Unemployment among urban Chinese aged 16 to 24 has been running at over 20% for months, about double the age group’s pre-pandemic level. The official job numbers for this group are so stubbornly awful that China recently stopped publishing them altogether. Higher education is no longer a reliable ladder to a solid career. Our calculations show that in 2021 over 70% of those unemployed youngsters were graduates. Along with scarce jobs, they face sky-high property prices. Their modest dreams of finding work, buying a house and supporting a family seem increasingly out of reach.
Yet there is a growing feeling among young people that no matter how hard they study or work, they will not be rewarded with a better quality of life. They speak of neijuan, or “involution”, an academic word used to describe a situation in which extra input no longer yields more output. The idea was captured in “A Love for Dilemma”, a popular tv drama released in 2021. In the show, two characters liken the competition in educational attainment to an unruly audience at a cinema: someone stands up to get a clearer view, which obliges everyone behind them to stand. Then people climb on seats and ladders. But in the end, despite all of their effort, no one is able to see the screen any better.
People commonly assume that China’s wealth and power will rise and rise, eventually eclipsing that of rich western democracies. I am personally far more skeptical. An authoritarian and conformist society, led by a Communist Party that holds its own grip on power as the greatest good, has fundamental limits in innovating, productively managing societal tensions, and excelling. I think when your education system has systematically misled the country’s youth about their own history, you will end up with a society that struggles to understand itself well enough to cope in an area of disruptive environmental change.
Furthermore, China has copied many of the worst lessons from the capitalist west, and is building a car-based consumerist society of endless suburbs and shopping malls. That is not well suited to the harsh and destabilizing future which we all all building through our profligate fossil fuel use.
China’s demographics are also a major challenge to its ability to keep growing in wealth and power. Especially in a society that rejects immigration, having a huge bulge of retirees being supported by fewer and fewer working people may be even more of a challenge for China than for the west, given that the CCP’s claims to legitimacy now centre on maintaining order and sustaining growth, rather than any recognizable communist ideology.