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In China, job seekers are resorting to plastic surgery

The cosmetic surgery business is booming in China as a hyper-competitive labor market has job hunters altering their looks to get an edge with potential employers.

March 30, 2009|Don Lee

SHANGHAI — In this crummy job market, Stephanie Yang figures any little advantage will help. Even double eyelids.

So on a cold January morning, the 21-year-old college senior walked into one of dozens of plastic surgery clinics here and plopped down $730, the equivalent of one year's tuition. An hour later she came out with two big bandages over her eyes.

When she removed the dressing the next day, Yang was aghast at her red, puffy eyelids. But now she looks out with her round eyes, a sharp crease across the upper lids, ready for the next interview.

"They may not say it openly, but during the process they will pick the prettier one," she says.

Judging by the boom in plastic surgeries lately, a lot of young Chinese would agree.

In the U.S., the recession has led to a steep drop in cosmetic surgeries, which generally aren't paid for by health insurers. Nose jobs aren't covered in China either, but that's not stopping consumers here. Job hunters know that a pleasing face helps to get a foot in the door.

"I've been surprised how busy it is," says Dr. Liao Yuhua, president of Shanghai Time Plastic Surgery Hospital, one of the largest in the city. Business began to increase last November, she says, and in recent weeks has been running 40% higher than a year ago. At its busiest in January, Liao says, her team of 10 surgeons was doing as many as 100 procedures a day, raising noses, cutting eyelids and chiseling angular faces into the shape of smooth goose eggs.

Just about the only thing Shanghai Time doesn't do are leg-lengthening surgeries, an expensive and painful procedure that illustrates just how far some Chinese are willing to go to boost their employment prospects.

When the hospital surveyed patients, it learned that about 50% of the cases were job-related. Of them, one group is college students about ready to graduate, Liao says. The other: "White-collar employees after being laid off are having surgery so they are more attractive for the job search," says the retired pediatrician. Most patients are women.

Overall statistics on cosmetic surgeries aren't available, but nearly a dozen leading Chinese hospitals reported similarly strong business since late last fall, about the period when the global financial crisis began to take its toll on China's economy and the labor market.

That's also around the time that many college seniors in China start sending out resumes and hunting for jobs for the day they graduate.

But this year is turning out to be particularly tough. Government officials estimate that 6.1 million students will graduate from vocational schools, colleges and universities, up 9% from 2008. Researchers predict one-fourth of them will still be looking for work by year's end, adding to the unemployment rolls that have swelled with millions of migrant workers cut from factories.

China's latest official urban jobless rate is 4.2%, but the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the actual figure is more than double that.

He Wei, a campus recruiter for Zhaopin.com, a large personnel services firm, says he's seeing 25% fewer positions offered to fresh graduates now than a year ago. What's more, companies such as China Telecom and China Mobile are no longer settling for those with just bachelor's degrees, he says, and graduates across the board can expect to be offered significantly lower pay.

Chinese labor laws forbid employers from hiring based on race, ethnicity, sex and religion. But "as to other employment discrimination such as appearance, there aren't yet any laws clearly prohibiting them," says Ye Jingyi, a law professor at Peking University.

Many employers make no bones about what they're looking for in a candidate's looks. In Zhaopin's online job listings, more than 2,250 recruitment ads mention height, weight and other physical requirements.

Beijing Modern Women's Hospital is looking for a nurse: Applicants must be taller than 5 feet, 2.5 inches and have "acceptable facial features," it says. Shanghai Jibei Electronics Co. has a similar height requirement for its assistant manager position, and it also wants someone who likes to smoke and drink wine -- apparently so the new hire will be able to get along better at business gatherings.

"I agree that there are lots of great people who are not tall, for example Napoleon," says Li Li, Shanghai Jibei's director of human resources. "It's just the social environment and cultural preference in China," he says. "People would feel that workers lower than a certain height aren't so healthy, too weak to stand in a gust of wind and can't take a heavy workload."

No wonder some Chinese pay thousands of dollars to have doctors break their legs and have steel pins inserted in their bones; these surgeries typically add 3 inches to a person's height but are considered very dangerous.

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