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China's Solution for Unemployed College Grads: State Jobs in the Boonies

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 30, 2009

BEIJING -- Liu Yongquan thought he was well prepared for China's job market, with his degree in electromechanical engineering. But a long internship had provided no help in the way of connections, nor any real job experience. So after graduating in 2007, he headed for rural Laozhuanghu village in Xiji town, on the outskirts of Beijing, where he works as a librarian, passing out legal and health-care notices and conducting surveys.

"I'm not from the city, so this job can solve my residential permit problem. Second, the rural experience helps me in my civil service exam," said Liu, who is from Shandong province and now hoping for the stability of a state job. "I'm forgetting all my engineering knowledge, but this work doesn't need professional skill. It is enough if you are patient and careful."

Chinese officials, spurred by the global financial crisis that has slowed economic growth and nervous about the prospects of more than 1.5 million unemployed college graduates, have stepped up spending and bolstered programs to help graduates get jobs, including a two-year-old plan to send people like Liu to work as rural village officials. Unemployment among recent college graduates stands at 12 percent, according to government statistics, nearly triple the overall unemployment rate of 4.2 percent at the end of December, itself the highest in five years.

Finding work for new graduates should be one of the country's top priorities, China's State Council, or cabinet, announced this month. Party leaders are mindful that June will mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, when hundreds of college students demanding democracy were killed by government troops.

In Shanghai this month, Mayor Han Zheng announced a job stimulus package to help 213,000 new graduates, offering to pay for vocational training and to assist in setting up internships if jobs can't be found.

A jobs program launched in 2006 by top party officials to send graduates to the countryside is also getting a boost. So far, 78,000 graduates have signed three-year contracts to participate in the program, but more are scheduled to be enlisted this year, officials said. The Education Ministry has announced a new recruitment campaign, saying it has expanded the scheme to offer help in paying off the student loans of graduates who participate.

The Beijing municipal government announced this month that an additional 3,000 local college graduates will work as village officials this year, while Guangdong province has announced that all graduates who want government jobs will have to first work or train in rural villages.

In addition to getting graduates off the unemployment rolls, the goal of the programs is to build up local party organizations and gain more party control. In villages, Internet-savvy youth can help raise the quality of administration. Even better, the thinking goes, the graduates may be able to help stem the growing unrest among dissatisfied farmers, who are often on the losing end of illegal land grabs by corrupt officials and developers.

"We need more grass-roots officials who have close connections with ordinary people, who can lead farmers to get rich and make the countryside more stable, urgently," Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping said in late December, kicking off a slew of official announcements promoting the benefits of college-educated village officials.

For the graduates, it's hardly an ideological exercise. Unlike scores of patriotic students who volunteered to serve in the countryside during the 1950s and '60s, alongside more than 17 million intellectuals and elites forcibly sent down for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution, today's graduates are largely motivated by self-interest. Many have signed up to join the party to boost their chances of employment, but only a small number are approved. Those with no other alternative look to these jobs as a way to earn extra points on a civil service exam, collect other subsidies or qualify for a coveted residency permit to the closest nearby city.

Despite those benefits, until recently it has been difficult to direct thousands of young people -- whose expectations have been shaped by decades of steady economic growth -- in a China that is no longer a planned economy with assigned jobs. But with diminished opportunities available in the general economy, demand among graduates to participate in the rural programs jumped sharply this month. State media reported that in the municipality of Chongqing, the ratio of applicants to hires for the village jobs jumped to 16-to-1 this month, up from 6-to-1 for all of 2008.

"What's going on here is students being sent to the countryside either don't have jobs and want to use this to join the civil service, or they have no other option," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. "Lower-level party officials don't know what to do with them, so they say, 'See? We're doing local party construction.' This is really a shell game."

Those hired into village programs spend their time filling out forms, typing documents, completing agricultural surveys, distributing health-care advice and condoms, and, often, worrying about their next job, they said.

Many of the students are bored and uninterested in remaining in their villages, graduates and some local officials said. Not only are they not trained for rural work but they are not trusted by village leaders.

"It was difficult to find a job when I graduated. I didn't study very well, so I only got a few interviews," said Ye Ming, a computer science major from Beijing Union University who decided he wanted to be a civil servant. He began working in a village in Dasungezhuang town on the outskirts of Beijing about two years ago.

"At first, I thought I would have the power to suggest or advise the director of the village. But in reality, you cannot do what you want," Ye said. "The party secretary is the one who decides things. We are like servants without any power."

The hours, however, are good.

"It's very relaxing," said Song Xiaoting, a finance major from China Agricultural University who has been working in a rural village in the Pinggu district in the northern suburbs of Beijing. "I keep party construction [education material for party members] and study materials, complete all kinds of work summaries and write speeches and notices. In my spare time, I surf the Internet."

Because college graduates lack real work experience, villagers often don't trust their judgment, Song said. Village committee chiefs, meanwhile, are proud and believe the condition of the village needs no further improvement.

"I thought the village would consult me on economic development," Song said. "But there is no space for me to use my talents. Village officials just tell me what their decisions are and tell me to enforce them. The village committee and the party committee decide the most important work, such as development and how to structure industry. They rarely ask my opinion."

Yang Jie, who graduated from Beijing International Studies University with an English degree, tried to set up a Web site for her village, but local officials thought the Internet was a waste of electricity. "I am not as passionate and confident as I was three years ago," said Yang, who is struggling to find another job by June, when her contract ends.

Officials hope each rural village or community administration will have at least one college graduate by 2011.

In poorer areas, officials seem more welcoming of the graduates. In Shanxi province's Jishan county, village director Zhao Jianguang promises that graduates will be given some decision-making authority.

"Graduates can help change our way of thinking because they're more resourceful about searching for information," said Zhao, director of Xuecun village. "Farmers only learn about policies from local officials, but students can search the Internet and use it to help publicize our village's products. Right now, we don't even have an Internet connection."

The government should offer graduates real positions on village or party committees, Zhao added. "Right now, it is the college graduates who execute the ideas of village directors. The situation should be reversed. The graduates are young, well educated and energetic. At the village level, party members are too old."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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