Commentary: With growing job and housing woes, more Chinese citizens are thinking of an ‘exit’
In China, two things have long been markers of middle-class status: Home ownership and professional jobs. But with mounting costs of China’s zero-COVID strategy, these can no longer be taken for granted, says Hong Kong Baptist University’s Yew Wei Lit.
HONG KONG: When President Xi Jinping first promoted the phrase “Chinese dream” in late 2012, one key vision was the creation of an “olive-shaped” Chinese society with a big middle class – a social structure typical in modernised countries elsewhere.
In other words, the dream of becoming a fully developed nation can only be realised if the middle class keeps enlarging. This stratum of society is after all expected to drive forward China’s consumption-oriented economy.
But 10 years on, COVID-19 has become the stuff of nightmares. Over the month of July, China recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases since May, which was when the pandemic struck Shanghai. On Jul 19, the daily count for new cases breached 1,000 – an alarming number to Chinese officials firmly beholden to the zero-COVID national strategy.
Now in peak summer travel season, domestic tourism hubs have been hit. On Aug 6, Chinese resort city Sanya went into lockdown after reporting 263 COVID-19 cases, up from 11 two days previously. The affected 80,000 tourists must show five negative PCR tests over seven days in order to leave.
Such strict quarantines have been the new normal under the official zero-COVID policy. Top medical journal The Lancet has cautioned against the “huge human cost” of these lockdowns.
A national survey found more than one-third of respondents experienced anxiety and depression, higher than the World Health Organization's figure of a 25 per cent increase in the global prevalence of such symptoms in the first year of the pandemic.
Besides the toll on mental health, the economic consequences of China’s COVID-19 strategy have been drastic.
Because the economy is growing at the slowest pace since China’s first outbreak, Premier Li Keqiang said the country may miss its 5.5 per cent growth target this year. Youth unemployment reached a record high of 19.3 per cent in June, while factory activity contracted in July.
PRICED OUT OF HOMES
For the 400-million-strong Chinese middle class however, their malaise does not stop at COVID-19-related uncertainties.
In 21st-century China, two things have long been markers of the much-vaunted middle-class status: Home ownership and professional jobs. Both are often perceived as pre-requisites for marriage.
More importantly, they are part of the implicit social contract between the Chinese Communist Party and the broader population. In return for acquiescence to the Party’s rule, the middle class is promised an abundance of personal and economic opportunities, such as climbing the housing ladder and attaining a well-paid job.
Today, they can no longer be taken for granted. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, young prospective homeowners had increasingly been priced out of the housing market in big cities.
According to a government survey, in megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, the housing-price-to-income ratio was above 35 – meaning that the price of an average house is equivalent to roughly 35 years of the average household income.
The ongoing real estate downturn that has seen defaulted developers and stalled housing projects across the country only made things more dire. Strict COVID-19 policies have also dampened the appetite to purchase properties. Analysts forecast that property sales will plunge by 30 per cent this year.
Faced with the reality of unfinished homes and declining real estate values, many of these middle-class homebuyers are boycotting their mortgage payments, affecting more than 300 development projects in over 90 cities.
Given that China’s middle class holds about 70 per cent of collective wealth in housing, the socio-economic stakes are high.
COLLEGE-TO-CAREER PIPELINE UNDER SEVERE STRAIN
Apart from the real estate crisis, China’s college-to-career pipeline is also under severe strain, as the private sector has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and regulatory scrutiny.
The private sector has been the country’s biggest employer, accounting for more than half of the country’s GDP and over 80 per cent of urban employment. Yet, the already-hypercompetitive sector is now seeing mass layoffs, hiring freezes and wage slashes.
Small wonder then that more than 2 million applicants – a record high – registered for the national civil service examination last year, as they desperately seek out a more secure and stable career in the public sector. Based on this number, their chances of landing a public sector job were no more than 1.5 per cent.
In other words, in addition to having to endure economic and personal pains caused by the zero-COVID policy, China’s middle class is stuck in an ever-fiercer rat race for jobs and housing.
A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT IS UNLIKELY
However, it is unlikely that these grievances will agglomerate into a summer of discontent.
To be sure, there were sporadic instances of open dissent. Shanghai residents banged pots and pans to protest against the gruelling two-month lockdown of the city. University students in Beijing staged protests over campus restrictions on their movement.
More commonly though, some Chinese netizens have vented their frustrations via social media. Even so, state censors have been quick with taking down viral posts critical of current policies.
Indeed, the Chinese leadership has recognised these are potential seeds of social instability – something they would be eager to deter in a year when President Xi is expected to renew his leadership tenure.
The government is currently contemplating extending some level of flexible treatment, if not a soft state bailout, to real estate developers. It also committed to building millions of low-cost rental housing over the next three years.
Though the state still holds fast to the zero-COVID strategy, there are signs of softening. On Jun 28, the quarantine period for international travellers was cut by half. More recently, Hong Kong went further and reduced the quarantine period to three days.
EXIT OPTION REMAINS JUST A DREAM FOR MANY CHINESE CITIZENS
Equally troubling to authorities is how a sizable portion of the middle class, particularly the youth, is thinking of an exit from the relentless competition over academics and jobs, as well as a literal exit from the country itself.
Recently popularised Internet expressions of “tang ping” (lying flat, or withdrawing from the rat race) and “runxue” (the art of running, or learning how to leave the country for good) capture this sentiment. In April, keyword searches related to “emigration” exceeded 100 million a day.
Acknowledging the trend, state media commentators have condemned these ideas. Meanwhile, China’s top immigration authority announced it would curb “non-essential” overseas travels and tighten control over the issuance of passports to ostensibly prevent the spread of the virus.
To be sure, an exit option remains a dream for many and they will likely have to plough on. But that “exit” crossed the minds of many is an indicator of the deep sense of powerlessness among the citizens, as well as a lack of confidence in President Xi’s “Chinese dream”.
Yew Wei Lit is a lecturer in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.