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So worrisome has the situation become that some students at Peking University, one of China’s most prestigious, are even talking about joining the army or becoming butchers. Last year, 10,000 college students joined the military, a much higher number than in previous years, according to the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 24, 2009]

The tight job market has been a boon for government job recruiters. The People’s Liberation Army has had increasing success in recruiting college students through the promise of large cash stipends. In November 2008 nearly one million students took the civil service exam to compete for government jobs, a jump of 25 percent over the previous year. The news is not so good for students, who faced dismal odds: every job opening in the government had an average of 78 applicants.

Unable to find a white-collar jobs some college graduates have taken jobs at fast-food restaurants for $220 a month, less than the average monthly income. There are articles in newspapers with headlines such as “three dozen university graduates including PhD holders compete for a post with a neighborhood committee” or “university graduates willing to clean streets.”

Ant Tribes

The term “ant tribe” has emerged to describe college graduates who either have no job or work long hours for little money. They typically originate from rural areas and attended second-tier universities and are called ants because they have gravitated to squalid enclaves on the fringes of major cites like a “yi zu”, or “ant tribe” or colony of ants. There are estimated to be more than 1 million of these industrious, hardworking but frustrated “ants” nationwide, with 100,000 alone in Beijing. There are so many that some government official worry about the potential for social unrest they present. [Source: Strait Times]

There are estimated to be 100,000 ant tribe members in Beijing alone. They often settle into crowded neighborhoods, toiling for wages that would give even low-paid factory workers pause. “Like ants, they gather in colonies, sometimes underground in basements, and work long and hard,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing. The central government, well aware of the risks of inequitable growth, has been trying to channel more development to inland provinces like Shanxi...where the dismantling of state-owned industries a decade ago left a string of anemic cities. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 11, 2010]

According to the Straits Times a typical “ant” is aged 22 to 29 and earns about $300 a month working as an insurance salesman, computer technician or waiter. Blue-collar migrant workers earn about $200 a month. One ant colony about a 10 minute drive from the Bird’s nest stadium in Beijing is home to about 50,000 residents who live in single eight to 15-square meters rooms for $80 a month or pay $29 to $44 for single beds in dormitory-style housing. Outside the squalid apartment blocks are rotting vegetables, empty instant noodle containers and broken beer bottles. [Source: Strait Times]

Lian Si, a sociologist who interviewed about 100 ants, told the Straits Times, they feel a deep sense of injustice about being shut out of the urban riches they see all around them yet they don’t want to return to their homes.

Members of the Ant Tribe

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility. Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room. Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. “Beijing isn’t like this in the movies,” she said.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 11, 2010]

“Often the first from their families to finish even high school, ambitious graduates like Ms. Liu are part of an unprecedented wave of young people all around China who were supposed to move the country’s labor-dependent economy toward a white-collar future. Despite government efforts, urban residents earned on average 3.3 times more last year than those living in the countryside. Such disparities — and the lure of spectacular wealth in coastal cities like Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen — keep young graduates coming. “Compared with Beijing, my hometown in Shanxi feels like it’s stuck in the 1950s,” said Li Xudong, 25, one of Ms. Liu’s classmates, whose father is a vegetable peddler. “If I stayed there, my life would be empty and depressing.”

“While some recent graduates find success, many are worn down by a gauntlet of challenges and disappointments. Living conditions can be Dickensian, and grueling six-day work weeks leave little time for anything else but sleeping, eating and doing the laundry. But what many new arrivals find more discomfiting are the obstacles that hard work alone cannot overcome. Their undergraduate degrees, many from the growing crop of third-tier provincial schools, earn them little respect in the big city. And as the children of peasants or factory workers, they lack the essential social lubricant known as guanxi, or personal connections, that greases the way for the offspring of China’s nouveau riche and the politically connected.”

“Emerging from the sheltered adolescence of one-child families, they quickly bump up against the bureaucracy of population management, known as the hukou system, which denies migrants the subsidized housing and other health and welfare benefits enjoyed by legally registered residents. A fellow Datong University graduate, Yuan Lei, threw the first wet blanket over the exuberance of Ms. Liu, Mr. Li and three friends not long after their July arrival in Beijing. Mr. Yuan had arrived several months earlier for an internship but was still jobless. “If you’re not the son of an official or you don’t come from money, life is going to be bitter,” he told them over bowls of 90-cent noodles, their first meal in the capital.”

“As the light faded and the streets became thick with young receptionists, cashiers and sales clerks heading home, Mr. Yuan led his friends down a dank alley and up an unsteady staircase to his room. It was about the width of a queen-size bed, and he shared a filthy toilet with dozens of other tenants and a common area with a communal hot plate. Mr. Li smiled as he took in the scene. Like most young Chinese, his life until that moment had been coddled, chaperoned and intensely regimented. “I’m ready to go out into the world and test myself,” he said.

Sales Jobs Taken by Recent Chinese University Graduates

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “The next five months would provide more of a test than he or the others had expected. For weeks Mr. Li elbowed his way through crowded job fairs but came away empty-handed. His finance degree, recruiters told him, was useless because he was a “waidi ren,” an outsider, who could not be trusted to handle cash and company secrets. When he finally found a job selling apartments for a real estate agency, he left after less than a week when his employer reneged on a promised salary and then fined him each day he failed to bring in potential clients.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 11, 2010]

“In the end, Mr. Li and his friends settled for sales jobs with an instant noodle company. The starting salary, a low $180 a month, turned out to be partly contingent on meeting ambitious sales figures. Wearing purple golf shirts with the words “Lao Yun Pickled Vegetable Beef Noodles,” they worked 12-hour days, returning home after dark to a meal of instant noodles. “This isn’t what I want to be doing, but at least I have a job,” said Mr. Li, sitting in his room one October evening. Decorated with origami birds left by a previous occupant, the room faced a neighbor’s less than two feet across an airshaft. The only personal touch was an instant noodle poster taped over the front door for privacy.”

“Because he had sold only 800 cases of noodles that month, 200 short of his sales target, Mr. Li’s paltry salary was taking a hit. And citing the arrival of winter, “peak noodle-eating season,” his boss had just doubled sales quotas. Mr. Li worried aloud whether he would be able to marry his high school sweetheart, who had accompanied him here, if he could not earn enough money to buy a home. Such concerns are rampant among young Chinese men, who have been squeezed by skyrocketing real estate prices and a culture that demands that a groom provide an apartment for his bride. “I’m giving myself two years,” he said, his voice trailing off.”

By November, the pressure had taken its toll on two of the others, including the irrepressible Liu Yang. After quitting the noodle company and finding no other job, she gave up and returned home. That left Mr. Yuan, Mr. Li and their girlfriends. Over dinner one night, the four of them complained about the unkindness of Beijingers, the high cost of living and the boredom of their jobs. Still, they all vowed to stick it out. “Now that I see what the outside world is like, my only regret is that I didn’t have more fun in college,” Mr. Yuan said.

Jobless College Graduates Refuse to Work at Factories

Reporting from Guangzhou, Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Mr. Wang, 25, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, January 24, 2013]

“But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Mr. Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages. “I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked. Millions of recent college graduates in China like Mr. Wang are asking the same question. A result is an anomaly: Jobs go begging in factories while many educated young workers are unemployed or underemployed. A national survey of urban residents, released this winter by a Chinese university, showed that among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education.

“It is a problem that Chinese officials are acutely aware of. “There is a structural mismatch — on the one hand, the factories cannot find skilled labor, and, on the other hand, the universities produce students who do not want the jobs available,” said Ye Zhihong, a deputy secretary general of China’s Education Ministry.

“Mr. Wang and other young, educated Chinese without steady jobs pose a potential long-term challenge to social stability. They spend long hours surfing the Internet, getting together with friends and complaining about the shortage of office jobs for which they believe they were trained. China now has 11 times as many college students as it did at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in the spring of 1989, and an economy that has been very slow to produce white-collar jobs. The younger generation has shown less interest in political activism, although that could change if the growing numbers of graduates cannot find satisfying work.

“Many youths from rural areas who graduate from college, like Mr. Wang, are also hostile to factory jobs. He is toying with other ideas to earn a living, but learning vocational skills is not one of them. One idea is to buy rabbits from wholesalers in the countryside, set out a mat along a Guangzhou street and sell the animals as pets or food. When told that this might involve competing with older, uneducated rural migrants willing to work for almost nothing as sidewalk vendors, he shrugged and reiterated his hostility to factory labor. “I’m not afraid of hard work; it’s the lack of status,” he said. “The more educated people are, the less they want to work in a factory.”

Jobless College Graduates Subsidized by Parents

Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: “One unusual social dynamic created by the one-child policy is that many college graduates are only children with parents and grandparents who continue to nurture them into adulthood. “Their parents, their grandparents give them money; they have six people to support them,” said said Ni Bingbing, the vice general manager at Hongyuan Furniture in Guangzhou. “They say, Why do I need to work? I can stay home and get 2,000 renminbi a month, why should I get on a bus every day to earn 2,500 a month?” That is how Mr. Wang has managed to get by for most of the last three years without a job. Despite some grumbling, his parents send him money to help support his modest lifestyle. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, January 24, 2013]

“He rents a small but tidy studio apartment. It consists of a bedroom with a pink tile floor roughly 10 feet on a side, holding a low bed and a bedside table with a laptop on it. A plugged hole in the wall shows that a previous occupant had an air-conditioner to cope with Guangzhou’s heat, but Mr. Wang makes do with a fan. An adjacent room, about 10 feet long and just three feet wide, holds a tiny kitchen, shower and toilet. The apartment costs $64 a month. Food, Internet cafe visits and the occasional date cost him $80 a month; fixed-line Internet service costs $8 a month; and electricity and water bills together are another $8 a month, for a total of $160 a month.

“In addition to covering these expenses, Mr. Wang’s parents also paid back the money he borrowed from friends to pay for his three-year degree, which cost $1,270 a year in tuition and another $320 a year in living costs. As was common in rural China until very recently, his mother never went to school while his father attended elementary school for several years before dropping out. Now in their 60s, his parents had to give up their rice farm when the local government redeveloped the land it was on; Mr. Wang’s father does odd jobs as a construction worker to help support his son. Not surprisingly, they have urged Mr. Wang to take one of the many factory jobs available. “You can get paid 4,000 renminbi [$635] a month for taking such work, but I wouldn’t do it,” Mr. Wang said. “Your hands are dirty, you’re all dirty. It’s not for me.”

“He has worked brief stints. After a nearly yearlong stretch out of work, he took a job several months ago as an office building security guard. It pays just $320 a month — but he already is thinking of quitting after Chinese New Year celebrations next month, and dedicating himself full time once again to the search for an office job that would allow him to use his degree. Entry-level positions in his field pay only $240 a month, but the work is clean and safe and there is the prospect of promotion. Even better would be to find a municipal agency willing to hire him, he said. “The best is a government job; you have job security and a retirement fund,” Mr. Wang said.

“Mr. Wang counts himself fortunate to have a girlfriend. She has tried to sell Amway cosmetics to her friends, but in her best month only earned $160, and often earns nothing at all in a month. Her apartment costs 1,200 renminbi, about $190, a month, and she is also subsidized by her parents — her father is a salesman for construction materials while her mother is a nanny. “My girlfriend says, ‘What you’re earning now is definitely not enough for marriage, you need at least 10,000 renminbi a month, 26,000 would be good,’ so I’m under extreme stress right now,” Mr. Wang said. “All the women are like that now — they want the car, they want the apartment, they want the appliances — of course, I always say yes to my girlfriend.”

School Drifters — Chinese University Graduates That Stay Near Their Campuses

Wang Yan wrote in the China Daily: “Get a college degree and you'll go far? Ye Dong made it to a 10-sq-m room, at 60 yuan ($9) a month, next door to his old college in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. Now 23, Ye earned his diploma in June 2010. But he has barely left the campus. He still eats in the canteens and studies in the classrooms. Living close is convenient and familiar, he said.” [Source: Wang Yan, China Daily, February 11, 2011]

“Around almost every college and university in China are cheap apartments and bungalows for rent, where lots of graduates like Ye live, according to Hu Jiewang, a sociology professor at Jiaying University in Guangdong province. They live and look like enrolled students, but they aren't. Hu published his first research paper on these graduates in 2003, naming them "school-drifters". It became a popular search keyword and triggered wide media coverage and further academic research.”

The number is increasing over the years," Hu said. "A simple reason is that each year the number of graduates rises, while the employment rate remains basically the same. A large portion of the unemployed become school-drifters. Some previously employed also come back after a short, unsatisfying, work experience." In 2005, researcher Shi Xu of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics said in a published paper that the number of school-drifters in China had reached 100,000. Hu said, "It's hard to calculate an accurate total", but he thinks the current number has far exceeded that.

Why don't drifters return home? "From ancient times the Chinese have had the notion that 'going out' and 'going to colleges' were good. Anybody coming back home without achievements is a loser," Hu said. "A too-high expectation from parents could be a burden on students, and could prevent them from returning home after graduation. Many would not tell parents their real situation."

Life of Chinese School Drifters

“Ye sees himself as a school-drifter,” Wang Yan wrote in the China Daily: “He said the real world is different from his ideal. He landed a job as a production assistant in a local jewelry company in March last year but quit two months later.” "The 2,400-yuan ($360) a month salary was high among my classmates, but the job was too tiring. I had only one day off every week and the working hours were too irregular," he said. "Entering society made me feel hollow." [Source: Wang Yan, China Daily, February 11, 2011]

“Not ready to take a job for now - he has some savings, loans from friends and money from an occasional job - Ye and the two school-drifters he lives with decided to try their luck in this year's post-graduate exam. Ye's goal is Jinan University in Guangzhou, where he failed to get in last year. "I want to be a teacher in the future, so I have to pursue higher degrees."Hu said most of the school-drifters aim to enter grad school. Some hope to find a better job; some want to stay in big cities; and some are simply fearful of the intensely competitive job market.”

Living on school resources, Hu said, "is a way of cutting living costs. But they do have some resource conflict with currently enrolled students." Universities are enrolling more and more students, resulting in crowded campuses, full libraries and self-study classrooms, and dining halls as jammed as farmers markets. School-drifters add to that. Hu also said, from his student management experience, that it's hard to trace school-drifters on campus. Universities are managed by departments, and it's unclear which departments should be responsible. "The fact is the schools now are pretty much neglecting this group," he said.

History of Chinese School Drifters

“Based on Hu's research, school-drifters appeared as early as the 1980s,” Wang Yan wrote in the China Daily. “The State still allocated jobs for college graduates then, but it wasn't enforceable: The graduate or the employer could decide not to sign the contract. If that happened, most of the unemployed graduates returned to their colleges and waited for the next round of allocation. But there weren't many who did this, and they stayed on campus for just a few days.” [Source: Wang Yan, China Daily, February 11, 2011]

“An upsurge occurred in 1997, when the country launched the State-owned enterprises reform. Those enterprises had been the first choice of many career-starters, but they were hiring fewer graduates. Plus, the doorsills of foreign companies were still too high for new graduates, and private Chinese companies were still of low status. As a result, many graduates felt lost, and the number who stayed in school - for further education, for better opportunities, or for the comfort - increased.”

“By 2003, colleges graduated the first group of students under a State push to increase higher education rates. Add that to layoffs by State-owned companies and the usual flood of migrant workers, and a tight job market reached a new peak. A State policy issued in March 2002 said unemployed graduates could keep their hukou (household registration) in the schools for two more years. And many did, choosing to drift.”

Reasons for Chinese School Drifters

Hu listed score-oriented education as one cause of school-drifting. "It is not doing well in connecting with the real world." Primary and middle school education makes good exam performance the only aim of students. Without fully following their interests when choosing majors, coupled with inflexible major transfers, many students are just stuck studying things they're not interested in, Hu said. "Moreover, career education is not yet treated with high importance. Many just think it's not a big deal compared to academic education." [Source: Wang Yan, China Daily, February 11, 2011]

Ye, from Shaoguan University, agreed. "I majored in administrative management as an undergraduate. The courses were too theoretical and I often skipped classes. Finding a job is hard. Some of my classmates just work at a shopping mall selling cell phones, making only 1,800 yuan a month," he said. "We're not competitive enough in the job market, even worse than some vocational schools."

‘students, however, should also take some responsibility, Hu said. Many hope their first jobs will bring everything, and some unrealistically compare themselves with their peers. Once unsatisfied, they look for ways out, and pursuing further studies becomes a popular option. Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that the number of applications for the postgraduate exam in 2011 reached 1.5 million, a 7 percent annual increase. Competition is fierce, though; only about one in three will make the cut.”

School Drifters Seek Higher Degrees

A higher degree is commonly believed to lead to higher pay. MyCos, a third-party education statistics consulting and evaluation agency, released a report in late October last year on wages for the Class of 2011. Based on 20,829 interviews, the average monthly pay was 4,160 yuan for advanced degree graduates, 2,514 yuan for undergraduates and 2,077 yuan for vocational school graduates. The report also noted that those employed as early as October, for jobs they will begin after graduation in June, were more competitive and their wages were higher. [Source: Wang Yan, China Daily, February 11, 2011]

“Ji Xiang, 27, drifted from one school to another for five years before achieving his goal of entering grad school,” Wang Yan wrote in the China Daily. “For him, grad school is not only "a way out", but it becomes a must given what he sees as society's blind belief in degrees. He started drifting in 2004, just one year after being admitted to a local university in his hometown of Dong-ying, Shandong province. "I quit because the university and the major (engineering) were not good."

“Ji then headed to Shandong University in Jinan and audited the classes of an English major.He said his father strongly opposed his decision to drop out and sit in another class that doesn't guarantee a degree. "But I thought learning real knowledge was more important than getting an empty degree." In late 2005, he drifted up to Peking University to learn more about international politics. Like many other school-drifters, Ji settled in the cheapest place he could find, a 190-yuan-a-month bungalow near the campus. For living expenses, he depended on tuition refunds from the school he had left, plus part-time work as a tutor.”

“Free classes, though, were not easy to get, for the curriculum schedules are not open to the public. Ji started by wandering the classroom building, sitting in every class he caught up with and noting the dates and places. In that way he made his own schedule. "It was a busy and rich time. I listened to everything and almost became an expert in the field," Ji said, showing a smile with satisfaction. But he also realized that knowledge doesn't immediately bring salt and bread.”

"I tried to find jobs in the middle, but all I got by then was a vocational school-level degree," which he obtained by taking the country's exams for the self-taught.He said many of his ideal employers wouldn't even look at his resume. He then decided to get into grad school - but the country sets a bachelor's degree as a prerequisite for postgraduate exams. By the end of 2007, he completed the task by taking higher-level exams for the self-taught. And after a failed attempt in 2008, he finally became a grad student at China University of Petroleum in Beijing, in September 2009, majoring in international politics.

“Ji is now in his second year and is interning at in Beijing, a news portal owned by Phoenix, a Hong Kong-based TV broadcaster. He said he wants to work in the media after graduation."It's like I've taken an indirect route," he said, "I was kind of naive to think that simply learning knowledge would carve a niche for myself. "In most cases, you've got to have a degree to fit into society."

Image Sources: Wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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