My maid and her husband, a driver, have scrimped and saved and crammed themselves into a tiny flat in Shanghai for decades with one goal in mind: to give their only son a crack at the “Chinese dream.”
Now those decades of deprivation have reached their climax as the cherished child of these hard-working people graduates from university and takes his first job: as a construction worker. And he counts himself lucky to have a job.
Small wonder that Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, has recently been out glad-handing graduates who are facing one of the toughest job markets since the Communist Party stopped giving them careers by fiat. For, like obesity and diabetes, a glut of unemployed graduates seems to be one of the unintended side effects of economic development in China.
Sound familiar? Many readers will know what it is like to have an unemployed graduate in the family – or to have been one themselves. Maybe job shortages are just part of the human condition, one that now affects the Chinese like the rest of humanity. (When I graduated from university in 1980, media jobs were so thin on the ground that I ended up teaching at a university in Ghana that had no books, few lights and little running water – landing a job without a flushing toilet was presumably not part of my parents’ university plan for me.)
Mr. Xi pointed out on his jobs-fair visit that – like all the other flaws of capitalism – the scourge of graduate unemployment these days is global. But it would be hard to find people who have suffered more to take their place among the ranks of the white-collar unemployed than the Chinese.
Millions of students across the country will be skipping sleep, baths and online war games to study, while millions of parents take up to a year off work to cook, clean and nag them round the clock. Millions will pass the dreaded college entrance exam (or gaokao) – only to end up unemployed or wearing a hard hat.
Increasing numbers are wondering if it’s all worth it, and are coming up with alternatives that range from the tragic to the downright postmodern. A Chinese newspaper reported recently that a fed-up teenager in central China hired a hit man to kill his father and older sister because – he said – they put too much pressure on him to study.
And after this year’s three-day May Day public holiday, a 15-year-old boy in eastern China jumped to his death because he did not finish his holiday homework. Another teen in the same town rose at 4 a.m. to finish homework but was found hanging from the staircase before he got to school.
The overwork doesn’t stop with gaokao: In May Chinese newspapers reported that two twentysomethings in southern China dropped dead after taking on too much overtime – and such stories are not uncommon. Xinhua, the state news agency, said recently that 40 college graduates were found sharing one 130-square-metre room in Beijing while looking for jobs – living like the construction workers that they may be lucky to become.
So more and more students are opting instead for that most un-Chinese of solutions: time off the treadmill – or what the rest of the world knows as a “gap year.” Li Shangcong, a top student at his high school and vice-president of the student union, decided to skip gaokao altogether and cycle to the Cannes Film Festival – via Siberia. He never made it to France, having been deported by Russian immigration for an expired visa.
When his parents spluttered about the need to make something of himself, he said what teenagers around the world have been known to say in such circumstances: that he is attending the university of life and they should get off his back. He is currently on another trip to Russia.
Shi Zheying at least had her father onside: she skipped the high school entrance exam to “travel 10,000 miles rather than read 10,000 books first” – with her dad. The phrase immediately became popular among China’s “netizens.” Her grandparents, themselves teachers, were force-tutoring her at night, refusing to accept examination results that placed her as low as 16th in her class. After she decided to quit school, she placed fifth.
China is not the land of “turn on, tune in, drop out” quite yet. But it’s a far cry from a world where terminal overwork is the only option.