across the population.

During the Shanghai lockdown of April 2022, online searches related to “conditions for emigration to Canada” spiked by 2,846 percent compared with the previous period. After the official announcement on 3 April 2022 that China would “strictly adhere to the ‘zero COVID’ policy on the social front,” the overall search index for emigration rose that day by 440 percent, and video-related searches increased by 1,455 percent.

More important and noteworthy have been the many forms of resistance with which the Chinese youth have reacted to the crisis. A new generation of young people, which has never before witnessed a crisis of this magnitude, is awakening from political confusion and apathy. They have gradually come to see the cruelty of Chinese capitalism and have chosen to break away from the cynicism that has infected generations since 1989. In ever-growing numbers, they have opted to actively participate in social movements against the regime. In November of last year, students from at least 21 provinces and 207 universities across the country participated in protest activities.

Thanks to their struggles, the mobilisations of the working class, and the hopelessness of containing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government finally decided to abandon its ‘zero-COVID’ policy. However, the harm that the authorities caused to the toiling masses, and the dark side of capitalism that was exposed by the pandemic, will forever be etched into the memories of young people, in the eyes of many of whom, this regime and its system are beyond rescue.

After the pandemic, many people hoped for an improvement in the economic situation – not least the officials of the government! However, six months have passed and the Chinese economy has not only failed to recover but has continued to slide down the path of crisis. Manufacturing has been contracting for five consecutive months now; the real estate industry has suffered massive losses, deepening the crisis; investment and exports remain weak, while consumption is gradually shrinking; and domestic GDP growth continues its years-long slowdown. (For more analysis on the economic crisis, click here.) Amidst this adverse economic background, young people see no hope of finding meaningful employment.

Hope for employment fades away

China youth Image Marie Anna LeeA new generation of young people is awakening from political confusion and apathy / Image: Marie Anna Lee

In March of this year, Kong Yiji – a “poor, destitute intellectual” who is a classic character from Chinese literature, first making an appearance in New Youth magazine in 1919 – once again became a hot topic on the Chinese internet. Many have appropriated this character to describe how difficult highly-educated Chinese youth are finding it to secure a decent job amidst a shrinking labour market. They are forced to give up their self-esteem as intellectuals and abandon their aspirations for white-collar jobs. In order to make a living, they are compelled to enter lower-level positions and industries where their skills are useless. “Kong Yiji’s long gown” briefly trended as the number one topic on Weibo, indicating the way this has gone viral among young people facing a life of exploitation and oppression in work.

The CCP authorities wasted no time in chastising the youth, who were told to stop complaining and get back to work to enrich the bosses. On 16 March, State media channel CCTV published an article stating that talk of “[Kong Yiji’s] long gown… is mere self-denigration”, and it urged the youth not to regard different jobs in a “hierarchical” manner. Instead, it preached that they ought to be prepared to swallow their egos and dare to be more self-reliant. The implication is that young people shouldn’t point the finger of blame at the extremely harsh working conditions in the Chinese job market: the high work intensity, long hours, low wages, and almost complete non-compliance with labour laws. Instead, they should blame themselves for being “spoiled” and for failing to work hard enough.

For decades, Chinese students have had the expectation that they would find good jobs after attending university. They endured tremendous pressure, competing with millions of others to get into university. Now, many are finding upon entering society that their income bears no proportion to the effort exerted to get these qualifications. Jobs that align with the abilities of a highly-skilled workforce have become harder to find. If after twelve years, they cannot find suitable work and must instead “screw bolts” for a living, then what was all the effort for? The empty words of the official media cannot salve these feelings. And young people have and will make their voices heard.

On 25 March, a poor and destitute internet singer, inspired by the popular song “阳光开朗大男孩” (Sunny And Cheerful Big Boy), released a song called “阳光开朗孔乙己” (Sunny and Cheerful Kong Yiji) on Bilibili. The video mocks the government's hypocritical nonsense, and has garnered millions of views, likes, favourites, and shares, powerfully expressing the frustration of young people. Naturally, the authorities could not tolerate such a ‘trend setter’, and the artist and their work were subsequently banned.

At the end of the aforementioned CCTV article, the bureaucratic writer casts a spell on himself, saying, “the era of Kong Yiji is gone, and the aspiring youth of today will never be trapped.” And the basis for such a statement? “The economy is recovering, the employment situation is gradually improving, and the young generation will have a broader platform and more diversified opportunities and choices.”

But the figures tell another story. Today, as China continues to slide into recession, youth unemployment is rising. According to official statistics, the youth unemployment rate in China’s cities and towns has risen month by month this year, from 17 percent in January to 21 percent in July, meaning that more than one in five young people is unemployed.

But that is the calculation on the basis of the official statistics, which are extremely haphazard and muddled (for instance, one hour of work per week is considered “employment”!) The actual unemployment rate is therefore far in excess of these figures. An economist at Peking University added young people having difficulty finding jobs to the data, and, with the aid of the publicly available urban unemployment rates, calculated that the actual number of young people unable to find a job was already as high as 46.5 percent back in March this year.

Struggling to find suitable work, young people are looking at every possible avenue. Applications for the civil service and postgraduate studies have become increasingly popular. Millions of young people vie with one another to find a secure job in government agencies and on university campuses, despite the extremely difficult exams involved – only about 1 percent of the 2 million or so applicants were accepted into the civil service nationally in 2022. The acceptance rate at the provincial level for 2021 only rose to 2 percent for the 5 million applicants. Millions of candidates will remain unemployed. On the other hand, many young people have given up their jobs and have even returned to their parents temporarily, becoming full-time children relying on family support.

And even while so many cannot find a job, many companies continue to lay off large numbers of workers on account of the overall economic downturn and operational problems. The tech industry is bearing the brunt of this. The three major internet giants, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, shed a net 28,000 jobs in 2022; whilst the internet industry laid off up to 10,000 people in the first quarter of 2023, according to End Media.

Industrial sectors such as the automotive industry are not immune either. In May, Ford laid off more than 1,300 employees in China. Even in the financial sector, major layoffs are taking place, and Wall Street corporations are withdrawing from the Chinese market.

The trajectory of the Chinese economy shows once more that unemployment and the anarchy of the market are intrinsic to capitalism.

No way to make ends meet

Even for those fortunate enough to secure employment, the nightmare doesn’t end there. Even those in the civil service or with postgraduate degrees cannot guarantee that they will make ends meet. In recent years, many local governments in China have faced serious financial difficulties, leading to sharp reductions in the salaries and benefits of public sector workers in many regions. With the economy expected to continue its downward trend, public sector workers’ incomes are likely to further decline. And those pursuing postgraduate studies are often finding themselves compelled to take on low-paying jobs to make ends meet.

Postgraduate education is merely a way for many graduates to postpone unemployment. In major cities, over 39 percent of job seekers have education qualifications exceeding the requirements for the positions they apply for, with the percentage rising to nearly 70 percent in some places. One striking example is the Henan China Tobacco Company, which reports that one-third of its new hires in its factories hold master’s degrees.

But young people are forced to hold onto these jobs and to put up with awful conditions. The threat of unemployment, awful labour practices, and the false classification of workers as ‘self-employed’ by employers, thus depriving them of rights to unemployment benefits, all act to coerce even highly-skilled graduates to cling to these low-skilled jobs.

Then there is the question of the exorbitant cost of living. Just how high are these living costs? One indicator is the ratio between housing prices and income. According to Numbeo, in 2023, China's middle-income families would need 33 years of disposable annual income to afford a standard 90-square-metre apartment. This sobering reality leaves young people with virtually no hope of buying a home from scratch. Many resort to taking out high-interest loans (China's interest rates typically range from 5-6 percent) to purchase a house. 

With astronomical housing prices, achieving family and career goals appears increasingly elusive for the youth. In China, traditional marriages often require certain assets if they are to go smoothly, often in the form of property. The “China Marriage and Family Report 2022” reveals that the marriage rate in China plummeted by 40 percent from 9.9 per thousand in 2013 to 5.8 per thousand in 2022.

Soaring housing prices and other associated living costs have been significant contributors to this decline. And consequently, since 2016, birth rates have also been on a steady decline. Aside from other societal developments, the rising costs of living and child-rearing have significantly dampened the enthusiasm of young people for starting families. This led last year to China’s first population decline in decades.

Underground crowd Image Marc van der Chijs FlickrThis generation of youth will experience the crisis with particular bitterness and intensity / Image: Marc van der Chijs, Flickr

The decrease in childbirth rates is greying China’s age distribution, with the World Health Organization identifying China as one of the fastest-ageing nations globally. Changes in the population structure mean that young people, many of whom are single children, are increasingly shouldering more responsibilities for supporting their elderly family members.

The exorbitant cost of living has led to a rapid increase in household debt. Over the span of a decade, from 2009 to 2020, the proportion of debt to wealth of Chinese families has surged from 20 percent to 60 percent, placing it among the world’s highest. Comparatively, the United States and Japan took 40 and 24 years respectively to reach the same rate. This is all the more remarkable in that China has traditionally been regarded as a high-savings country.

Due to rising living costs and economic difficulties, young people and the working class in recent years have faced tight income constraints, compelling them to adopt cost-saving measures. This trend includes following the so-called “Six Commandments” circulating online, which advise abstaining from smoking, drinking, ordering takeout, getting married, having children, and pursuing romantic relationships.

This shift is shown in consumer goods retail sales figures. In July’s figures, for instance, only essential items like food, tobacco, alcohol, and medicines are showing trends towards growth, while consumption of most other goods is declining. Today, what were once affordable products and services have become luxury items that must be carefully budgeted for.

An enraged generation

This is the bleak landscape China’s youth must navigate under capitalism today – they live in a nation that has reached a tipping point, sharply declining after years of growth, and they are feeling battered and exhausted. Faced with an impending economic crisis, they are the first to feel its impact. This generation of youth will experience the crisis with particular bitterness and intensity.

The young people born between the late 1990s and early 2000s grew up in a China that was gradually establishing itself in the capitalist world. In the 2010s, their childhoods coincided with the rapid expansion of the market economy and advancing productivity. Growing up in prosperous times ought perhaps to have instilled in them an inherently optimistic outlook on life. But as they have reached adulthood, they’ve witnessed Chinese capitalism faltering, compounded by the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. Their dreams have been shattered, plunging them into despair.

Mass psychological studies reveal widespread suffering among the youth. The “Chinese National Mental Health Development Report (2021-2022)” published in March 2023 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Psychology discovered that young people face the highest risk of depression among Chinese adults. The depression rate among the 18-24 age group stands at a staggering 24.1 percent, with the 25-34 age group also reporting a significant rate of 12.3 percent. These figures suggest that over 360 million (a quarter of China's population) young people aged 18-35 endure significant mental stress, with approximately one in four at risk of clinical depression.

It is evident that contemporary Chinese society is brewing deep resentment, and the youth are both foremost in experiencing and expressing this discontent. The forms of its expression have shifted from online platforms to universities, sparking numerous tentative struggles. For a head-on clash with Chinese capitalism to erupt, all that is necessary is a trigger that will ignite their anger, as demonstrated by last November’s protests.

As the spectre of economic decline looms, the exploitation and oppression conducted by China’s ruling class will continue to be exposed, intensifying class struggle. A significant portion of the youth will inevitably seek to clear a path towards the revolutionary means necessary to overthrow Chinese capitalism. To achieve this historic task, they must grasp the theory of social revolution – Marxism – and develop mature political leadership for the working class.

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