Lai Chuanlong frowned anxiously as he waited his turn among the hordes of recent college graduates, all jostling for a chance to sit on a folding chair opposite a recruiter from a local company.
Tall and slim, he held his shoulders erect as a protective barrier against those with designs on cutting in front. He was concentrating on the objective at hand — gaining a place in the white-collar world that only last year seemed guaranteed for a holder of a college degree in modern-day China.
No longer. This recent job fair in this city on China’s east coast turned out to be a trading pit of disappointment and dashed dreams. Like many of the thousands of other graduates here, Lai, 24, was the first in his family to attend college, the son of illiterate villagers who borrowed heavily to pay for his education. It seemed a no-risk investment in a brighter future. Two months after his graduation, however, prospects remain bleak. Other than a brief stint as a factory laborer and a job offer at a supermarket for about $2 per day, Lai has found no work. At the job fair, he added his resume to piles of them, hoping to secure a job that pays $100 a month.
“Going to college was my dream, but the pressure to find a job is getting intense,” Lai said. “I’m getting more and more nervous.”
Throughout the world’s most populous country, a dramatic surge in the number of college graduates has created fierce competition for the relatively high-paying office jobs that were once conveyed almost by right to anyone with a university degree. Where once college graduation ensured passage into the ranks of a privileged elite, this year it became a gateway to worry, diminished hopes and the prospect of unemployment — the result not only of larger class sizes but also of lowered educational standards at newer institutions.
The spread of free enterprise into every crevice of once-Maoist China has unleashed a wave of for-profit private colleges that cater to those denied admission to established universities. They charge tuitions exorbitant by traditional standards for degrees that are proving of limited value. All of this has intensified labor pressures in a society struggling with its transition to a market economy.
The stress and uncertainty now plaguing China’s best and brightest, a group conditioned by years of growth to anticipate upward mobility, is in large part the result of a policy that was, ironically, designed to limit unemployment. Four years ago, the government introduced a policy aimed at doubling the number of college students nationwide, reasoning that this would unleash more than $12 billion in domestic spending, creating jobs in industries such as construction, travel and food service. It would also postpone the entry into the job market of 2 million to 3 million young people at a time when bankrupt state factories were shutting their doors.
Some government officials feared the policy would dilute the quality of Chinese education while merely deferring the unemployment problem, but it was adopted. From 1998 to 2001, the number of college and university students nearly doubled, jumping from 6.4 million to 12.1 million, according to the official People’s Daily newspaper. Last year, the number increased to 14 million. Since 1999, 67 new private universities and colleges, as well as new schools affiliated with existing universities, have sprung up.
This year, the societal bill came due: The first expanded class to enter college under the new policy graduated and went out in search of work — more than 2 million people, according to the Ministry of Education, nearly 50 percent more than the year before. The surge has outstripped the economy’s ability to provide good jobs. While China continues to grow faster than any large economy in the world, much of the activity is driven by a government-funded public works boom, as well as by export-centered factory production. White-collar jobs are increasing, but not fast enough.
The government has also blamed the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome for exacerbating the problem. Many job fairs were canceled in the spring because of the deadly virus, denying graduates access to interviews.
The situation is worst at China’s lesser institutions, where, on some campuses, more than half of those who graduated have yet to find jobs, according to state media reports. But even those graduating from China’s most elite universities are feeling the effects. Only 70 percent of Beijing University graduates had found work in June. On a recent afternoon at Fudan University in Shanghai – – one of the most selective campuses in the country — students were lined up three deep inside a job-placement center for a chance to scan the latest listings.
“Most of us here have had big dreams,” said 22-year-old Wu Di, a senior who was then about to graduate with a degree in management science. “We figured we’d all get good jobs at foreign companies for at least 3,000 renminbi [about $375] per month.” Instead, most of the jobs he was looking at paid 2,000 renminbi or less.
High expectations have historically been valid for college graduates.
Among all 18-to-22-year-olds in China, only about 15 percent are university students, said Zhang Xun, the vice director of the student career center at Fudan. “There’s a feeling that a college degree gives them a special privilege,” he said.
Lai Chuanlong’s leap to the ranks of the higher-educated highlights just how rapidly Chinese society is changing within a single generation, confronting people with previously unthinkable opportunities and unsettling new risks all at once.
Lai grew up in a village of 800 people set in a bamboo grove in the rugged mountains of southern Zhejiang province, an hour’s drive up a winding dirt road from the nearest town. His century-old wooden house had a concrete floor and lacked plumbing. His childhood was defined by working to help keep the family fed — growing potatoes and tending to pigs.
His father had grown up a farmer and left school after the fourth grade. He traveled the countryside of Zhejiang and neighboring Fujian province as a peddler, selling porcelain to supplement what living the family could coax from the land. Lai’s mother had also been raised in a village. Her own mother was ill when she was a girl, forcing her to leave school after third grade to care for her younger siblings. She cannot read Chinese characters on a restaurant menu.
Although Lai’s parents were isolated and uneducated, they were intent on their son transcending such straits. They could see how fast China was changing. In the late 1970s, as Deng Xiaoping consolidated power after the death of Mao Zedong, the old system of bureaucratically assigned jobs and production quotas began giving way to market forces. Coastal China, and Zhejiang province in particular, lay at the center of this economic experiment. New private businesses were taking root. Overseas Chinese were returning to coastal enclaves and investing in new ventures.
But as Lai’s parents understood clearly, the benefits were mostly accruing to those connected to power — to government officials who were quitting their posts to go into business, and their chosen cronies.
“Our family has no connections, no network,” said Lai’s mother, Wang Shimei. “We figured education would be a way to give him an ability to depend on himself to find a job.”
Lai attended primary and junior high school in the village, studying at a wooden desk tucked in a corner of his bedroom upstairs. His walls were covered with pictures torn from magazines – – the 1999 Chicago Bulls, a black Nissan sedan, Britney Spears.
There was no high school in the village, but Lai tested into one in Taishun, a town of about 300,000 people set in a tea-growing area about a two-hour drive away. His parents paid the tuition. It ran about $250 per year. He lived in a whitewashed concrete dormitory and studied English in a ground-floor classroom next to a dirt basketball court.
By rural Chinese standards, it was a good school: Roughl
y half of the 160 graduates per year made it into college. In 2000, the year Lai took the admission test, 100 students cleared the hurdle.
Lai did not clear it by much. He was admitted to a school at the lowest rung of the Chinese university hierarchy — Shuren University in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, a town famous for its lake surrounded by mountains topped with pagodas. He was given a place in the secretarial program, a three-year track.
Shuren was a profit-making institution that typified the times. It had been launched with the investment of the former vice chairman of Nanjing University as a way to cash in on the increasing desire for degrees. It was a prime beneficiary of the policy that expanded university ranks.
The year before Lai was admitted, Shuren held 2,000 students. The following year, it merged with several professional schools, expanded recruitment and became a campus of 10,000 students.
Shuren admitted kids who previously would not have been offered a place in college at all, and it charged for the privilege — $1,200 a year, more than twice most Chinese universities, plus $900 for living expenses. Lai’s parents did not have the money. They borrowed from relatives to pay the first year’s tuition, plus extra for his living expenses.
“I figured that if he could enter university, all the costs would be returned,” Lai’s mother said. “Even if we had to borrow, it would be worth it.”
Lai’s younger sister had left the village to work in Guangdong province, near Hong Kong. In subsequent years, she brought back money to help pay for her brother’s education. Lai’s father’s porcelain business helped, too. His mother moved to Taishun and took a job at a toy factory. Still, it wasn’t enough. His third and final year, the family borrowed $750 from a bank under a new student loan program.
All through his final year, Lai had tried and failed to land a good job. After graduation, he had taken a job at a refrigeration- equipment factory, an indignity for a college-degree holder. The money was good, about $150 per month, but he had to travel 90 minutes by bus to get to the factory, which lacked air conditioning. After a month, he quit, resolving to find something with a chance for advancement.
By the morning of the job fair, he was desperate, living off handouts from his parents. The city has never held a job fair in the summer before, because college graduates traditionally line up jobs by spring.
This year, so many are still without work that the local government organized the event.
Lai arrived just before 10 a.m. The day was bright and sweltering. He wore black pants, a white short-sleeve polo shirt and black shoes. He flipped through printed job listings and drew up a list of booths to visit.
A technology company needed a market researcher, but when Lai inquired, the man behind the table scanned Lai’s resume and dismissed it. “You have no experience,” he said. A telecommunications equipment company needed three secretaries, but the jobs were filled by the time Lai got there. An advertising firm had an opening for a copywriter. It sounded interesting, a chance to learn about a growing field. But the recruiter turned Lai away, saying, “You should choose something connected to your major.”
A huge crowd pressed for a chance to hand in resumes to Starbucks, which is expanding and needs managers. But Starbucks wanted to talk to only those people who have official permission to live in Hangzhou — something Lai lacked. He walked away, forlorn.
“It’s no good,” he said. “All the jobs require something I don’t have.”
Then, he sat down at a booth for Pingan Insurance Co., an aggressive firm. Lai leaned over the table eagerly.
“The insurance industry is special, and it looks to me like you don’t know anything about insurance,” said the woman behind the counter.
Luckily for him, she continued, Pingan has an excellent training program, and he is eligible. He would receive no benefits. His salary would be based on commissions.
But one catch: He would have to pay for the training program. Up front, in cash. About $50.
That was more than he had. More to the point, sinking deeper into the funding of his education no longer seemed like such a good bet. Still he walked away considering it. He had nothing else in hand.