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China's “Ants”: The New Social Ill Of Disaffected Graduates

Growing ranks of well-educated Chinese youth who can’t find good jobs and gather in city outskirts in what authorities worry could be a social time bomb.

BEIJING - China's would-be upwardly mobile leaders of the future are having an existential crisis. Surprisingly, despite being credited as the engine behind China's economic rise, these young graduates are suffering as they struggle to find their place in society. Among the various issues Communist Party officials face, this one is gaining traction. When "social stability" is the absolute priority, the frustrations of millions of young Chinese who can't find a satisfying job are a potential threat. And now, the profile of this phenomenon has a name: the "ants."

The insect metaphor is courtesy of a well-respected professor at Beijing's University of Business and Economics, Lian Si, who published the 2009 book, "The Ant Tribe." The author is proud that during the three months following publication, the word "ant" was the second-most searched word on the Chinese Internet, just behind the H1N1 flu.

From Beijing's suburbs to the Henan and Gansu villages, China as a whole is concerned, with families sacrificing money, time and sometimes health for the sole purpose of focusing on their only child's social ascent.

Lian Si has found many similarities among the real and metaphorical ants. "First of all, both ‘species' are very intelligent and hard working," says the sociologist. "Secondly, they are plentiful and they live in communities, stuck to each other. And finally, they are small and weak and can be squashed."

Brought together by their search for a decent job and the disillusion that often comes with it, these young graduates tend to aggregate in the outskirts of Chinese cities. There, they create real villages, odd colonies of young people trying to live between their dreams and doubts. Many of them can be found around the 2008 Olympics installations. Recently, authorities destroyed the Tangjialing village, north of Beijing, home to 2,000 residents and 20,000 ants. The village had become symbolic of social unease.

Their families gave them everything

Officially the "ants' are referred to as "low-income young graduates living in communities." They were born after 1980, are between ages 22 and 29 and their average monthly salary is about 2,000 Yuan (230 euros). They sell insurance or electronics, are mostly from rural regions and poorer provinces. They came to big cities to study after making enormous financial sacrifices.

"Their families gave them everything and are now stuck financially," says the professor. And unlike certain urban-born people, they don't have the "guanxi," these networks that help upward mobility. They feel injustice and jealousy when they see the "second-generation wealthy", the sons of entrepreneurs or Party officials who benefit from these networks. There are at least a million of them, maybe two or three times more depending on the criteria. "There are at least 150,000 around big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou," says Lian Si. "About 100,000 around second-tier cities like Harbin or Wuhan."

Deng Shuxian arrived in Beijing in 2005. She's now 28 but still lives in a school dormitory. She's from Guangdong in the South and has a degree from the University of Lanzhou in the Gansu. She works as a writer in a private publishing company. "I can't find this kind of work in my province, and I don't want to live like we did 20 years ago. Here at least, I can see what's going on," she says. She makes less tan 3,000 Yuan a month (330 euros), but her employer pays for her benefits. "The hardest thing is the confusion, the uncertainty of the future. I can't plan ahead, I can't plan anything for my life," she adds.

Liu Quan studied chemical engineering in a Jiangsu university. "If I stayed there, where there are many chemical industries, I would only find a tough and badly paid job," he says. "In Beijing, without help it's hard. But my cousin helped me find a job in a phone maintenance company." His main problem is only having 700 Yuan to spend on rent. "With this amount, you have to go to the farthest suburbs of Beijing and the commute is really tiring." Three or four people per room, 20 people sharing a bathroom and a small kitchen.

A vicious circle

Their living conditions are so awful that sometimes they spark compassion from adults like Huang Rixin, a 78-year-old retired engineer. Inspired by Japanese "capsule hotels," which cater to the unemployed, he created the first such establishment in Beijing. He rented rooms in a nearby farm and divided them in small two square meter containers, equipped with a TV and Internet access. He rents them for 250 Yuan a month. "I thought about calling this place the Ant Tribe Hotel," says the old man, a little disappointed that some articles compared his hotel to "Guantanamo cells."

Sometimes, the situation can get even crueler. In a Guangzhou suburb, Lie Zhiwei feels completely trapped. Five years ago he was at the Guangzhou Land and Property Management Vocational School but never got his degree. "I had a very good ranking but I was too poor to afford paying off my tuition. So they're keeping my diploma until I finish paying it. But without a diploma, I can't get a decent job. It's a vicious circle." He's a DJ in a karaoke bar and gets paid 800 Yuan (95euros) a month, enough to survive but not to repay any debts. "If I had my diploma, I could get a job as a real-estate agent and make more than 3,000 Yuan a months (330 euros). My life would go from hell to heaven!"

When China's student recruitment enlargement policy was officially launched in 1998, there were about 830,000 university graduates. By 2010, that number had reached 6.3 million. Last year, five major university presidents issued a joint warning about a lack of white-collar jobs. A Tsinghua official, Cai Jiming estimates that only "36% of students are able to find a job."

The issue is not as problematic for graduates of China's most prestigious universities – like Beida, Fudan or Tsinghua – as it is for second or third-ranked schools. "This "ant" question is a major problem," says Cai Jiming "The system is not working, and we haven't reduced enrollment. The country needs technicians not just researchers. We should at least be able to give them a specialty when they leave university."

If they proliferate

For Lian Si, the ants' misfortune is one of the country's social plagues. "They are China's future. They work hard, and they believed that knowledge and culture can change their lives. It is society's duty to give them hope," he says. "In 10 or 15 years, they will be China's social pillar, and if they were despised by society, how will they behave later on? How will they raise the next generation?"

Lian Si also studied France's 1968 social uprising and finds similarities between French 1960's students and today's Chinese ants. "They are educated and are opposing the mainstream. They want to express their own opinions. The Chinese government must pay attention to them if it doesn't want them to burn cars."

Chinese authorities are aware of this social time bomb. In early 2009, at the height of the global crisis, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went to Beijing University to reassure students. "Dear students, don't worry, it will be our priority to deal with the problem of young graduate employment," he said. Authorities have started reserving positions in local city councils or as village leaders.

But the difficulties the ants face are a blessing for the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese military, which is going through a modernization process, including getting more educated officials. Last year it launched a recruitment campaign to find 130,000 graduates.

The professor sees one last thing in common between the real and metaphorical ants. "If you don't pay attention, if you let them proliferate, they can cause major disasters." He too uses an ancient Chinese proverb: "(The longest) walls can be brought down by ant-made holes."

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