The impact of high living and housing costs on Chinese graduates, Part 01

ant-tribesEach year, millions and millions of young Chinese graduates flock to big cities in search of the job and try to maximize their career prospects. Even those who find jobs are frequently disappointed. Many of them have been raised on a belief that if he or she can do well in school, graduate from a good university and work hard on the career, one can enjoy a measure of success. Instead, many have to face the reality of  skyrocketing housing costs, rising prices for basic necessities and family pressures.

Shenzhen is a major city in China, the city which is a hub for technology hardware and known as China’s Silicon Valley.  It’s located immediately north of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. House prices in Shenzhen soared by almost 50% last year – the fastest growth in residential property prices worldwide. Many people dream of one day buying an apartment here, but with average real estate prices in the city soaring to more than 50,000 yuan per square meter, and the fact that the wages for many of the Chinese workers are not high, that’s just a dream for many of them.  Surveys have shown that many young Chinese office workers in big cities are widely unhappy. Most complain of a feeling of insecurity, high living and housing costs.

There are as many as three million young Chinese workers toil in slum-like conditions in cramped housing on the outskirts of big cities. They are known as ‘ant tribes’ (蚁族), a term coined by scholar Lian Si, China’s foremost researcher on post-80s graduates. Ant tribe is a neologism used to describe a group of low income university graduates who settle for a poverty-level existence in the cities of China. Those who belong to the ant tribe class hope that, in time, they will find the jobs for which they are trained in college.

“They share every similarity with ants,” writes Lian. “They live in places in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid. The problem of highly-educated young people living at the very bottom of society has become a worldwide challenge, I think this problem should be given more attention. The ant tribe still believe that their knowledge will change their fate, they still hold on to the Chinese dream and are willing to work hard to move up, they think that their social circles and family background play a bigger role in their  advancement, they think they their hard life is caused by their families’s status and the inequality of the society. We find that they  are having more and more expectations of social equality. I always say the ant tribe issue is important. It has the power to influence China’s future.”

Some people may even try to end their lives because of the high living pressure, study suggests that suicide has become the biggest cause of death for Chinese between 15 and 34 years of age.

Because of the high living cost in Chinese big cities, some young graduates are deciding to flee the big cities and instead seek job opportunities in smaller cities and towns. But there, too, they are frustrated, as they discover that good degree – and even ability – do not open doors. Only local networks and family background do.

Many young Chinese people are discovering that society’s resources and opportunities are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few elities. People in the lower and middle strata of society are becoming increasingly marginalized and are finding difficult to get ahead.

A resident waits to use the communal bathroom and washing area of a basement hostel on the western outskirts of Beijing.
A resident waits to use the communal bathroom and washing area of a basement hostel on the western outskirts of Beijing.
In the communal kitchen of a condo in western Beijing, the landlord posts a rent collection notice: “starting August, rent will be due on the first day of each month. New renters are exempt.”
In the communal kitchen of a condo in western Beijing, the landlord posts a rent collection notice: “starting August, rent will be due on the first day of each month. New renters are exempt.”
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An employee of a mail delivery service showers under her bunk bed at her rental.
Xiao Cao, a street performer, shares an eight-square-meter apartment behind a public rest room in Shanghai with his partner.
Xiao Cao, a street performer, shares an eight-square-meter apartment behind a public rest room in Shanghai with his partner.

By Philip Caruso

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