China’s coronavirus lockdowns and slowing economy pushing job-hungry graduates overseas as poor students get left behind

·5-min read

Just three months ago, Jin Jing saw her future career after graduating in either Hangzhou or Shanghai, the two major cities closest to her hometown.

Since she enrolled in a degree at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia in early 2020, she has been taking online classes because of coronavirus travel restrictions.

But as countries have recently begun opening up again to travellers she has decided to leave China for Australia to finish her studies and seek work there.

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“I actually never thought of working abroad until recently. Considering the situation now, I prefer having a try in Australia,” said the 21-year-old.

Job prospects have become so dire that some Chinese universities have taken to begging former students to help new graduates find work. Photo: AFP
Job prospects have become so dire that some Chinese universities have taken to begging former students to help new graduates find work. Photo: AFP

She was referring to the large-scale lockdowns affecting many parts of China and the tough job market as the country battles its worst Covid-19 wave since the Wuhan outbreak in 2019.

China has kept the coronavirus largely under control for the past two years with its zero-Covid strategy even as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to affect the country.

However, the strategy has caused economic hardship with harsh lockdowns, a dampening of economic activity and supply chain impacts which are all reshaping the immediate future of many young people.

Increasing numbers of university graduates are being forced to choose either moving overseas or lowering their expectations if they remain in China amid a growing sense of uncertainty and fierce job competition.

A record 10.76 million college graduates are set to enter the mainland Chinese job market this year, according to the Ministry of Education.

At the same time, the country reported an unemployment rate of 18.2 per cent for those aged between 16 and 24 last month.

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Unlike Jin, who comes from a well-off family, 19-year-old Dai Xiaoyan is from a poorer rural family and took an internship in Shanghai in October last year. But she has been unable to work for the past two months because of the city’s strict stay-at-home orders and had to choose a different path to Jin.

Shanghai, China’s current pandemic epicentre, has gradually loosened lockdowns in the past week as daily new infections dropped to three-digit numbers, but most businesses are still a long way off from reopening.

In response, Dai took a train from Shanghai to Zhengzhou, the capital of central China’s Henan province, on Friday last week, and after spending a week in quarantine she will be returning to her home village in nearby Xinxiang city.

“I may stay at home for some time and then start looking for jobs in Zhengzhou, which I believe will not be easy either,” said Dai, who is graduating from a Zhengzhou university next month.

Few of her classmates have secured a job so far, she said.

In Shanghai, she earned 7,000 yuan (US$1,040) a month interning at a teahouse and shared an apartment with her co-workers.

“Of course, I’ll have to accept less in Zhengzhou. Maybe a monthly salary of 5,000 to 6,000 yuan (US$743-890),” she said.

A survey by online recruitment services provider zhaopin.com last month showed that China’s crowded graduating class of 2022 expected a monthly pay of around 6,295 yuan (US$935), six per cent lower than last year’s graduates.

Around half of them expected to be hired after graduating, also down by six per cent from last year, while an increasing percentage said they would try freelancing or simply postpone job hunting altogether.

With youth unemployment approaching 20 per cent in China, many graduates are returning to their home towns or going abroad as China’s major cities longer hold the prospects they once did. Photo: AFP
With youth unemployment approaching 20 per cent in China, many graduates are returning to their home towns or going abroad as China’s major cities longer hold the prospects they once did. Photo: AFP

Universities are increasingly finding themselves having to use all available connections just to get their students into employment.

An alumnus of the School of Foreign Languages at Shanghai’s East China University of Science and Technology said he recently received a message from the school asking for job recommendations.

“Because of the impact of Covid and the international environment, graduates of our school have met with difficulty finding jobs … it would be much appreciated if you could help them secure a job. We will pay a thank-you visit to you after the Covid outbreak is over,” the message said.

Local governments have also pledged support for young jobseekers and are encouraging local entrepreneurship as a countermeasure.

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The municipal government in Zhengzhou, where Dai is currently being quarantined, is among a number that have offered free hotel quarantine for college graduates fleeing from Shanghai.

Meanwhile, the Shanghai government has offered tax cuts and subsidies for college students who start their own businesses, according to a directive issued by the city last week.

But for students like Jin and Dai, entrepreneurship is not a viable option.

“I’m very confused at the moment and I don’t have the money,” said Dai. “It doesn’t sound like a realistic solution, especially as no one wants to spend money during the pandemic.”

“Businesses are going bankrupt. How likely would someone like me, who has neither money nor experience, become a successful entrepreneur?” said Jin.

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