Coronavirus Hits China’s Economy, and Young Workers Suffer – The New York Times - Freelance Rack

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Coronavirus Hits China’s Economy, and Young Workers Suffer – The New York Times

Ms. Huang, who graduated last year from one of China’s most prestigious drama schools, got an offer in December for her first job in show business, working for a company that books bands for bars in Beijing and Shanghai.

The coronavirus, which virtually froze China for weeks, brought that gig to an end before it began. Ms. Huang has picked up freelance film production and publicity work, but she has slashed her spending and is counting her money.

“When it was April and I still couldn’t start my job, I started to feel worried,” said Ms. Huang, 24. “I began worrying that I may not be able to work this year at all. I can’t just keep waiting.”

Relations with the United States are at their lowest point in decades and Hong Kong is seething with fear and anger, but China’s biggest problem by far is getting its people back to work. Millions of workers were laid off or furloughed while China battled the coronavirus outbreak. Many of those who kept their jobs have seen their pay cut and future prospects narrow.

China’s youngest workers in particular have entered perhaps the country’s toughest job market in the modern era. Many are reducing their expectations to take any job they can get. The pressure is about to intensify: Another nearly 8.7 million young college graduates are waiting in the wings this year.

ImageHuang Bing, seen Monday in Beijing, graduated from the Central Academy of Drama last year and has not yet landed a full-time job.
Credit…Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

For the world, global growth will be hard to rekindle until China gets fully back to work. But the damage to the Communist Party could be long-lasting. It derives its political power from the promise of delivering a better life for the Chinese people, a promise that has become increasingly difficult to fulfill.

Demonstrating the depths of the uncertainty, Chinese leaders meeting in Beijing since last week parted with precedent and declined to set an annual economic growth target. But they have unveiled other goals that detail their biggest worries, including cutting unemployment in the cities and taming food inflation, which has jumped because of outbreak-related supply disruptions and an unrelated swine disease.

Chinese leaders have acknowledged broader problems in the work force. China’s factory workers have been hit by the trade war with the United States. Service sector companies like online delivery firms are hiring, but these jobs offer low pay and high stress.

Last week, at the opening of China’s annual parliamentary session, Li Keqiang, China’s premier, cited both unemployment and the hundreds of millions of underemployed workers doing odd jobs with flexible hours and low pay. “We will make every effort to stabilize and expand employment,” he said.

Credit…Tingshu Wang/Reuters

To help, China’s top leaders pledged this weekend to “use all possible means” to create jobs, including a goal to create nine million new jobs this year. But many of its plans borrow from Beijing’s old playbook, which include spending on public works, funding wasteful state-run companies and keeping the financial sector supplied with new money.

Those tactics have proven to be less effective in recent years. Even when banks are pushed to lend to smaller businesses, China’s biggest group of employers, the borrowing burden is still too high for many companies. Spending on public works gets less bang for the buck than it once did, as China’s economy matures and as its work force becomes increasingly college-educated and office bound.

In forums online, young job seekers share their frustrations. “I’m about to cry,” one person recently wrote on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media service. “Finding a job is as difficult as finding a boyfriend.”

Many use words like “lost” to describe their state of mind. “I’ve exhausted all kinds of software for job hunting,” another person wrote. “Did not find a job! What more can you do!! I’m going to lose faith.”

Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Many of these job seekers have lowered their salary expectations and are choosing to focus their energy on finding job security at a state-owned company. While private firms are typically more popular, competition for jobs among them has become fierce, according to a recent survey of 3,000 university graduates by Liepin, a recruitment platform. Three-quarters of graduates said they expected to earn less than $1,100 a month, one of the lowest salary ranges in the survey.

Guo Minghao, a computer science major, won an internship in December. In January, as the outbreak erupted, it was rescinded. He has since interviewed at two dozen other companies that he considered sure bets for job offers. None came.

“For the first time, I felt for sure the impact of the epidemic environment had finally started to affect me,” Mr. Guo said, who added that his darkest moment was in March, typically the best time to look for a job.

Then, with the help of one of his teachers, he finally won an internship at a smaller company in the southern city of Shenzhen. But his friends worried that life in that modern, glittering city will be more expensive than the northern rust belt province of Heilongjiang where he went to school.

Mr. Guo considers himself lucky — his starting salary will be around $980 a month — which he said would be enough to cover basic expenses. He is confident that he can then turn the internship into a job and get a raise.

Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Mr. Guo’s friend, 22-year-old Lin Yuxin, is taking a different route. He decided against pursuing a job in a big city at a company like Tencent, the Chinese internet giant and ultimate symbol of success for computer science graduates. In today’s market, he figured, safety is more important than prestige, higher pay or career advancement.

“The larger private enterprises like Tencent, their probability of closing down might be something 0.00001, but it’s nothing compared to state-owned enterprises,” Mr. Lin said.

Chinese companies that are hiring can afford to be choosy. Recruits can choose from a larger pool of candidates, said Martin Ma, a human resources officer for iSoftStone, a software development company that has more than 60,000 employees and counts big foreign and domestic companies as clients. Starting salaries are lower.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

“The posts available for graduates are all basic, and the salary isn’t too high,” Mr. Ma said. “The graduates do not fully understand the market. Their expectations are quite high.”

Ms. Huang, the drama-school graduate, was inspired by her parents to go into entertainment. Her mother had been an opera singer, of a style popular in southern China, and her father had been a musician in her troupe.

She attended the Central Academy of Drama, which boasts Chinese film stars like Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li among its alumni, and graduated with a dream of someday producing plays and performances of her own.

Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

The coronavirus upended those plans. She now lives on $500 on month, with half going to rent for her apartment in the commuter town of Yanjiao near Beijing, that she gets from savings, her family and from the cash gift she received during the Lunar New Year holiday in January.

“Many of my plans have been disturbed,” Ms. Huang said. “I also hesitate to place orders for many things I wanted to buy.”

Ms. Huang is considering whether she can pursue a master’s degree abroad. That route would require the world to shrug off its outbreak-era limits on travel, which seems far from certain anytime soon.

“Because of the pandemic, the whole world is in a disarray,” Ms. Huang said. “So I feel stuck in limbo.”

Coral Yang contributed research. Cao Li contributed reporting.

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