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The unemployment for young people in China hits a record high in May


China has an unemployment problem. The latest figures were published today and they weren't great. Overall, unemployment for May was 5.2%. But for young Chinese, those in the 16 to 24 age range, unemployment hit a record 20.8%. NPR's John Ruwitch investigates why that number is so high.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The Lama temple in Beijing is a labyrinth of shrines and courtyards filled with incense, smoke and people. In one corner, there's a room where a monk chants prayers and rings a bell.


RUWITCH: Visitors in batches of a couple dozen at a time rotate through for a few minutes each. Inside, they hold aloft bracelets of prayer beads to get blessed. A lot of the visitors these days are like Rachel Gao and Jose Qiu, who've come from Shanghai.

JOSE QIU: (Through interpreter) We are graduating soon, and we need to find jobs. We're doing this to have a little - how do I say it?

RACHEL GAO: (Through interpreter) Paying money to have someone watch over us.

RUWITCH: Gao and Qiu are graduate students at a top university in Shanghai, studying economics and math. They're in Beijing for an internship. And they took half a day off to come to the Lama Temple.

GAO: (Through interpreter) We're considered people with pretty good educations, and we face really heavy employment pressure. So I can't imagine what the pressure is like for undergrads or people from not-so-great schools.

RUWITCH: The pressure is bad. Six months after the government ended strict COVID controls, the economy is still struggling to bounce back. The private sector is hobbled by unfavorable policies. And uncertainty about the future is widespread.


RUWITCH: Young people have been flocking to the Lama Temple from around the country, lining up for hours to buy prayer beads here, hoping the charmed bracelets can boost their job prospects.

GAO: (Through interpreter) Whether you believe in it or not, it's worth a try, right?

WANG DAN: This is definitely an unemployment crisis for Chinese youth.

RUWITCH: Wang Dan is chief economist for China at Hang Seng Bank in Shanghai.

WANG: A lot of the companies in big cities - and they're trying to do restructuring this year. So they don't try to even hire the fresh graduates.

RUWITCH: There are expected to be a record 11.6 million fresh graduates this year, many bringing high expectations to the job market. So the authorities are trying to temper that, encouraging them to think outside the box. In Guangdong province, for instance, the local government wants young people to go into the countryside for work. And state media have been promoting a catchphrase from China's leader, Xi Jinping.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: (Non-English language spoken) - meaning, seek out your own hardship.


RUWITCH: For 25-year-old Alex Luo, just landing a job has been a hardship of its own. Luo studied design in college but can't find work in the field. When we meet her at a job fair in Shanghai, she says she's already sent out a few hundred resumes.

ALEX LUO: (Through interpreter) I did hear back from some. But then you talk about salary and benefits and working hours, right? And it often doesn't fit.

RUWITCH: Most of the companies here are looking for sales people. Luo says she'd be fine with that, even though it doesn't have anything to do with what she studied. And that kind of mismatch highlights a potential problem for policymakers, says Jin Keyu, an associate professor at the London School of Economics.

JIN KEYU: You have master's students lining up in cigarette factories or becoming nannies in order to be employed. So that leaves a significant portion of the population and their families quite disgruntled.

RUWITCH: And that, Jin says, could make it harder for the government to address some of China's thorniest long-term challenges.

JIN: Unless their expectations are filled, they're not going to get married, which is a big problem, you know? They might not want to have kids because of the anxiety and the insecurity and the uncertainty. So it leads to a host of present pressing problems.

RUWITCH: More and more college graduates are punting, applying for graduate programs to delay reality a little bit. Back at the Lama Temple in Beijing, Jose Qiu just shakes his head.

QIU: (Through interpreter) In our school, there were more grad students who entered this year than undergrads. So it feels like there's no advantage to getting a graduate degree. The only thing you can do is suck it up and keep on trying.

RUWITCH: And maybe pick up some prayer beads, too.


RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.