The consensus among scholars and analysts on the draft political report delivered by China’s President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xi Jinping at the 20th national congress of the CPC, seems to indicate continuity rather than any grandstand proclamations, or out-of-the-ordinary announcements — whether it be the party’s primacy, development as the bedrock of China’s transformation, emphasis on national security and social stability, assertion of core interests on issues such as Taiwan, and so forth.
Even at the culmination of the report, as was at the 19th Congress five years ago, there is a call for Chinese youth to participate wholeheartedly in the process of national rejuvenation in the New Era, and be fully invested in it.
However, what is striking is unlike last time, the tone and tenor seems to be louder, and more assertive. Calling upon them to “strive to be the new era’s great young generation”, Xi forcefully asks them “to steadfastly follow the Party and its guidance”.
So, the question remains as to why the CPC is trying to assert itself in such a manner?
In making these statements, Xi and the CPC are implicitly acknowledging the restiveness and increasing frustrations among China’s youth. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further exacerbated the existing conditions. Sustenance of its regime is of vital importance to the CPC, and the party is aware that the legitimacy of its rule is drawn from satisfying the needs of the people. Despite tightened controls, any sign of possible uneasiness among the youth in China is enough to make the regime very nervous.
Rising Youth Unemployment
Of serious concern is youth unemployment, which has stayed between 18-20 percent this year. Xi’s tough ‘Zero Covid’ policy, and the resultant economic slowdown both have further made the job market dismal. While millions graduate out of the country’s universities every year (estimated to be about 9.09 million in 2021, and about 10.76 million in 2022), there are not enough decent jobs to absorb them.
Many graduates from elite universities have been forced to abandon their career dreams in the big cities, and have in turn chosen jobs with lower pay in far-flung areas. The uncertainties emerging out of the Party-State’s regulatory crackdowns on the private sector last year has also forced companies to massive layoffs, and further lower their hiring quotas. On top of it, is the increasing number of Chinese graduates from foreign universities returning home and seeking employment, amidst the pandemic, and the deteriorating US-China ties.
From ‘Lying Flat’ to ‘Let it Rot’
To put it in proper context, the disillusionment levels among Chinese youth are remarkably high. This is exemplified by the recent phenomenon of Involution popularised by tech workers and urban youth, in rejecting the hypercompetitive culture of overwork. This emanated from the gruelling ‘996’ work schedules — 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week — in the tech sector, before making a marked presence in other arenas in urban China. Earlier termed as ‘Lying Flat’ (tang ping) and becoming popular in 2021, a year later, it has now turned to ‘Let it Rot’ (bai lan).
Through both terms, the youth in urban China are firmly displaying their resolve in rejecting the rat race that overburdens them with massive expectations, and leaves them highly despondent. In a country where the ruling Party-State represses (often brutally) any form of protest or collective action, this kind of voluntary retreat by the youth can be seen as a form of visible resistance that cannot be easily muzzled. Xi has been highly critical of Involution, as visible in his speech on Common Prosperity last year. Rather, for him and the Party-State, young Chinese are reduced to solely being human capital equipped for country’s high-quality development.
Co-terminus with Involution, is another trend emerging out of the havoc caused by the Zero Covid policy — ‘Run Philosophy’ (run xue), that preaches running away from China for a safer and brighter future. While the regime has been trying to restrict such movement outside the country as part of COVID-19 measures, an ageing population and declining workforce are the motivating factors for the Party-State’s actions. There have been resources and portals operating under the radar, offering help and advice for emigrating abroad.
Despite the prevalence of severe censorship and surveillance, the youth in China are connected with the happenings in the outside world, and even possibly coming in contact with ‘western influences’. While the repressive State apparatus may dissuade them from openly turning against the regime, independent thoughts and differential opinions remain among them. This certainly keeps the Party-State on tenterhooks, forcing it to formulate counter measures. Xi’s call to the youth to remain firmly wedded to the party’s designs and plans needs to be situated in this backdrop.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.