China Power | Economy | Society | East Asia

China’s Class of COVID-19

Like their peers around the world, new graduates in China face a battered job market and intense uncertainty.

By Thi Thuy Duong Pham and Dickson Agbaji for
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China’s Class of COVID-19
Credit: Pixabay

“I feel happy about graduating this year, but I am also scared about the uncertainties of the next stage of life and the virus since nobody knows when we will solve this problem,” said Hu Qixuan, a fresh graduate from Zhejiang University. These feelings are not unique to Hu. Many in the graduating class of 2020 in China and everywhere across the world hold similar positions.

By July 2020, about 9 million students will graduate from tertiary institutions in China’s “graduation season.” Now nicknamed the class of COVID-19, these graduates will enter the labor market in one of the most unfriendly times since the Great Depression. We talked with graduating students around China in the hope of understanding how the notorious pandemic is shaping their current state and plans for the future.

Early June, different Chinese municipal governments and universities, especially those in Beijing, allowed graduating students to return to their campuses. Initially, students in many schools returned to their universities in batches, with strict quarantine requirements. They hoped to finally reunite with their friends after months of social distancing. However, following reports of a cluster of cases in Beijing, the government issued a notice instructing the remaining graduating students who had yet to arrive to cancel their trips. The decision, without doubt, stirred up a collective sense of disappointment.

However, this situation also exacerbates the fears and anxieties many in the class of 2020 feel. A good number of respondents expressed their fears about the impacts of the pandemic on their prospects of securing a job. Weiyi, a 22-year old graduating student of Zhejiang University, lamented that “the pandemic has impacted many businesses, leading to fewer recruiting opportunities while many employers lay off existing workers.” Another student from Tsinghua University corroborated this while expressing his willingness to take up any job he can get, even an internship position. This may not be out of place considering that a report by Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management stated that there were about 30 percent fewer openings in the first quarter of 2020.

In a virtual meeting with us, Yufei Jin, a master’s degree candidate at Beijing Foreign Studies University, shared that fewer job openings are just the tip of the iceberg. Delays to the national civil service exam, which was supposed to be held by February yet was postponed due to the pandemic, are putting her and others in a bind. Having secured job offers from private firms, Jin, who is still waiting for the result of her test for a post at the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, told us that several employers were putting pressure on her to take their offers. “They keep telling me that if I miss the chance now and fail the civil exam, it will be a disaster. I am yet to reply and I am very concerned.” The national civil service exam attracted 1.4 million applicants competing for 24,000 government jobs in 2019, making for an acceptance rate of just just 1-out-of-60.

The pandemic also shifted attention away from a plethora of social issues that are yet to be tackled within China. Gender inequality and the fewer opportunities allocated to female jobseekers are striking examples. Jin had this say about her experience: “During a job fair, the resume of one male classmate of mine was accepted by employers. Yet, five minutes later when I approached them, they told me that they will only accept undergraduate students. I think they somehow implied that they did not want to hire female students. It was not the only occasion when I felt discrimination, though.”

Discrimination certainly exists toward women in the Chinese labor market. According to a 2018 study, after China’s economic reforms and opening up, care responsibilities shifted from the state back to the family, thereby placing great burdens on Chinese women, causing them diminished job opportunities, a salary gap, and even mental health issues. Now, with the economic effects of COVID-19, female graduates will encounter more challenges.

Likewise, we can expect that other marginalized groups will be vulnerable to a dreary job market. In a recent study, Yue Qian and Wen Fan demonstrated this point by noting that the pandemic may well magnify the social distribution of economic vulnerability. Their study argued that rural hukou holders are more likely to suffer partial income loss than those with an urban hukou.

International students in China cannot escape the unfortunate situation, either. One graduating student from Peking University, who asked to remain anonymous, successfully secured a job offer with the Chinese tech giant Huawei. However, he fears that China’s visa policies may impact his ability to start work. “While some of my friends have had their job offers rescinded because of the pandemic, I am lucky to still have my offer standing, but changing my student visa status to a work visa would be problematic given the pandemic,” he said.

To change one’s Chinese visa status, say from student to worker, a person must leave China and apply for a work visa to the Chinese foreign visa agency, and then re-enter the country as a worker. But COVID-19 has decimated international travel. With high-priced tickets for specific and largely limited flights, many students like our interviewee may find themselves losing opportunities to work in China. And that’s not even to mention the costs of the compulsory quarantine measures upon their re-entry to China, which these new workers will have to pay out of pocket.

The Chinese government shares fears about the unemployment rate and the difficulties fresh graduates may face while seeking job openings in an era of worker retrenchment and furloughing. The government has directed state-owned firms to increase their recruitment quotas while initiating tax cuts and loose monetary policies to help firms maintain buoyancy. Likewise, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) reduced its targeted medium-term lending facility (MLF) rate by 20 basis points to 2.95 percent, injecting 56.1 billion yuan ($7.9 billion) into the banking system.

These policies were essential. China’s urban unemployment rate was 5.9 percent in May 2020, down from 6.2 percent in February. This slight drop and China’s efforts to curb the virus may be good news, hinting at the possibility to negate the projection by the Economist Intelligence Unit that China’s urban unemployment may hit 10 percent this year.

Still, the concerns of graduating students like Hu Qixuan are real. Despite the need to celebrate their graduation from college, the uncertainties of this period are staring them in the face. More work still needs to be done especially in providing a level playing field for equal competition and access to opportunities and improving public-private partnerships to facilitate job creation.

Thi Thuy Duong Pham is a scholar at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, China. Pham is also a Baixian scholar at Baixian Asia Institute. Her research interests cover discourses on Chinese national image and China Threat Theory in Vietnam.

Dickson Agbaji is a scholar at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, China. He is interested in assessing China’s soft power and the impacts of Chinese investments on the human development index of African nations.