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Don’t doubt China’s resolve to tackle youth unemployment

by Tunae
  • Recent reports of Xi Jinping telling young people to ‘eat bitterness’ suggests a helpless government asking youth to simply endure. This is far from the truth
China’s youth unemployment has attracted much attention in the West. In reporting the problem, the media unsurprisingly focused on Beijing’s decision to suspend publishing the youth jobless rate after it hit a record high of over 21 per cent in June last year.
When the figure was released again in December, significantly lower at 14.9 per cent, the media pointedly took note – the implication being that it might have been manipulated.
The latest news on the issue concerns President Xi Jinping’s remarks at a recent study session of the full Politburo, where he pledged to make youth employment a top policy priority, stressing that employment for university graduates should be the priority of priorities.

Some Western media are good at creating the illusion of objective reporting, presenting one side of the story as the whole picture. One report on Xi’s remarks, for instance, added that he had previously instructed young people to “eat bitterness”, meaning that they should endure hardship.

This was clearly taken out of context. In a letter in May last year to a group of university students volunteering in a rural revitalisation effort, Xi quoted the Chinese idiom “to look for bitterness to eat” – meaning to actively seek hardship – in order to encourage them.

The key message was about encouraging young people not to be afraid of setbacks and suffering, which can toughen them up. Xi hoped that young people can press on despite the challenges, stay optimistic and find motivation in failure. There is nothing there related to jobs and employment.

What happens when China’s most-educated can’t find work

Xi’s encouragement was the same as the advice children receive from their parents. But when “eating bitterness” is taken out of context and used in terms of youth unemployment, the meaning gets skewed. The suggestion is that the Chinese government is unable to tackle the problem and is simply asking young people to endure the hardship.

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This is far from the truth. China has never tried to hide the structural challenges it faces in tackling unemployment arising from a mismatch between supply and demand of human resources.

This year, it expects 11.79 million new graduates, rewriting the record high of 11.58 million last year. There is still a widespread belief in China that academic qualifications are a secure pathway to a good job. As the population becomes increasingly educated, however, a gap has grown in the labour market between young people’s expectations and the jobs available.
Blue-collar workers and skilled factory labour are now in short supply, yet many graduates are reluctant to work in factories or other industries.

In Xi’s recent study session remarks, he highlighted the skills mismatch in China’s job market and called for accelerated efforts to ensure the country’s modern and high-quality workforce was of “sufficient quantity” and “reasonably distributed” in an “optimised structure”. In other words, Beijing continues to prioritise youth development and efforts to optimise youth employment.

The reasons behind China’s high youth unemployment rate
To address the skills gap, there has been a renewed push for vocational education and training at the regional level, to take account of the specific needs of local industry development. The promotion of vocational training is not new and even back in 2010, the State Council was encouraging just such a push to boost employment, stressing its importance and urgency.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education, along with four other state departments, is promoting reforms to fine-tune the higher education curriculum to find a better demand and supply balance for the skills needed to drive the economy.

The government also supports entrepreneurship, including through financial incentives and start-up incubators. This encourages young people to create job opportunities, especially in the tech and innovation sectors. Beijing has implemented measures such as job placement services, internships and subsidies for companies employing young graduates.

In the era of the digital economy, e-commerce, fintech and online services are expanding rapidly. New forms of employment are emerging. Young people with digital skills are increasingly finding jobs in these dynamic sectors.

China’s live-streaming industry heats up as millions of would-be hosts vie to break into the field

Take live streaming, for example. According to a report last year by the China Academy of Personnel Sciences, which is under the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the new industry of live streaming short videos has given rise to and nurtured 174 new professions, including online marketers and recruiters.

Sheng Laiyun, deputy director of the National Bureau of Statistics, said in a briefing in April that the economy was expanding and the overall employment situation was improving. China added more than 12 million jobs in urban areas last year and projects a similar increase this year, according to the bureau.

China’s industrial upgrade will produce a more service-oriented economy and this is likely to absorb more workers. The expected growth of the service sector, which accounted for 55 per cent of the economy last year, will also provide more employment flexibility.

The hopes of a country and the future of a nation lie in the hands of its youth – that is what China believes. So there is no reason to doubt the government’s determination to resolve its structural unemployment issues or any other challenges affecting its young people. It will just take time.

The current situation is not all roses for the whole nation’s youth, of course. But China’s young people may have more mettle than we give them credit for. Even though “lying flat” has been popular among some young people, it is more like self-mockery; deep inside, most are not willing to settle for this. And that unwillingness, I believe, will give them the courage to press on.

Wei Wei is the former chief correspondent of the Eurasian bureau of China Central Television, based in Moscow

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