China stops publishing youth unemployment rate as economic woes mount

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China’s soaring levels of youth unemployment have heightened fears the world’s second largest economy is heading for a crippling slowdown. Beijing has now come up with a solution: It will stop releasing the numbers.

The National Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday said it would stop publishing age group-specific unemployment data this month, after China’s youth unemployment rate — for 16- to 24-year-olds — rose to a record high of 21.3 percent in June. Some experts believe that number is actually much higher.

The announcement came amid a slew of data on Tuesday that fell short of expectations, further evidence that China’s economy is struggling to regain momentum after emerging from three years of “zero covid” isolation — the harsh strictures meant to throttle the spread of pandemic.

China’s new labor challenge: Too many workers, not enough jobs

Halting the publication of youth unemployment data avoids “an embarrassing monthly reminder that hurts the market,” said Andy Chen, a Beijing-based senior analyst at consultancy Trivium China. “But the move could backfire, because it only draws more attention to the problem.”

The lack of youth unemployment data won’t help with consumer confidence, agreed Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China. But in any case, the National Bureau of Statistics stopped publishing its index of consumer confidence a few months ago, after updating it monthly for more than three decades.

The economic numbers that were released Tuesday reveal that the spike in joblessness among young people is just one among many indicators of China’s economic distress.

Consumption remains sluggish: Official statistics released last week showed consumer prices had fallen by 0.3 percent over the last year after being stagnant for months, raising the specter of deflation.

Meanwhile, the property market, which accounts for as much as 30 percent of China’s GDP, is teetering on the brink of collapse. The country’s largest private real estate developer, Country Garden, has sought to delay payment on a private onshore bond for the first time.

Just before Tuesday’s data was released, the central bank in Beijing for the second time in the span of three months cut key rates to bolster economic activity.

There is currently no deflation in China, and there won’t be any in the future, maintained National Bureau of Statistics spokesman Fu Linghui on Tuesday, only saying to reporters that the country’s economic recovery faced “pressure and challenges.”

Last month, the State Council published a 20-point plan to encourage spending, especially on big-ticket items like vehicles and home appliances.

But retail sales growth remained stubbornly low in July — just 2.5 percent — failing to meet the 4.5 percent forecast by analysts and even lower than the 3.1 percent rise in June, according to the official data.

China’s economic challenges aren’t just a pandemic-induced slowdown, they result from “systemic factors,” said Shen Ling, associate professor of economics at East China University of Science and Technology.

“If there are no strong policies to reverse this trend, then the problems — including the slowdown in investment growth, decline in consumption and deflation — will probably continue,” said Shen, echoing warnings made by other Chinese economists in recent months.

The evidence of these systemic challenges has mounted in recent months.

Local governments, historically a major engine of investment in China, bore much of the cost that came with enforcing Beijing’s strict zero-covid measures and are now struggling under a massive debt burden that by some estimates tops $23 trillion.

The strain has sparked fears of salary cuts for public sector employees. In one city in Henan province, 34 teachers reported going for years without pay.

China’s quandary: Bail out debt-laden cities, or risk disruptive defaults?

The move by Country Garden to extend its bond repayment has raised fresh concerns this week that the slow moving crisis in the property sector could spill over into other parts of the economy.

The persistent economic challenges also threaten to undermine top leader Xi Jinping’s push for “common prosperity,” a campaign to raise living standards and tackle income inequality.

Despite the increasingly grim numbers, the government has held back from undertaking a large scale economic recovery plan or stimulus effort.

Economists expected a wave of pent-up spending after the zero-covid restrictions were abruptly lifted late last year, but it has yet to materialize.

“We may have been a bit too optimistic in our previous forecasts, thinking that the decline in our economic growth over the past few years was all due to the pandemic,” said Shen, the economist.

On Chinese social media on Tuesday, the suspension of youth unemployment data immediately became a trending topic, racking up more than 160 million views on Weibo within hours.

People joked the government hoped if they covered their eyes, no one could see how bad things were. “I’m surprised the government could find an eye mask in its toolbox full of megaphones,” one post quipped.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan and Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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