BEIJING (Reuters) - Nineteen years after a brutal crackdown against student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, China’s youth are more focused on iPods, designer jeans and buying their first car than political reform.
Most of all they are worried about getting well paid jobs and a share of the newfound wealth that many Chinese professionals are enjoying as the economy surges ahead with double-digit growth.
That is easier said than done. Last summer, China had to provide jobs for nearly 5 million college graduates. This summer, 5.6 million more are getting ready to move out of dormitories and into the job market.
Often the first in their family to get higher education, these graduates of colleges and vocational schools have high expectations that are not being met despite soaring economic growth as there are more graduates than jobs in China.
“There’s a saying, ‘as soon as you graduate, you are unemployed’,” said Xia Ding, who got his degree last year and, like many of his classmates, decided to apply for a master’s programme when a job didn’t come up.
The average employment rate of recent graduates was 73 percent in autumn 2007, the China Daily said, citing Ministry of Education figures.
“The birthrate in the 1950s through early 1970s was very high. The baby boomers born in those years are now adults,” said Ha Jiming, chief economist at China International Capital Corp.
“Now it’s the second wave, of baby boomers’ babies. Their children are now in their twenties and many are in college,” said Ha, whose research shows China will have a labor surplus through 2015.
Wide-ranging economic reforms in the last 30 years have allowed students to dream of college rather than a factory job.
Colleges have built new classrooms and brushed up their campuses, but their graduates often cannot compete with the rush of students returning to China from overseas.
“College graduates want higher salaries but they have no experience,” Ha said, adding that companies would rather poach workers than take a chance on a fresh graduate.
“Part of the problem is the local education system, whether it has produced students who are suitable for society or just those who know some basic concepts and can memorize,” he said, referring to the system of rote learning that is standard in China.
Most Chinese college students were barely toddlers in the spring of 1989, when a frustrated earlier generation gathered in Tiananmen Square to demonstrate for political reform before a bloody crackdown on June 4.
Inflation was one of the protesters’ concerns in 1989. Today, inflation hovers above 8 percent — well below the peak reached in 1994 but still worrying to central planners who fret about social stability.
Today’s generation worries more about getting ahead than economic reform. Their activism is more likely to have nationalist overtones, as witnessed during demonstrations against Japan in 2005 or outside Carrefour stores this spring because of the French chain’s rumored connection with pro-Tibet activities.
But the government doesn’t take any chances.
Internet access at China’s prestigious Peking University is more tightly controlled than it is at residences in Beijing, while other Beijing universities are ending term a few weeks early this summer to make sure students clear out of the city before the Olympic games in August.
Even an outpouring of donations and volunteer efforts after the devastating May 12 earthquake was quickly channeled by the state. Officials insisted that private efforts were “under the leadership of the Communist Party” and state media coverage featured government, party and army “heroes.”
Still, the biggest challenge is to ensure the economic machine runs smoothly for young people.
With one-third more graduates than jobs, the Ministry of Education has taken on the task of organizing job fairs both online and in cities. The noisy fairs attract tens of thousands of young people who press up to booths, clutching resumes.
“A lot of us wouldn’t mind if the system of job assignments was back in place,” Xia said.
An older generation of graduates chafed under the job assignment system, which guaranteed a job to every graduate until it was phased out in the late 1990s.
Before that, students scrambled to avoid being assigned to poorer areas, where salaries and career prospects were low, but those without special connections could do little to avoid dead-end postings.
In today’s competitive economy, the number of colleges graduates is keeping entry-level office salaries low, leaving many to worry about how they will ever be able to afford a home.
Property reforms in the late 1990s sparked a real estate boom, making many rich but putting apartments out of reach for young people.
“There’s a lot of pressure on graduates nowadays,” said Xia’s worried mother. She estimated that higher interest rates mean a graduate needs a salary that clears 5,000 yuan ($720) a month just to afford a mortgage.
“They have to have an apartment and a car, otherwise how on earth are they going to get married?”
Editing by Megan Goldin