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China is purging celebrities and tech billionaires. But the problem is bigger than 'sissy men'

Alice Su, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

That could harm the Chinese economy, scaring companies that created millions of jobs at a time when China needs them the most. Urban unemployment among Chinese ages 16-24 is at 16.2%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than triple the national urban jobless rate of 5.1%.

Those statistics do not include the hundreds of millions of Chinese migrant workers who were struggling with a changing economy even before the pandemic hit. Scott Rozelle, a Stanford economist who spent three decades working on rural development in China, said a crisis is afflicting "the China we don't see."

As wages rise, labor-intensive factory jobs are moving overseas. Those that remain are upgrading with more automation. They need fewer, better-educated workers. China needs to invest in rural education so that workers can move into higher-skill jobs, Rozelle said.

"I don't think any of these policies that they're doing are addressing the real underlying issues," Rozelle said.

TV stars and tech billionaires are easy scapegoats for public anger as China's economy slows. But targeting them may be an attempt to distract from the growing fear among Chinese families that the era of each generation having a better life than the one before is over. This unease is putting increasing pressure on the party.

"There is anxiety about my kids in the future," said Julia, a therapist in Shanghai who asked to use only her first name for protection. Even in China's wealthiest city, middle-class parents fear that sudden changes will send their families back into poverty, she said: "All it takes is if they get married and don't have the money to afford housing, or if one person in the family has a big surgery, for the family to go from pretty wealthy to nothing overnight."

That sense of insecurity and shrinking opportunity is what drives China's hyper-competitive educational system, and why acts like eliminating private tutoring — another recent crackdown target — will not relieve pressure on parents and students who see schooling as a way to ensure their futures.

 

It has conversely increased teacher workloads and raised middle-class parents' fears that their children will fall behind, said Jiang Xueqin, a Chengdu-based consultant who has worked in Chinese education since 2008.

"As long as you have this social structure where a few people have all the power, you'll always have a middle class which is very anxious, very fragile and very insecure. They're always going to look for ways to game the system," Jiang said. "The pie is getting smaller and you need to fight for the scraps."

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(Ziyu Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed research to this report.)

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