Shattered dreams of China’s youth

When I was in the US for Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but notice that the news was all economic crisis all the time. There was only a short window of “relief,” when the news out of Mumbai overshadowed America’s – and the world’s – financial implosion.

It isn’t much different over here in Beijing. Talking with the teachers at my school and my Chinese colleagues in the office, nearly all of whom are in their mid-to-late 20s, I was impressed by their awareness of just how serious this crisis is and how it affects their own hopes and dreams. There are no illusions, which I see as a good thing. No false expectations that things will soon return to normal.
I see this pragmatism as a good thing. The government is not showering the public in sugar-coated messages, promising that things will soon be shiny and happy once more (though I’m sure we could find some examples of that). Instead, things seem remarkably sober, at least here in Beijing.

People always refer to Chinese stoicism, and we’re seeing it now. Students graduating from college know that finding the job they may once have assumed would be waiting for them will be an exercise in frustration and repeated disappointment. Several friends of mine say they are looking for new jobs, not because they necessarily want to leave their current ones, but because they fear the axe might fall at any moment. On the other hand, those who are unhappy with their current jobs realize now isn’t the time to resign, at least not until the ink has dried on the contract for their next job.

Which brings me to the link of the day, to a story on Slumping Economy, a message board set up by unemployed Chinese white collar workers in Shanghai, which has been drawing a huge audience. The piece underscores my own observations that the Chinese are taking the crisis in stride, and that they understand its implications for their own lives.

Maria Yin, a 24-year-old recent college graduate, started searching for jobs in Shanghai this past summer, but has had no luck yet. “It seems that lots of people are facing the same problem as I do now. It makes me feel less desperate,” said Ms. Yin, who posts on Slumping Economy. “I’ll keep going.” She said she spends an hour or so surfing the site daily, chatting with her new friends and keeping an eye out for job information.

One popular thread has members thinking of cheap ways to celebrate the coming Christmas, which has been adopted by young people and residents as an opportunity to spend time together or to share romance. Some suggested holding an online Christmas party with virtual food and gifts provided, while others said they would figure out their own ways to spend the holiday in the real world.

“I’ll put on my best cotton-padded jacket and trousers and go downtown together with my boyfriend to the most beautifully decorated square. We’ll take a photo together using my mobile phone, and then spend three yuan each to take bus No. 925 home,” wrote one user, known as Chloe.

It’s a sad, tense, confusing time for everyone. I saw it in America and I’m seeing it here. I’m glad at least that in China people are psychologically prepared for the worst. I had a sense, totally unscientific, that people in America were less well prepared, if only because crisis and deprivation have been so distant from them for so many years, even for generations. American s appear far more shell-shocked than the Chinese.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

[…] China will feel the pain, but will survive. As I say in my previous post, they are ready for the worst. America isn’t. Baked by Richard @ 9:25 pm, Filed under: […]

December 12, 2008 @ 9:28 pm | Pingback

Most of the ex-analysts in our team seem to be taking it well. They’re taking a lot of time to visit relatives, buying more, etc.

December 13, 2008 @ 2:56 am | Comment

Do Chinese do much at Christmas these days? I’m surprised they would give it much thought if money was tight.

I had a sense, totally unscientific, that people in America were less well prepared, if only because crisis and deprivation have been so distant from them for so many years, even for generations.

I would agree with that, in regards to much of the developed world anyway.

December 13, 2008 @ 4:15 am | Comment

Just to say – nice to have the Duck back

December 13, 2008 @ 10:13 am | Comment

The Chinese don’t have to reach back far in their history to remember very bad things. They’ve always been mentally prepared for another disaster even when times were good.

December 14, 2008 @ 4:00 am | Comment

[…] small but telling signs of economic hardship that he’s seen.  Peking Duck wrote about the shattered dreams of China’s youth as evidenced by the newly launched bujingqi (Slumping Economy) community website, reported by WSJ […]

December 14, 2008 @ 9:32 am | Pingback

What level of sophistication must CH, or any other society, reach in order to provide enough job opportunities to such a wave of graduate students?

It seems there is not only a production overcapacity of hard stuff (material things) but also of soft stuff (brains).

Could the service and outsourcing sector provide some relief? CH the next India^2?

Maybe even a new class of Chinese emigration will appear. Not only people for CH restaurant, cheap stuff shops, small round the hour convenience stores businesses but also engineers, lawyers, MBA, etc

Maybe new round the hour Chinese services convenience stores will start to open in corner near you… geographic-ally or internet-ally

Hhhmm… maybe I can finally find some good and affordable coders.

December 14, 2008 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

They are already going to absurd lengths to keep people employed. There are elaborate security checkpoints in every subway station with x-ray machines, and two or three workers are stationed at each.Except you can simply walk right by and ignore them and carry anything onto the subway you’d like. That’s a good example of the government “creating jobs.” I saw another at a parking lot the other day here. You know those machines that spit out a ticket after you push the button, saying when you parked your car? They actually hire people to stand a the machines and push the button for you. How do you explain that on your resume?

December 14, 2008 @ 5:07 pm | Comment

” How do you explain that on your resume?”

Customer service?

December 14, 2008 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

They actually hire people to stand a the machines and push the button for you.

Some Japanese banks have employed people to direct you to the ATMs inside their branches for years (even when times were fairly good), though I think they probably did actual work as well.

December 15, 2008 @ 5:26 am | Comment

Most useless job ever: The button pusher in my apartment elevator.

December 15, 2008 @ 8:49 am | Comment

Most useless job ever:

I’d say ESL teachers in Asia

December 16, 2008 @ 3:18 am | Comment

Most useless hobby/job ever:

Going onto expat websites and trying to wind up the laowai.

Welcome back, Richard!

Regarding your post:

“They are already going to absurd lengths to keep people employed. There are elaborate security checkpoints in every subway station with x-ray machines, and two or three workers are stationed at each.”

The problem is that China is already overemployed and always has been. I presume the x-ray people replace the ones who used to take your ticket? Do they still have the ridiculously elaborate way of paying for your goods in stores? Waitresses in restaurants comfortably outnumbering customers? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hope for collapse (in fact very worried about some of my ex-students) but it is hard to see where these jobs are going to be created….

It is good to see the Chinese are being stoical. How long it lasts depends on how well the govt can spend the wealth. My experience of Chinese corruption leads me to suspect that you are just going to get a re-run of the last days of the KMT and that a lot of CCP members are going to see the writing on the wall, grab the money and run. Hope I am wrong

December 16, 2008 @ 4:23 pm | Comment

Si, yes on all counts: you still have to walk across the department store and pay for item at a separate counter, walk back with the tickets and claim your goods. There’s still a gaggle of greeters outside the restaurants, in case having one greeter say “welcome” isn’t enough. I have lots of fun stories to tell about the over-servicing in China’s retail establishments.Quantity, however, by no means translates necessarily into quality.

December 16, 2008 @ 4:52 pm | Comment

Some Olympic hosts experienced post-Olympic decline.So the Chinese have already been prepared for such crisis before the game.

December 18, 2008 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

I always believe that Chinese can bear the most horrible thing in the world, physically and mentally. In the past thousands of years, Chinese civilians have suffered a lot. Nothing can really threaten us now. We believe in ourselves and also believe in our leadership.

December 18, 2008 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

My wife has spent the last five weeks visiting her family in Nanning after having spent almost a year here in the USA. She recently visited the provincial human resources center with an old friend who was looking for work. She said that at any given time there were about 2,000 people in the office. The starting monthly pay range for a university graduate was 800-1200 RMB. Coincidentally she noticed that food prices have risen to unprecedented levels in the year she has been away from China. She did some quick calculations and was horrified to find that many basic foods (not just luxury and “imported” items) were selling at San Francisco prices! What does the future hold for the youth of China when an education leads them to a monthly income of $116.00 to $175.00?

December 19, 2008 @ 4:39 am | Comment

The future is as grim for them as it is for Americans. At least they are well accustomed to deprivation and hardship – many Chinese graduates right now would kill for even an internship. Many graduates even during the good times were only earning between 1-5,000 RMB a month. Everything is relative and depends on where your expectations are coming out of the gate. As I said, the Chinese have absolutely no illusions. They KNOW they will get either a tiny salary or, much more likely, no job at all for now. They’re already planning on staying logger with their parents and giving things up.

The information you have about San Francisco prices for food here is inaccurate. You will pay MORE than SF prices if you go to the supermarkets in luxury malls or to Jenny Lous and other boutique markets. The regular neighborhood supermarkets are still selling most food dirt cheap, although pork and cooking oil remain expensive.

Not saying China doesn’t have massive problems. But I am truly impressed with the way the people are accepting the situation, and with the forthrightness of the government in the media – articles here about the crisis are surprisingly upfront and grim.

December 19, 2008 @ 8:00 am | Comment

For a student, I really do not care economic crisis very much.But I am also worried about next year’s economic condition, because next year I will graduate.Good luck!

December 22, 2008 @ 7:19 pm | Comment

I have confidence that China will overcome any difficulty as long as Chinese keep united. Though the circumstances are really terrible now,we’d better work together and never give it up. Best wishes to China and best wishes to countries all over the world!

December 27, 2008 @ 3:59 pm | Comment

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