When blue becomes the new white; Unemployment means that Chinese graduates are taking manual jobs

May 28, 2013 7:31 pm

When blue becomes the new white

By Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai

Unemployment means that Chinese graduates are taking manual jobs, writes Patti Waldmeir

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 gladhanding 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 of the Financial Times 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.

This week alone, 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 next week’s 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 this month 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 4am to finish homework but was found hanging from the staircase before he got to school.

The overwork doesn’t stop with gaokao: just this month Chinese newspapers reported that two twenty-somethings in southern China dropped dead after taking on too much overtime – and such stories are not uncommon. Xinhua, the state news agency, said this week 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 was 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.


About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (, a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

One Response to When blue becomes the new white; Unemployment means that Chinese graduates are taking manual jobs

  1. Pingback: Fresh graduated dancers difficulties to find and invent new jobs | ollobeijing

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