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China’s Young People Can’t Find Jobs. Xi Jinping Says to ‘Eat Bitterness.’

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Gloria Li is desperate to seek out a job. Graduating last June with a master’s degree in graphic design, she began looking in the autumn, hoping to seek out an entry-level position that pays about $1,000 a month in a giant city in central China. The few offers she has gotten are internships that pay $200 to $300 a month, with no advantages.

Over two days in May she messaged greater than 200 recruiters and sent her résumé to 32 corporations — and lined up exactly two interviews. She said she would take any offer, including sales, which she was reluctant to contemplate previously.

“A decade or so ago, China was thriving and filled with opportunities,” she said in a phone interview. “Now even when I need to strive for opportunities, I don’t know which direction I should turn to.”

China’s young individuals are facing record-high unemployment because 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 considering they’re above doing manual work or moving to the countryside. They need to learn to “eat bitterness,” Mr. Xi instructed, using a colloquial expression which means to endure hardships.

Many young Chinese aren’t buying it. They argue that they studied hard to get a university or graduate school degree only to seek out a shrinking job market, falling pay scale and longer work hours. Now the federal government is telling them to place up with hardships. But for what?

“Asking us to eat bitterness is sort of a deception, a way of hoping that we’ll unconditionally dedicate ourselves and undertake tasks that they themselves are unwilling to do,” Ms. Li said.

People like Ms. Li were lectured by their parents and teachers concerning the virtues of hardship. Now they’re hearing it from the top of state.

“The countless instances of success in life exhibit that in a single’s youth, selecting to eat bitterness can be selecting to reap rewards,” Mr. Xi was quoted in a front-page article within the official People’s Day by day 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 young people to “seek self-inflicted hardships,” using his own experience of working within the countryside throughout the Cultural Revolution.

“Why would he want young people to offer up a peaceful and stable life and as an alternative 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 form of intention is behind this?” he asked. “Where does he want to steer the Chinese youth?”

A record 11.6 million college graduates are entering the work force this yr, and one in five young people is unemployed. China’s leadership is hoping to steer a generation that grew up amid mostly rising prosperity to just accept a distinct reality.

The youth unemployment rate is a statistic the Chinese Communist Party takes seriously since it believes that idle young people could threaten its rule. Mao Zedong sent greater than 16 million urban youths, including Mr. Xi, to toil within the fields of the countryside throughout the Cultural Revolution. The return of those jobless young people to cities after the Cultural Revolution, partly, 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 an honest living by delivering meals, recycling garbage, establishing food stalls, and fishing and farming. It’s a type of official gaslighting, attempting to deflect accountability from the federal 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 individuals are struggling emotionally. A young woman in Shanghai named Ms. Zhang, who graduated last yr with a master’s degree in city planning, has sent out 130 résumés 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 lower than $700 as a part-time tutor.

“At my emotional low point, I wanted I were a robot,” she said. “I assumed to myself if I didn’t have emotions, I might not feel helpless, powerless and disenchanted. I might find a way to maintain sending out résumés.”

But she realized she shouldn’t be too harsh on herself. The issues are greater than her. She doesn’t buy into the eating bitterness talk.

“To ask us to endure hardships is to attempt to shift focus from the anemic economic growth and the decreasing job opportunities,” said Ms. Zhang, who, like most individuals I interviewed for this column, desired to be identified with only her family name due to safety concerns. A number of others need to be identified only with their English names.

The party’s messaging is effective with some people. Guo, an information analyst in Shanghai who has been unemployed since last summer, said he didn’t want responsible his joblessness on the pandemic or the Communist Party. He blames his own lack of luck and skills.

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 long run he made a bit over $700 a month. He quit since the work was too physically exhausting.

In other words, he failed in eating bitterness.

Mr. Xi’s instruction to maneuver to the countryside is equally out of touch with young people, in addition to with China’s reality. In December he told officials “to systematically guide college graduates to rural areas.” On Youth Day a couple of weeks ago, he responded to a letter by a gaggle of agriculture students who’re working in rural areas, commending them for “looking for self-inflicted hardships.” The letter, also published on the front page of People’s Day by day, 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 promoting executive in Kunming in southwestern China, has been unemployed since December 2021 after the pandemic hit his industry hard. He talked to his parents, each farmers, about moving back to their village and starting a pig farm. He said they were vehemently against the thought.

“They said they spent lots of money on my education so I wouldn’t turn out to be a farmer,” he said.

Within the hierarchical Chinese society, manual jobs are looked down upon. Farming ranks even lower due to the huge wealth gap between cities and rural areas.

“Women wouldn’t consider to turn out to be my girlfriends in the event that they knew that I deliver meals,” Wang said. He would fare even worse in the wedding market if he became a farmer.

It’s obvious to some young folks that Mr. Xi’s proposals for solving unemployment are backward looking.

Mr. Xi “talks concerning the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on a regular basis,” said Steven, who graduated from a top U.K. university with a master’s degree in interactive design and has yet to seek out a job. “But isn’t the rejuvenation about not everyone engaging in physical labor?” Due to rapid development of robots and other technologies, he said, these jobs are easily replaceable.

Of 13 Chinese graduates from his school, the five who selected to remain within the West have found jobs at Silicon Valley or Wall Street firms. Only three of the eight who returned to China have secured job offers. Steven moved back to China this yr to be closer to his mother.

Now after months of fruitless job hunting, he, like almost every young employee I interviewed for this column, sees no future for himself in China.

“My best way out,” he said, “is to steer my parents to let me run away from China.”

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