996, Academic Pressure, Sky High Rents. China’s College Grads Ask: Is There More to It Than This?

According to census figures released this week, China’s population is more educated than ever. More than 15% of the recorded population had completed tertiary education, a 9% jump from just a decade earlier. But for China’s college graduates, a degree that once guaranteed rapid social mobility increasingly comes with costs and pressures that have led some to question their values and futures. Young people are decrying academic pressure, brutal work hours, and prohibitively expensive housing prices in China’s big cities, leading to changing trends in desired careers and locations.

In 2020, one of the hottest new concepts spreading on social media was “involution.” This week, Yi-Ling Liu wrote about the “involuted generation” for The New Yorker, explaining the term and its rapid adoption by young netizens:

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz helped popularize the term in his book “Agricultural Involution,” from 1963, in which he analyzed Java’s economic response to population growth and Dutch colonial rule. Geertz’s theory of involution holds that a greater input (an increase in labor) does not yield proportional output (more crops and innovation). Instead, a society involutes. The Chinese term for involution, neijuan, which is made up of the characters for “inside” and “rolling,” suggests a process that curls inward, ensnaring its participants within what the anthropologist Xiang Biao has described as an “endless cycle of self-flagellation.” Involution is “the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless,” Biao told me. It is acceleration without a destination, progress without a purpose, Sisyphus spinning the wheels of a perpetual-motion Peloton.

[…] In many ways, China’s affliction of involution is no different from America’s cutthroat meritocracy. But China’s crisis is unique in the severity of its myopia and its methods of entrapment. The young high schooler, disillusioned with the monotony of school, cannot easily access subversive subcultures or explore alternative ways of living, because, increasingly, that information is deemed “vulgar” or “immoral” and banned by the government, scrubbed from the digital sphere in the name of “promoting positive energy.” The delivery driver, seeking better working conditions, can’t protest his grievances or organize his fellow workers in an independent union, because he rightly fears that he will be detained. The disillusioned office worker, instead of taking action, will more likely sink deeper into his desk chair. Involution is a new word that helps keep an old system, and those who control it, in place. [Source]

Frustratingly for the laborers of China’s new economy, the culture of overwork has continued to not only be defended by companies and authorities, but celebrated. CDT translated a celebratory paean by Shenzhen’s Party Committee this week that was widely lambasted by netizens for romanticizing 996 work culture. Fatal accidents and scandals continue to be covered up and censored. In recent months, Chinese youth have also taken advantage of newfound government scrutiny of Jack Ma and his financial empire to heavily criticize his glowing rhetoric and defense of Alibaba’s brutally long work days.

Public anger about the exhausting corporate culture and increasing unaffordability of urban city life in China is not new. But emerging trends among China’s youth signal how dissatisfaction with the status quo is changing the living and working preferences of China’s youth. This week, The Economist reported on the growing number of college graduates applying to join China’s civil service, reflecting a dramatic shift in the perception of public service in recent years:

Today, the trends are changing again. China still wants foreign businesses for their know-how and dynamism, but their status “is definitely going down”, says Miss Zhu. Geopolitical distrust is bleeding into work relations. Chinese employed by foreigners have noticed that they never advance beyond middle management and are the first to be laid off in bad times, she claims. As for domestic technology firms, their high salaries continue to attract the young. But they also face vocal criticism in Chinese media for domineering business practices and the “996” work schedules of their staff, toiling from at least 9am to 9pm, six days a week. In all, a third of Miss Zhu’s classmates took civil-service examinations. Some were hired by state-owned banks. Three joined technology companies. None joined a foreign firm.

Chinese refer to securing an official position as shang an, or “landing ashore”, reflecting the security such jobs offer. In 2020, 1.6m people passed background checks to take national civil-service exams, 140,000 more than the year before. Almost a million candidates eventually sat the exam, chasing 25,700 jobs. Still more took tests to become provincial and local officials. Many were fleeing a bleak market for new graduates, as covid-19 hit private firms.

Miss Zhu says she joined an elite government ministry in search of meaningful work. She will soon spend two years as an official in a remote rural area, saying: “If you want to become a good policymaker, you have to go to the grassroots level.” A decade ago her parents would not have wanted her to join the public sector, she thinks. They distrusted officials, who routinely shook them down for bribes. Back then they would also have worried about her prospects as someone with no family guanxi, or connections: her grandfather was a farmer and her parents run a small business. She credits an anti-corruption drive that began in 2012 with changing their views of officialdom. [Source]

It’s not just where young people want to work is that changing. Where recent graduates are choosing to live is also evolving. As the allure of metropolitan life in China’s biggest coastal cities diminishes, The Economist reported in January this year on the growing number of youngsters moving back to the countryside and rural areas after graduation:

China’s countryside has been drained of able-bodied villagers, leaving only the infirm, the very young and the elderly who care for them while their parents toil far away as cooks and cleaners, or in the factory towns of the east. Now a small but growing counterflow of migrants has begun to go home. They are known as fanxiang qingnian, or returning youth.

One reason for their return is that provincial China is more inviting. Quality of life has improved. New roads and high-speed railways make for easy travel to big cities from county seats that have themselves been transformed. Nicer apartment blocks, hotels and shops have sprung up, fuelled by growing disposable incomes. Nominal rural wages are rising rapidly, as labour shortages give workers more bargaining power, helping to close the chasm between rural and urban incomes.

[…] Now rural and urban youth speak of chengshibing, or “city disease”: sky-high rents for small digs, bad air and long workdays. All prefer nicer working environments. To persuade more migrants to stay, some factories have gone so far as to set up day-care centres and stage matchmaking events for singles. In the decade to 2019, the proportion of rural migrants under the age of 30 living away from their hometowns almost halved, according to official statistics (though this does not include those moving from villages to thriving local county seats). [Source]

This trend has likely been assisted by government policy. As part of China’s effort to eliminate poverty and narrow the urban-rural economic divide, the government has made a concerted drive to bring migrant workers back “home.” CDT wrote back in January that the drive has had success in drastically cutting down on rural destitution, but some initiatives have stagnated in the process.

Beyond government policy and generational trends, company cultures and the ways that workers exercise agency and independence also play a role. At TechNode his week, Caiwei Chen reported an eye-opening vignette of China’s big tech culture, exploring cultural distinctions between different companies as well as how workers have learned to cope with or protest against their work environments:

Joining one of China’s tech majors is a bit like moving to a new country. There’s a lot to learn.

[…] Nickname systems were introduced not just for discipline and management, but also for information safety and secrecy. In companies and departments that strictly implement the system, it is normal to not know the real name of a co-worker you cooperate with, especially when she works in a different department. Even when companies display the real names of employees along with their nicknames in internal communication systems—as Baidu and ByteDance do—just about every tech company omits precise ranks.

[…] The hustling culture often feels oppressive and unnecessary to many workers, especially when combined with bureaucracy and administrative errands. While many big tech companies embrace “wolf culture,” a term coined by Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei that highlights “hyper-intense teamwork,” burned-out young workers have come up with their own types of resistance: They have cultivated an underground culture of slacking off, or moyu. Literally meaning “touching fish,” the term comes from a Chinese proverb: “Muddy water makes it easier to catch fish.” In the online world, moyu has come to refer to surreptitious coping mechanisms undertaken in high-pressure workplaces.

[…] Moyu caught public attention in multiple online communities as netizens shared hacks for dossing off at work and memes for a good laugh. On Weibo, blogger “Massage Bear” garnered a big following for her passive-aggressive approach to moyu philosophy. “Set eight daily reminders on your phone to drink water. Every time you go to the pantry room or bathroom, try to hang out longer and use more company resources like free beverages and toilet paper,” reads one of Massage Bear’s posts. To the internet workers who have very little leeway to let loose at work, taking small opportunities to loaf on the job almost feels revengeful. [Source]

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