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Seven Years After Tiananmen, Students Fret More About Jobs

Young Chinese more interested in getting ahead than opposing communism

With her college graduation just weeks away, Dong Lijuan perused the stalls at a business and technology job fair.

A decade ago, the Beijing accounting student would have been assigned a job. Today, market-style economic reforms have changed that, bringing both freedom to choose and new strains to Chinese students.

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"There's a lot of competition today. Students are under a lot of pressure to get a good job," said Ms. Dong while she looked over the booth of a company that operates several karaoke bars in Beijing. "No one wants a government-assigned job. You could end up in a dead-end position."

Seven years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, students fret more about grades and jobs than democracy and politics. In coffee houses and restaurants near campuses, amid chitchat about new fashions and the latest Hollywood blockbuster to hit town, students mull over job prospects at a time of rising unemployment in China.

Even as top graduates stand to gain from the reforms pushing China from a centrally planned economy to one driven by market forces, the new freedoms are taking a toll. Wanting high-paying careers, Chinese students undergo stresses like those of their Western counterparts, Chinese observers say. Drug use is on the rise, and the risk of suicide is growing.

Many students consider the plum jobs to be those with American or other foreign joint ventures. Yet, beneath ambitions to work for overseas companies and go abroad, Chinese nationalism is striking a chord among students and raising questions about the West, especially the United States.

"I want to get a job with an American company and go to study in the US," says Wei Wei, a Beijing economics student. "My friends say that the friendship between China and the US is declining. They say the US interfered with China over Taiwan and wants to stop China from becoming powerful.

"But I still want to go to the United States," he adds.

In addition to Taiwan, Beijing and Washington are at odds over nuclear proliferation, human rights, copyright piracy, and China's bid to enter the World Trade Organization.

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Student political demands of 1989 - more political openness, an end to corruption, and lower prices - no longer resonate on campuses. Some students and professors say China still needs political reforms but incrementally, along with economic development.

As the anniversary of the military massacre June 3-4, 1989, of demonstrators approached, China continued to crack down on the small core of Chinese dissidents. While the anniversary has been marked in the past by a flurry of petitions and a wave of detentions, the Chinese democracy movement has been quieted by the arrest or exile of most of its leaders.

Seven activists who last month signed a petition calling for the release of political prisoners and an apology for the massacre have been either interrogated or detained by police. A second petition was sent to the Chinese parliament by 31 parents who lost a family member during the crackdown.

Bao Tong, the only senior official jailed for the 1989 demonstrations, was released from prison last month after serving a seven-year term for counter-revolutionary incitement and leaking state secrets.

"The continuing tragedy for the people of China is that seven years after Tiananmen, it's business as usual for the authorities," comments Amnesty International, the human rights monitor, in a recent report.

"There is still a commitment to political change among some students. It is simmering," says a college professor who lost his job for supporting student activists in 1989. "Most, though, concentrate on getting ahead."

Since the late 1980s, graduates who financed their own studies or reimbursed the government for tuition were free to accept any post offered. State-funded students are still assigned. Traditionally, China has provided free higher education for those who pass tough entrance exams and assigns employment upon graduation.

Since the late 1980s, students have had the right to find their own jobs rather than choose placement by their college or university.

Although new graduates receive hiring priority at state-run enterprises, layoffs at cash-strapped companies are shrinking job prospects. Recently, the government announced that workers will be required to sign labor contracts by the end of this year, shattering the jobs-for-life system.

The government projects joblessness will climb to 3.2 percent in 1996, up from 2.9 percent last year, according to the official New China News Agency. A Labor Ministry report published in the official press estimates official joblessness could hit 7.4 percent by the turn of the century.

More students are also scrambling to pay their own tuition. Cut off from state subsidies, some universities and colleges began requiring students two years ago to pay fees. Next year, almost all college freshmen will have to cover their own costs.

Recently, the New China News Agency warned that Chinese youths are "stunned and troubled" by the intense pressure to succeed and by the relatively few opportunities for advancement. Because of the strict one-child family-planning policy, children are doted upon as toddlers but cannot live up to parents' expectations and tough competition in school.

The use of narcotics, amphetamines, and tranquilizers is spreading, Chinese experts say. Students are also increasingly vulnerable to suicide. This year, the Beijing College Psychological Counseling Association estimated that during the past decade, 20 out of every 100,000 students kill themselves annually. Most are in their teens and are unable to confront their parents with their failed grades.

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