A retrogressive solution to address joblessness

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A retrogressive solution to address joblessness

The author is the head of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Young intellectuals should go to the countryside and receive education again.” Under the order of Mao Zedong in 1968, 17 million young people were sent to rural areas in the so-called “Down to the Countryside Movement.” While it was packaged as a slogan for training ideology and leading rural development, it was a desperate measure to avoid social rebellion as the Cultural Revolution ruined the economy and not enough jobs were available for college graduates.

Fifty years have since passed. Now, a similar campaign is being promoted in China. The Chinese government and media are encouraging college graduates to find jobs in rural areas in the “grass-roots employment” campaign.

This summer, China will produce 10.76 million college graduates, exceeding 10 million for the first time. The problem is that the Chinese economy cannot afford to provide quality employment for them. In May, the urban unemployment rate for youth aged between 16 and 24 was 18.4 percent, the highest ever.

Why is the Chinese economy struggling? A report released by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China on June 20 has some ideas. The report pointed to Covid, a slowdown in China’s economic growth and the politicization of business environment. The politicization part is noteworthy: In the last few years, China has taken many actions that hurt the economy, such as beating on big tech, cracking down on the real estate industry and abolishing the private education market.

Moreover, China frequently implements lockdowns with its “zero-Covid policy,” so it would be rather strange if the economy does not worsen. When economy aggravates, Premier Li Keqiang steps forward. He hosted a National Economic Stability Videoconference attended by 100,000 executives last month, proof that the Chinese economy is in peril. There, Li requested local governments get through the challenges without presenting any central government-level solutions. At this juncture, the “Down to the Countryside Movement” from the Mao era was summoned as an employment solution for college graduates. Why? The young, reckless people should not be left alone.

When Kuomintang and the Communist Party fought over the hegemony of China in the past, many young Chinese chose the Communist Party. They were attracted to the new ideology of Marx-Leninism, but they also joined the party after the Kuomintang government failed to provide jobs. When students graduate but cannot find a job, they become discontent, which shakes the Communist Party’s legitimacy. The motivation for the modern-day “Down to the Countryside” is aimed at reducing pressure for social explosion by sending the students to the countryside early on to prevent social unrest.
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