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An unemployed young Chinese man seeks solace in temples, the story of a failed scholar

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BEIJING (Reuters) – Lines stretch hundreds of meters around temples in China at weekends, as young people desperate to find jobs pray in an economy slowly making its way from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I hope I can find some peace in the temples,” said Wang Xiaoning, 22, noting the “pressure of finding a job” and the hard-to-reach housing costs.

Wang is among a record 11.58 million college graduates facing a job market still reeling from last year’s strict “zero COVID” lockdowns as well as crackdowns on the technology and education sectors, which are traditionally heavyweights.

Travel booking platform Trip.com said visits to the temple are up 310% so far this year compared to 2022. While it didn’t provide total numbers or pre-pandemic comparisons, it said nearly half of the visitors were born after 1990.

Although she is far from graduating, “the threshold for employment continues to rise,” said Chen, 19, who has been praying for her career prospects at the famous Lama Temple in the capital, Beijing.

“The pressure is overwhelming,” added Chen, who only gave her last name for privacy reasons.

The fifth unemployed Chinese youth among a highly educated generation is a record. Improving their prospects is a major headache for the authorities, who want the economy to create 12m new jobs in 2023, up from 11m last year.

Reuters graphics

“There is a huge oversupply of college graduates and their priority is survival,” said Zhang Kedi, a researcher at the Center for International Financial Studies, adding that many have taken refuge in ride-sharing or delivery jobs.

The economy has been recovering since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in December, but hiring has been led by the pandemic-plagued catering and travel industries, which offer low wages for low-skilled jobs.

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China’s ministries of education and human resources did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Education authorities said the number of master’s and doctoral graduates in Beijing exceeds the number of undergraduates for the first time.

The state-backed Beijing Daily said in an editorial in March that concerns about the job and academics were “understandable”.

“However, it is evident that young people who really pin their hopes on the gods and Buddhas under pressure are also going astray.”

“Aviation Scholarship”

Many have used social media to compare themselves to a century-old literary figure, Kong Yijie, an unemployed alcoholic from a 1919 story by author Lu Xun. Kong believed that he was too highly educated to take menial jobs.

The meme has gone viral as users question the value society places on education if it does not guarantee them a fulfilling career.

In the coastal province of Zhejiang, a 25-year-old with a master’s degree who has applied for an average of 10 jobs a day since February said she, like Kong, felt “limited” by her education.

“I don’t think I’ll ever find my perfect job,” said the urban planning graduate, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her job opportunities. “I’ve seen a psychiatrist a few times because I was so anxious and depressed.”

She said the only offers she received paid 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($290 to $435) per month or required “unreasonable” overtime and she declined.

“If I didn’t have these qualifications, I could completely become a sales assistant in a mall and be much happier.”

Yang Xiaoshan, a 24-year-old economics graduate student in Beijing, has settled into a bank teller job after 30 interviews. She is relieved not to follow Kong’s jobless fate, but still feels dissatisfied.

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“It’s not that I despise customer service, but I think it’s a waste of my knowledge,” Yang said.

The state broadcaster CCTV reprimanded those who made comparisons to Kong.

“Kong Yijie fell into difficulties … because he could not let go of his scholarly atmosphere and was not willing to change his situation through labor,” she wrote on messaging app Weibo.

The comment drew angry responses.

“Why, instead of helping private institutions develop, do you blame 11.58 million graduates for not taking off their scientific mantles?” Reading one post attracted more than 300 “likes”.

(Reporting by Laurie Chen and Sophie Yu) Editing by Marius Zaharia and Clarence Fernandez

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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