China's Frustrated Youth

June 9th, 2014
in Op Ed, syndication

by John West, Asian Century Institute

China's youth is experiencing growing frustrations. The government will have to do more to maintain social peace.

Follow up:

China's youth population has lived through the comprehensive economic and social transformation of their country - having been born after the launching of China's reform process. These youth - many of whom are well-educated, tech-savvy and hooked into global culture - are now in turn changing China's society.

Growing numbers of Chinese youth now study overseas, especially in the US. Indeed, since 1978, some 1.5 million Chinese students and scholars have travelled overseas for studies. Interestingly, US youth generally have a more positive attitude towards the rise of China than older generations of Americans - perhaps in part due to their exposure to Chinese youth.

Only one-third of China's youth population of 400 million (under the age of 30) are official urban dwellers -- even though more than half of Chinese citizens (perhaps 55%) now live in cities. This is because China's one-child policy has not been strictly enforced in the countryside with the result that many rural families have two children - pushing up the share of rural youth to two-thirds of total.

China's rural youth are at a distinct disadvantage relative to city youth. The quality of schools and access to computers are inferior to the cities. There is a real digital divide between China's urban and rural areas. And while there has been a massive expansion in higher education in China, that has been mainly in the city.

If their parents have migrated to the city for work, rural youth may be living with grand parents who are less educated and are less able to foster their education and preparation for modern life. Moreover, with the income gap between urban and rural dwellers being 4-to-1, they have much less resources available to them, and have a much greater chance of living in poverty. Rural youth also have much less exposure to social media and pop culture.

In fact, half of China's rural youth have moved to cities, while still holding an agricultural "hukou" (household registration). This hukou registration system was implemented by Mao in the 1950s to restrict the movement of farmers to the city.

While people are now free to move around China, they only have access to education, health and other social services in the locality of their hukou. The lack of access to such services in the city by rural migrants is one factors driving China's yawning inequality.

The Chinese government has announced its intention to loosen the hukou system over time. But we will have to await the outcome, as empty promises have been made in the past. Relaxing the hukou system would have adverse budget implications for city governments, and many urban residents are not keen to share their privileges with country bumpkins.

Thus, in reality, two-thirds of China's youth population live in the city - half as full citizens, and the other half as an urban underclass. It is a "tale of two youths". This underclass generally has less education, a lower skilled job, and works in the informal sector, with few rights and protections, and often suffering labor rights abuses.They are very much less likely to be members of the Communist Party, and suffer from wide-ranging social discrimination.

If they have children with them in the city, they can't send them to public schools, or in those cases where they can, just for a few years. They must therefore send them to private schools, of questionable quality, if they can afford to do so.

This hukou system represents not only a serious social injustice, but also a great waste of human resources, as it greatly limits economic and social opportunity for China's internal migrant workers. After all, a country's youth is its most frequent source of innovation. China's Steve Jobs may be working in a factory, because he has an agricultural hukou.

China's young workers are also less docile and accepting of their lot than their parents. As China's pool of surplus labour is drying up, younger workers are not shy to express their discontent about labor rights abuses, as evident in the growing labor unrest. At the time of writing, some 40,000 workers at a shoe factory in southern China had been on strike for over two weeks!

What is the "Chinese dream" of China's urban underclass? Quite simply to become urban citizens and receive respect.

But please don't think that life is all pretty for kids at the top of the ladder. Most come from one-child families, and are under immense family pressure to succeed and find a good job. Even though they might be better educated, for those who have studied at second or third tier universities, finding a job is not so easy. Driven by prestige, all families want their children to study at university, rather than doing vocational training, with the result that graduate unemployment is much higher than the overall rate.

The one-child policy has also produced a competition for wives, as the desire to have a son has biased the birth rate heavily in favour of boys - there are 118-120 boys born for every 100 girls. This shortage of girls is an added stress for young men, who are under pressure to get a job, car and apartment.

And in China's male dominated society, finding a suitable wife is complicated by the fact that girls are now performing much better at school. The problem is that Chinese boys still prefer a less well educated wife. One trend is for "A-grade" boys to marry B-grade girls, and B-grade boys to marry C-grade girls, leaving D-grade boys and A-grade girls without a partner.

The growing number of "left-over" women is also partly because they have become "too old" after many years of study. Another frustration for young girls is that employers still favour boys, despite the "gender-reality" of school results.

The plight of China's youth is just another element of the great stresses afflicting Chinese society. The government is taking some measures to address the frustrations of its youth.

But as China's economic growth is set to remain on a lower trajectory in the coming years, frustrated youth may well test China's social stability. As well as being the source of innovation, youth is also usually the source of social movements, as we have seen in the Arab Spring.

China is very much a society under stress!



This article is partly based on discussions at a recent Brookings Institute conference. See link below.


How China's youth are transforming Chinese society. Seminar at the Brookings Institute. 24 April, 2014.

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