China’s severe workforce woes have caught the attention of President Joe Biden.
Last Thursday at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Utah, he said the country had the “highest unemployment rate going.”
Biden could not have been referring to the official urban unemployment rate, which was listed as 5.2 percent in June. He had to be thinking of the figure for the out-of-work young people. Beijing reported that in June, 21.3 percent of China’s urban youth — those in the 16-24 age cohort — were unemployed.
Yet that shockingly high figure is deceptively low. For March, Beijing reported youth unemployment of 19.7 percent. It might have been 46.5 percent, however. Zhang Dandan of the prestigious Peking University wrote that perhaps as many as 16 million in the youth cohort had given up looking for a job that month. Add them into the pool, and the unemployment rate of course soars.
So what happens when almost half of a country’s young are without work?
For one thing, many of China’s unemployed young are refusing to have children themselves. “Sorry, we are the last generation, thanks!” was a popular Chinese hashtag in May of last year before authorities censored it.
Moreover, tens of thousands of young people now identify themselves on social media sites as “full-time children,” those returning to live with parents as they did in secondary school “because they simply can’t get work.”
Unemployment is driving others to turn their backs on society in different ways. The University of Pennsylvania’s Victor Mair put it this way in his Language Log: “‘Lying flat,’ ‘Buddha whatever,’ ‘Kong Yijiism,’ ‘involution’ — China today has so many memes for opting out.”
Other young people are opting out of China altogether by leaving their country permanently. There has been an unprecedented surge in Chinese migrants entering the U.S. over its southern border, many of them apparently in the under-25 age group. Customs and Border Protection reports that the number of apprehensions of migrants from China in the first five months of the current federal fiscal year was more than 1,000 percent larger than the number during the comparable period in the preceding fiscal year.
And there is always the possibility of radical political change. The Chinese people, young and old, are generally unhappy. There was a series of extraordinary protests late last year, including those across the country in major cities, in November.
People in November were enraged by a fire that claimed 10 lives in an apartment block in Urumqi, in the northwestern part of the country, because COVID-control measures had prevented firefighters from reaching the scene of the tragedy in time. Nationwide demonstrations occurred without coordination, leadership, or organization.
“This is people past their breaking point,” tweeted CNN’s Selina Wang.
In Shanghai, young people chanted “Down with Xi Jinping!” and “Down with the Communist Party!”
In Beijing, the Telegraph’s Simina Mistreanu reported that a crowd numbering at least 100 began marching toward Tiananmen Square.
“The fact that they intended to protest at Tiananmen,” she wrote, “is wild.” As Mistreanu reported, the demonstrators in the Chinese capital were shouting: “We want freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law,” and “We don’t want dictatorship.”
China throughout the Communist period has seen demonstrations, but most of them were, as Charles Burton at the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute told me last year, “highly localized” and “directed at malfeasance, corruption, and incompetence of lower level Communist functionaries.” Now, however, the anger is directed at the party itself.
“China is in trouble,” Biden correctly pointed out last Thursday, calling the country “a ticking time bomb.”
“They have got some problems,” the president said. “That’s not good because when bad folks have problems, they do bad things.”
Biden by “bad folks” was undoubtedly referring to Xi Jinping, who is now in war mode. For one thing, he cannot stop talking about war. His regime is fast making preparations for waging one, implementing the largest military buildup since the Second World War. He is also trying to sanction-proof the Chinese regime, stockpiling grain and other commodities, surveying America, mobilizing China’s civilians for battle, and purging China’s military of high-ranking officers.
The regime is also conducting “campaigns to instill loyalty to the Communist Party,” according to the New York Times.
And at the same time, as Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center told me last week, “the Chinese Communist Party has devoted enormous resources for cultivating ‘worship’ of the military among the young.”
Throughout Chinese history, young, unemployed Chinese males have brought down dynasties, such as the Yuan and the Ming. The last dynasty, the Qing, was rocked by such young men during the Boxer Rebellion.
Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, in their much-discussed work “Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population,” suggest a link between large numbers of unmarriageable males — the so-called “bare branches”— and the adoption of risk-taking foreign policies. Xi prides himself on being a student of his country’s past.
He also knows he is now being blamed for domestic difficulties. His policies are deepening the country’s economic and other problems, and he is probably thinking his best option is to rally people with a war, fought by the legions of the unemployed.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.
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