Since 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been working to address the imbalance between urban and rural developments by sending young people to “rejuvenate” the countryside. After three years of suspension due to pandemic restrictions, China rerolled out the campaign with a concrete action plan announced by the provincial government of Guangdong.
However, many doubt the political motive and economic benefit of the new “Down to Countryside Movement.”
According to Guangdong’s action plan, the province will send 300,000 college students to the countryside by 2025. The plan seeks to incubate at least 10,000 rural start-ups and encourage young people to pursue their careers in the countryside.
Under the annual plan, every year, 10,000 college graduates are sent to rural regions as cadres of the Communist Youth League to organize and promote voluntary services involving 1,000 teams of vocational students as well as internships for 30,000 university and college graduates. The graduates will also organize business events to attract investment for entrepreneurs in underdeveloped regions.
The plan is meant to address the youth unemployment problem as the jobless rate for 16–24-year-olds has surged from 13.1 percent in February 2021 to 18.1 percent in February 2023. The figure will be even higher as millions of students will graduate from universities, colleges, and vocational schools this summer.
However, some observers also point out that the campaign is a means to prevent unemployed youth from causing trouble in big cities or stirring up social unrest. Well-educated youth who were frustrated about restrictions on their freedom in the name of pandemic control were the key actors of the anti-zero COVID protests, dubbed the White Paper Protests.
Some pointed to the fact that the campaign was spearheaded in Guangdong, one of the most liberal and prosperous provinces in China. A popular Weibo user, Liang Xiang, gave out some background:
In March, the industrial recovery in March was far from optimistic… export-oriented economy was blocked and resulted in an unemployment problem. The rural regions will have to take up the historical role of a super buffer. Risk will emerge if a large number of jobless youths aggregate in the cities.
The political nature of the current campaign reminded many on Weibo and Twitter of the “down to the countryside movement” during the Great Leap Forward when tens of thousands of university and college students were sent to underdeveloped regions to help establish rural collectives, and during the Cultural Revolution when millions of urban youths were forced to re-educate themselves in rural communities.
Some even called the current campaign “Down to the Countryside 2.0” and expressed their disapproval. For example, one Weibo user said:
Back then, more than 20 million people were sent to the countryside. These “educated youths” later had written many “Scar Literature” [on trauma and oppression during their rural re-education]. They are the ones who went through suffering. I could not compliment that we still use the same method to address today's urban employment problem.
Another Weibo user criticized:
The tactics remain unchanged after so many decades. Down to the countryside, how can they sustain their living? Can their offsprings have a good education? How about medical service? All these remain unclear. But nowadays, young people can get information to make their own decision; they won’t be cheated so easily.
A blogger pointed to the country’s labor composition and questioned the rationality of “rural rejuvenation”:
On the one hand, we have 293 million rural labours working in the cities; on the other hand, we arrange 300 thousand students and graduates to be sent down to the countryside for “rural rejuvenation.” Am I the only one seeing this figure?
The blogger further argued that for rural rejuvenation to work out, the government has to provide a lot of resources and subsidies, which can be given to the rural-educated population directly rather than urban-educated youth who are mobilized to the countryside.
Many also questioned if the campaign could effectively address the urban unemployment problem. An economic news commentator on Weibo said:
This won’t work. During the planned economy, urbanization was low, and cities could not provide enough jobs for the youth. The rural regions were huge, so they could be sent to the countryside. Now the urban and rural structure has changed radically. If big cities like Guangdong could not provide enough jobs for young people, how could we expect them to find jobs in counties and villages? This is absurd. The risk is even bigger if we encourage young people to start their businesses in the countryside, as start-ups are high-risk businesses by nature… there won’t be enough support for startups in rural regions. […] How can young entrepreneurs get their startup funds? Would the governments provide funding for them?
After Guangdong, other cities, such as Jinan in Shangdong province, joined the campaign and planned to send 10,000 students to help improve village-level governance. According to the current scale, it is estimated that millions of youth will join the “down to countryside campaign” all across the country in the coming years.