China youths head for countryside living as job crisis mounts


BEIJING: Gong Chengqiang used to make 200,000 yuan a year in Hangzhou in a tech company before it closed down during Covid. He now grows strawberries in rural Zhejiang province and is expecting to lose at least the same amount after 40% of his harvest was destroyed by disease.

The 30-year-old decided to move to the countryside after an attempt at finance blogging failed, and he developed an interest in fruit.

Fellow bloggers pledged angel investment for Gong, who aspires to change the taste, quality and price of 20 different types of fruit.

Gong is committed to seeing the idea through, but struggles with feelings of isolation, especially as his parents are disappointed with his decision.

“My dad’s family worked as farmers their entire lives,” said Gong.

“Their one wish is for their children to have a different life and wonder why they put me through school for so many years if I just go back to farming.”

For decades, people like Gong’s parents moved to take up jobs in China’s cities, turbocharging the country’s rapid rise.

But as the world’s second-largest economy slows, young people are bearing the brunt of an unemployment crisis that’s leaving one in five of them jobless.

Families who invested in college educations for their children with the promise of a middle-class life now see their hopes dimming. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen all recorded their first population dips on record in 2022.

“Back when I graduated in 2014, even an average student such as myself, without experience, could get multiple offers and find work at a good company,” said Gong.

“It’s something that was given to me by the times, and unimaginable now.”

Rural China is now one place that is providing respite for young people. President Xi Jinping, who has for years exhorted young people to help “revitalise the countryside,” stepped up such calls in recent months, and Guangdong province unveiled a pilot plan in May to enroll 300,000 graduates in its rural regions by 2025.

Offers include two-year civil service placements, agricultural internships and incubator programmes to help grow business ideas.

“We understand that a young person is the biggest investment of a family, even bigger than property,” said Du Peng, vice-president of Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to the Civil Affairs Ministry at a seminar earlier this year.

“It takes 20 years or more to raise a young person, so their employment directly impacts the whole family. That’s why the government pays a lot of attention to youth employment.”

But it’s unlikely that focusing on rural jobs will improve the plight of China’s youth given the scale of the economic challenge.

Bloomberg Economics sees gross domestic product growth halving to 4% a year in the decade after the Covid pandemic compared with 8% in the decade before.

Collapsing home values are making households uncertain about their future, and waning confidence has brought foreign direct investment down to a historical low.

Funnelling graduates away from cities where technological innovations are developed risks further undermining growth while slowing urbanisation would reduce demand for new homes, a major contributor to the economy.

Some see Xi’s rural campaign as more of a political move to mitigate the possibility of youth resentment exploding into the open again, after last year’s street protests against Covid lockdowns. — Bloomberg

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