Students Grow Desperate Over China's Tight Job Market

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 24, 2006

ZHENGZHOU, China -- A tide of more than 30,000 students with polished résumés and high hopes surged into a job fair here so eager to meet with employers that they shattered four glass doors and splayed the side walls of an escalator in what became a near riot.

As the crowd of youths swelled out of control, students and security guards said, police tried to beat back the throng but to no avail. Pushing, screaming and climbing over one another, the students charged on, heading for the booths inside the Zhongyuan International Exhibition Center, where company recruiters waited with the keys to China's new economy.

"You didn't even need to walk in the main hall, because people were sweeping you along all the time," said Hou Shuangshuang, 23, an e-commerce major with long hair who was among the students who overflowed the job fair when it opened Sunday. "At some points, your feet couldn't even touch the ground."

Hou and her classmates from Zhengzhou University, along with students from other schools in this Henan province city about 500 miles south of Beijing, provided a dramatic example of rising anxiety over employment among millions of Chinese students. After years in which graduates were ensured of a good job in the fast-growing economy, the number of degree-holders has outstripped the number of jobs, and the guarantees have evaporated.

"I don't think we have a very bright future," said Yu Honghua, 23, another e-commerce major at Zhengzhou University who shoved her way into the fair. "I saw only one company that needed students who majored in e-commerce, and they just needed one person."

The disappointment voiced by Yu and others in her situation has become a major worry for the Chinese Communist Party. An open-ended rise in living standards, particularly for the educated middle class, has been part of an unspoken pact under which the party retains a monopoly on political power despite the country's turn away from socialism.

So far, the party has delivered on its part of the bargain: The economy has grown by more than 9 percent a year recently, and the main beneficiaries have been educated urbanites. Content to claim their share in the prosperity, most students have shown little interest in politics since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

But a large pool of unemployed or underemployed university graduates, some analysts have suggested, could become a new breeding ground for opposition. An educated opposition, they said, would have far more organizational and ideological ability -- and present a greater threat to the government -- than the left-behind farmers who have been the main source of unrest in recent years.

The Labor and Social Security Ministry estimated recently that as many as 4.9 million youths will graduate from universities by the end of 2007, up by nearly 20 percent over 2006. Another 49.5 million will graduate from high school, also a 20 percent increase. The sharp climb in graduation rates represents a dramatic improvement in the lives of many Chinese, made possible by the economic transformation that has taken place here over the past quarter-century.

But indications have emerged that, booming as it is, the economy may not be able to absorb that many degree-holders into the jobs for which they are being trained. "The fact is that it's very hard for college students to get the right job these days," said Zhang Xuxin, a Zhengzhou student with close-cropped hair and plastic-rimmed glasses who plans to pursue postgraduate studies next year. "You may have a job, but it's very hard to have an ideal one."

A waitress in a German restaurant near Beijing's Ritan Park, for instance, said she has been looking for work in the computer industry since graduating last summer, but in the meantime, she has to serve sausages and beer to pay the rent because nothing is available in her field.

Tian Chengping, the labor and social security minister, predicted that about 1.2 million of the 2007 university graduates will have similar trouble finding employment. As a result, his ministry announced Tuesday, colleges will be forced to restrict admissions into study programs with low postgraduate employment rates. At a conference in Beijing, ministry officials said they also are seeking to improve employment counseling for high school graduates who do not plan to attend college.

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