China has expanded the definition of “employed” for 8.7 million fresh college graduates to cover those that open online shops, play competitive online games or have blogs, as part of an effort to boost the employment rate amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Ministry of Education ordered universities at the end of June to take note of the new criteria when reporting the employment rate of graduates, according to an official note published by many institutions. The change comes as the world’s second biggest economy faces huge pressure to create enough jobs for students, one of the most vulnerable groups amid the country’s economic slowdown . While China’s surveyed-jobless rate was 5.9 per cent at the end of May, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), analysts said the real unemployment could be much higher as many of the country’s 290 million migrant workers are excluded from the official statistics. According to the education ministry notice, dated June 29, new graduates who open e-commerce websites will be grouped as “employed” as long as they can provide a link to the online shop and its registration information. Graduates who take freelance work, including in online marketing, managing public accounts on instant messaging platform WeChat, and playing e-sports will be classified under “flexible employment”, which is counted in the overall employment figure. The change immediately fanned speculation that Beijing was trying to inflate employment figures for young graduates to paint a rosy picture of the jobs market. “The employment rate can rise again,” said one sarcastic commenter in response to a post on the topic from People’s Daily overseas edition on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. “Is this due to the fear of bad data?” said another. China is facing a historic challenge to prevent the unemployment rate from surging because of the pandemic, which has forced many firms to cut jobs or freeze headcounts to save costs. A record high number of 8.74 million young people are about to graduate from colleges and universities and enter the job market over summer. In May, the survey-based unemployment rate among people aged between 20 to 24, most of whom were fresh graduates, rose 1.7 per cent from April and grew 3.3 per cent from a year earlier, according to the NBS. Beijing started ranking higher education institutions by their graduate employment rates in the late 1990s. In 2004, the central government included flexible employment such as writers and freelance translators. The current graduate employment rate covers people employed by companies, start-ups, freelancers or those pursuing further education. In late May, Beijing reintroduced the second bachelor’s degree, just a year after it asked schools to stop offering the two-year programme. The degree, which was first introduced in the 1980s, had lost appeal in recent years, but as the pandemic has hit job prospects it has been rebooted, opening a new pathway for students that failed to progress to postgraduate education or cannot study overseas. Enrolments at Chinese universities increased by 511,000 as of mid-May from a year earlier, a third of whom were postgraduates, according to the education ministry.