NPC talking points The scene at the gate of the landmark Beijing International Exhibition Centre on the morning of February 8 was reminiscent of a high-octane sport event or a rock concert. But the enthusiastic Sunday crowd was more anxious than celebratory. It was made up of jobseekers queuing up at the box office for a 10-yuan admission into the capital's first major job fair after the Lunar New Year holiday break. Some lost patience over the long lines and turned to nearby touts, not minding the premium charged. 'Fifteen yuan [HK$17]! No bargaining!' shouted one determined scalper. And he had very good reasons for price gouging. More than 60,000 job applicants visited the two-day bazaar where fewer than 10,000 positions were on offer, according to fair organisers. Most exhibitors were private small and medium-sized enterprises whose businesses ranged from education and financial services to technology, the type of jobs most young mainlander would shun in boom times. Until very recently, the civil service, state-owned enterprises and multinational conglomerates ranked high on the list of the well-educated urban Chinese workforce. But as the economic pains deepen, jobseekers are lowering expectations and accepting just about any office - as long as it pays the bills. 'I have been out of job for just two weeks but I'm now more anxious than I thought I would be with all the negative economic news popping up every day in the media,' said Shen Fang, a former website editor. 'I have prepared 30 copies of my resume and am trying my luck with virtually any position that I think is relevant.' Still, most applicants at the bazaar were reluctant to detail their desperation. Instead, they were busy snaking through rows of exhibition booths, generously handing over their resumes to potential employers and only allowing themselves a short break to finish a 10-yuan lunchbox. Their seriousness in searching for a job illustrates the stress borne by hundreds of millions of urban workers. China's jobless rate stood at 4.2 per cent by the end of last year, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said. But a survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the government's top think-tank, disputes that, claiming the actual unemployment level was just below 10 per cent. The academy blamed the discrepancy on face-saving among China's unemployed and the insufficient social security network coverage that had left many of the jobless off the radar. And things look set to worsen as the global economic crisis deepens and the nation's export markets shut down further. The ministry found in its own survey after the Lunar New Year break that the number of urban employers planning to expand their staff shrank 20 per cent while vacant positions nationwide were down 10 per cent. To put the numbers into context, the post-Lunar New Year period is the traditional peak recruiting season that sets the tone for the year's domestic job market, particularly for workers in labour-intensive manufacturing sectors in the export-reliant coastal areas. The severity of the labour problem is being taken very seriously in the halls of power. Rising unemployment could lead to social unrest - Beijing's worst fear - and the whole issue is likely to be a subject of intense discussions at the National People's Congress next month. Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao have repeatedly warned of the dangers of massive lay-offs, a rare concession among the Communist Party elite, and named peasant-turned-migrant labourers and fresh college graduates as the most vulnerable. By official estimates, more than 20 million of China's 130 million migrant workers have lost their jobs in the slowdown and at least three out of 10 of this year's 5.9 million new graduates will not be able to find a job by year-end. 'These two demographic groups are mentioned not only because of their lack of advanced skills or tenuous employment status ... the underlying fear is the political consequences of the soaring jobless rate in these two groups,' said Qu Hongbin, HSBC's China economist. 'With little savings and big frustration, they are more likely to become a source of social unrest than the established urban middle class.' Officials forecast that every 1 percentage point increase in growth creates about 1million jobs, but with the economy slipping into the doldrums, keeping joblessness to a minimum will be an uphill struggle. The economy last year grew 9 per cent, with expansion in the fourth quarter slowing sharply to 6.8 per cent. To stave off any threats to social stability, the government is employing some unusual tactics. The State Council, reiterating last week that job creation was a priority, issued a decree in late January that promises cash-hungry SMEs access to a maximum 2million yuan of credit from the state-controlled banking system as long as they 'recruit a certain number of fresh college graduates'. The decree did not provide specifics, saying it would vary from province to province. SMEs have been struggling to secure funds from local banks, which traditionally favour big state-owned enterprises. Education authorities have also urged universities to create on-campus positions to accommodate students who cannot find jobs in the market. Heeding the call, the Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University, for example, plans to offer research assistant jobs over the next two years to at least 25 per cent of its fresh graduates, said principal Li Mo last month. 'The real problem is equality,' said one Beijing education scholar. 'Graduates with well-connected parents are more likely to land a job with a high level of security, while students from less privileged families often end up in below-expectation jobs or remain unemployed. It is inequality rather than the sheer unemployment rate that would cause social unrest.' In contrast, the government has more tools to tackle migrant labour troubles. Different levels of government have reportedly been arm-twisting the industrial sector to waive or delay downsizing plans. The State Council also last week ordered that any cuts involving more than 20 jobs or 10 per cent of total staff be subject to labour arbitration. Beijing even gave tacit approval to provincial governments' initiative to delay enforcing the Labour Law's minimum wage clause. 'It might sound ridiculous to westerners who are born into societies with the rule of law,' said Peng Zhiqiang, the head of Shengjing360, an enterprise training service provider. 'But these kinds of emergency measures are needed in such an extraordinary time.' The message has been extended to the private sector, usually considered outside the government's control. Gu Yongquan, who owns two supermarket shelf factories in Shanghai and Chengdu, said he would not lay off any employee as a gesture to officials and would toe the government policy despite business difficulties of his own. 'I know it defies economics,' said Mr Gu. 'Yet, in China, where the government owns most resources, private entrepreneurs have to carry way more corporate social responsibilities than our peers in the west.'