On June 23, Jiang opened an app called 58 Tongcheng and saw a public poll: “I quit my job in January and have been laying low at home so far. How about your first half of 2020?”
She suddenly got emotional. Jiang, who asked to be identified by her last name only, is 27 and lives in Nanjing, a city of eight million people in eastern China. In February, her employer of four years, a small clinic that offers beauty treatments like Botox, laid off all three of its staff workers, on account of pandemic-related economic pressure. Jiang, who had attended only vocational training after high school, found it hard to get a new job. She worked briefly for a hospital call center but quit when she was ordered to lure patients in with false promises. She enrolled in a skills-training program that cost $3,000 but felt she learned nothing new. When Jiang clicked on 58 Tongcheng’s poll, she wrote in the comments, “I’ve used up all my savings. I have no idea what to do tomorrow ever since I became unemployed. Feeling kind of lost.”
58 Tongcheng is the Chinese version of Craigslist and one of the most popular websites for classifieds and job posts. But, this year, users like Jiang have turned 58 Tongcheng into a repository for unemployment grief. In the absence of media documentation of the economic upheaval created by Covid-19, the app has become an unofficial record of the depth of the country’s devastation.
Officially, the Chinese unemployment rate has been remarkably stable: 5.7% in June, less than 1% higher than the same time last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China. But that number has drawn suspicion from both inside and outside China. In April, Li Xunlei, then director of the research unit for Chinese security brokerage firm Zhongtai, published a report estimating a national unemployment rate of around 20%. He was removed from the position one week later, a decision Zhongtai claims was not related to the report.
Poor workers have been hit especially hard by the economic turmoil. A team of researchers led by Lu Hai, a professor of accounting at both Peking University and the University of Toronto, found that, based on public job posts, the number of available positions with a monthly salary less than 4,000 yuan (about $570) has decreased this year by 44% compared to the same period in 2019. On the upper end of the economic spectrum, the number of posts advertising jobs with compensation higher than 15,000 yuan (about $2,140), was down by only 12%. (The average monthly salary in urban regions of China was about $1,100 in 2019.) One study of Chinese villages around Hubei, the first epicenter of the virus, found that inhabitants were spending less on food because of economic difficulty.
“Helping the low-income population in China is quite challenging,” Lu wrote in an email to Rest of World. “These are the most vulnerable people and businesses when there is a significant negative shock.”
58 Tongcheng, or 58.com, is uniquely positioned to shine a light on disadvantaged communities. Founded in 2005 by Jinbo Yao, a young entrepreneur who started out selling domain names, the company started as a website for people to post and find housing leads, job notices, and items for sale. It sells ads on its platform and charges businesses and individuals $1,000 to $8,000 for a yearly membership that allows them to boost their posts or listings. An app launched in 2010 does the same. It is now among the top 30 Chinese apps by number of users, according to the data analytics firm QuestMobile.
Recruitment is one of 58 Tongcheng’s core services. It is especially popular among blue-collar workers and their employers. In 2017, Yao told the business magazine China Entrepreneur that the company has a 90% market share in online blue-collar recruitment. (Many blue-collar workers still find jobs through offline connections.) That same year, the company launched 58 Town, a separate app targeting small-town populations, as part of a strategic push to attract users in China’s less-developed regions. 58 Town has ventured into 13,000 of China’s approximately 40,000 towns, according to the company’s 2019 annual report. Last year, more than half of 58 Tongcheng’s core business revenue was generated outside of the top 19 cities. (At the time of publication, the company was still listed on the New York Stock Exchange.)
58 Tongcheng’s social network feature, launched last year, is designed to give users the chance to chat outside the job search. In these “58 communities,” users talk under pseudonyms about shared experiences. Some of the most popular forums include “life as a laborer,” “all about job seeking,” and “family of restaurant workers.”
“It’s really a place where [users] discuss things quite freely and find a sense of community online,” Yao explained to a May 2019 earnings call to analysts, translated from Mandarin to English by 58 Tongcheng’s Chief Financial Officer, Hao Zhou. Complaints are common. “Sometimes they are under pressure,” Yao explained. “They don’t have an outlet for some of the steam or just a place to find people [who] have similar feedback or a place to find comfort.” The company did not respond to Rest of World’s interview request.
That’s exactly what’s happening now in the aftermath of the first wave of the pandemic. After losing her job, Jiang used the 58 Tongcheng app because she heard from others that it was a helpful recruitment platform. After several frustrating days of job hunting, she needed to vent her negative energy. Overnight, more than 100 people commented on her post, sharing their own experiences of being laid off or scammed by training programs.
Jiang found comfort in what she read. “I was having so much anxiety, but then I saw that everyone is in the same situation,” she told Rest of World.
Every day, hundreds of people, like Jiang, now use the 58 Tongcheng app to share their experiences of unemployment. Not every post receives equal attention. Some are marked as quality content and placed on the front page. Others are quickly ignored. Four days after her post, Jiang wrote another one, asking for job or apprenticeship leads. It was viewed only 70 times; no one replied.
Few conversations have trickled out of the app into the public conversation. But last month, a Chinese photographer who goes by the alias Fennu Yinhang (@愤怒银行) posted screenshots on Weibo and called them “Unemployment Notes on 58 Tongcheng.”
According to Fennu Yinhang, the screenshots contained some of the app’s most popular posts. In one, a woman describes spending $10 on cosmetics and picking out her best outfit to interview for salesperson positions. “I don’t care what I will be selling,” she writes, “as long as it’s a sales job.” Another complained that, being 45, she was excluded from all the jobs requiring applicants to be between 18 and 42. (Age discrimination is legal in China.) But her son had reassured her on the phone: “Mom, you are great. They failed to see your value.”
This post quickly went viral, in part because so few users on Weibo — who are typically white-collar — seem to realize how bad the unemployment situation for blue-collar workers is. In comments on the post, many were coming to terms with the extent of China’s unemployment crisis. “We need to be able to talk about poems, about the trending topic BLM, about aesthetics, photography, fashion, coffee bean types, and whiskey producers,” one of the top comments reads, “but we also need to see the pain and dilemma of people around us.”
Still, discussions of the severity of mass unemployment remain scarce on social media — and among Chinese leaders.
Since the pandemic first broke out in December, the Chinese government has taken small steps toward helping workers. This month, it organized its first-ever civilian-run Company Recruitment Month to match unemployed workers with jobs in the private sector. 58 Tongcheng pitched in, hosting a virtual hiring expo for the service industry, along with other platforms. But government policies, as they exist now, have many flaws. The vast majority of jobless workers — about 90% — are not eligible for unemployment benefits, resulting in a mass underestimation of the unemployment numbers. Xi Jinping made poverty eradication by 2020 one of his goals; now it looks like the numbers will only increase.
In the absence of an open conversation about the effects of the economic downturn, 58 Tongcheng users have turned the app into a channel to express and document their frustration. Away from the media spotlight, this corner of the internet may find its greatest value in illustrating the true depth of pandemic despair.