An End to the Chinese Dream?

Everyone's familiar with the American dream: work and study hard and you'll get ahead. But China has its own version, which hopeful parents and their children have adhered to ever since the emperor started meritocratic civil-service exams during the Han dynasty. Like the U.S. variant, the Chinese Dream places firm faith in hard work, but perhaps even greater faith in the value of an education, which promises to boost young people out of poverty and secure better lives for them and their families. This vision has had special appeal since Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world and getting rich became glorious.

Now, with China's white-hot economy cooling, millions of youngsters are facing the possibility that a good degree won't be enough. As 2008 wound down, 1.5 million new graduates were still jobless, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Suddenly, it seems, the Chinese Dream is under threat, and that's got Beijing plenty nervous. This was on stark display when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao met with students at a Beijing college in December. "If you are worried, I'm more worried than you," he told them, promising that ensuring their employment was at the top of his agenda, alongside finding jobs for laid-off factory workers.

It's easy to see why Beijing is worried about millions of unemployed have-nots, given their history of turning economic woes into mass protests. But China's students have remained largely meek and apolitical ever since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. And they represent just a tiny fraction—about 6 percent—of the country's workers. Yet their symbolic value is enormous. "Today's students carry the expectations of two generations," says psychology professor Wei Zhizhong, who runs a clinic in Guangzhou. Should they and their parents lose faith, their fears could spread cynicism throughout society.

Hence the government has begun working to ensure ordinary Chinese don't give up on the country's guiding ethos. New steps include ordering the Chinese military to double its intake of university-trained recruits to 33,000, expanding college-based scientific research to create more postgraduate positions, and trying to lure double the number of new village teachers to poor provinces by offering to pay off their college debts. Most important, of course, is the $586 billion in stimulus funds Beijing is pouring into the economy, most of which will be funneled to state-run companies that build railways, power lines and other infrastructure. The goal is to create up to 9 million new jobs this year. Those aren't just for college alumni, of course, but China's half-million engineering grads can rejoice.

The parents of the 6.1 million students due to collect bachelor's degrees next summer are also hoping such measures work. Ever since enrollments reopened at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978, parents have sacrificed huge amounts of money and time on tuition and tutors to ensure placements and degrees for their kids. Now many fear they won't recoup their investments, and that, in a country with no social safety net, their kids won't be able to look after them in their old age.

A case in point is Gong Ailing, a star pupil at a Beijing university, who comes from a peasant family in central China. Gong represents Beijing's worst nightmare. Her father is a 59-year-old peasant who supports his family on $175 a month from a temporary cooking job. "We don't have retirement pensions or social insurance," he says. "So when we get old, we have to rely on our children." The family has spent close to $15,000—a fairly typical amount—to send Gong to college. That's a big bet on the future.

It could still pay off, but China's student job seekers were already facing tough times before the global economic tailspin began. A massive expansion in college placements since the 1990s had already begun taking the shine off a degree. Enrollments have doubled in the past four years and evidence of fear abounds. Even top students are now scrambling for jobs in second-tier cities; at a recent job fair at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, students queued down two flights of stairs to find out about opportunities in places like sleepy Nanjing. Those lucky enough to find work

may have to settle for salaries far lower than what they and their debt-laden parents were counting on. "Wages are down 1,000 yuan [about $146] a month, says management student Tian Shaoyuan. The problem is not just financial. "The parents of this generation … haven't realized their dream in their own lives, so they want to achieve their dream in their children's generation," says Wei, the psychologist. As for youngsters, "once they have had the chance to leave the countryside, they don't want to go back … If they do, they'll feel their value has gone," Wei says.

Who gets blamed for all this pain depends on how Beijing responds. The risk is that angry youths could target China's leaders, foreign financial regulators or pushy parents. One danger is an upsurge of aggressive nationalism, a traditional pressure valve during tough times but one the government finds difficult to control.

To head that off, Beijing has generally stressed cooperation and tried not to blame Washington much for the global crunch (at least till the spat over currency rates). Chinese officials are also working hard to reassure students that opportunities still exist, encouraging them to consider unglamorous but stable forms of employment—which is easier now that high-flying jobs in finance or at multinationals look so uncertain. Qi Jinli, director of Tsinghua's Careers Center, says that the number of his students choosing jobs in state-run firms rose 10 percent last year.

Getting students to redirect their energy inward and to lower their ambitions is a sensible strategy, and if the government keeps up its job-creation efforts, it just might manage to keep the Chinese Dream alive, albeit in dog-eared form. Leaders are taking numerous steps in the right direction; besides the stimulus package, local governments are enhancing their student job fairs and organizing internships, for instance. But China's heady get-rich-quick days are probably over. Future graduates will be joining a sophisticated white-collar job market in a far more cyclical economy. In all likelihood, they'll still achieve a better living standard than their parents and be able to take care of them in their old age. Yet the fat years are over, and Chinese leaders need to help college grads adjust their expectations accordingly.