The Chinese government, led by Xi Jinping, introduced the ‘Down to the Countryside movement’ a few months ago in response to the mounting issue of unprecedented youth unemployment. However, this plan to send urban youths to work in rural areas has backfired, as many young people strongly disapprove of it. The high unemployment rate has forced them into the countryside, where they find no desirable job opportunities. Consequently, numerous young individuals have chosen to disregard the government’s directive.
As youth unemployment reaches a new high, a record number of graduates are entering the job market this year, facing a scarcity of jobs and lower pay. China’s official reported youth unemployment rate has risen to 21 per cent, affecting approximately one in five individuals aged from late teens to early twenties. However, a Beijing scholar’s findings indicate a much higher youth unemployment rate of 46.5 per cent, which was removed from all platforms after its release. Experts, considering the plethora of unemployment stories on social media, anecdotes from college campuses, and justified scepticism of Chinese government statistics, believe that the youth unemployment rate is far higher than what Chinese government claims.
The plan, launched in February, has three main components: organizing city youth to go to the countryside, mobilizing rural youth living in cities to return to rural areas, and encouraging rural-based youth to stay in the countryside. The plan aims to train rural youth in digital commerce, farming, and cooperatives, reviving elements of the Mao-era planned economy in rural China. The government has pledged to support startup projects each year by providing loans to recent college graduates who return home.
This plan has been mocked online by Chinese netizens and commentators as “the new educated urban youth being sent down to the countryside.” Graduates jokingly remark that their degrees are worthless, while the Communist Party attempts to portray China’s Generation Z as being too picky. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on young people to endure hardship and contribute to building a better China.
The historical parallel to this plan can be found in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, during which he sent over 16 million urban youths, including Xi Jinping, to work in rural areas. Millions of youths from large urban centers such as Shanghai and Beijing were sent to China’s remote provinces and backwater regions. In the years that followed, the “send-down” policy was expanded nationwide and wasn’t terminated until 1978.
There are similar forces motivating the old send-down and the new send-down: with urban job opportunities drying up, restless youth could be a source of trouble for the regime. However, the current situation differs, as today’s countryside is no longer collectivized, and there are no suitable job opportunities for youth in rural areas to retain them there. Despite the government’s lofty rhetoric, it has failed to quell the anger among the youth. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, published an editorial urging young people to embrace hardship for future rewards. However, this sentiment was met with disdain. Many young individuals feel that government officials have become disconnected from the masses and their struggles.