AFTER UNIVERSITY IN CHINA: ANT TRIBES, SEA TURTLES AND DIFFICULTY FINDING A JOB

AFTER UNIVERSITY IN CHINA

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In the old days university graduates had little choice about their futures and careers; the government decided for them. A decade or so ago having a college degree was a guarantee for a good white college job. That is no longer the case. Currently there are too many college graduates and too few jobs. Even though growth rates are high, the economy can not create good jobs fast enough to meet demand.

As the Chinese economy matures and university degrees a dime a dozen university graduates are having even a harder time. Job openings receive hundreds of applicants, Job fairs are packed with graduates searching for jobs. Often times it only seems that the well-connected get jobs. In 2006, 4.1 million students graduated, an increase of 22 percent from 2005. An estimated 60 percent of them had difficulty finding work.

College graduates are almost willing to do anything and go anywhere for a decent job but are having difficulty finding jobs anywhere or doing anything. Increasingly they are looking to small cities for opportunities as the cost of living in the larger cites is simply too high. But in the second-, third- and forth-tier cities, according to the China Daily, they are finding its hard to get a job without guanxi, which is hard to get if one is an outsider. A government policy in the late 1990s to reduce unemployment by doubling the number of college and university students is partly to blame for the difficulty university graduates are having. The policy created more graduates than the job market can accommodate and reduced the quality of education.

Eric Mu wrote in Danwei.com, “When I was a kid, university graduates were as rare as unicorns, now they are more like popcorn: cheap and plentiful. No big surprise, considering there are millions of fresh ones every year to join a large pool of millions of existing ones. All are desperate for white-collar jobs that are not easy to come by in China’s manufacturing economy. The problem of university graduates finding jobs has been debated in the media for at least a decade as a difficult social issue and it never improves. [Source: Eric Mu, Danwei.com September 2, 2011]

My father is a cleaner at a local paper mill. In his mid-fifties without any professional skills, he works for 50 yuan a day. What can 50 yuan buy? Two cups of coffee at this not-too-fancy coffee shop in Beijing where I am typing these words. But if you are a college graduate and want to find a job in my hometown, you can expect to start with an even lower salary than my father. Earlier this year when I went back to my home village, my parents told me that a girl in the village had gone mad. Why? She went to college, where she studied English for four years, and the best job she could get was to peel shrimps with coworkers, who finished middle school and were at least four years younger than her.

So, a college degree, once a coveted holy grail, a glamorous passport to a fulfilled and secure life, has lost its luster, right? So people are shunning it and pursuing happiness through a different course, right? The fact is that despite the bleak financial prospects and diminishing advantages of being a graduate, the competition to become one has never been any more severe.

The number of Chinese seeking higher degrees increased from 11 million in 2000 to 16 million in 2005. Many do not get jobs and return to their home villages and become peasant farmers. Parents that dished out big money questioned the sacrifices they made.

Brain Drain and Reverse Brain Drain

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A study by the Chinese Academy of Social Science found that over a million Chinese students went abroad between 1978 and 2006 and around 70 percent of them didn’t come back, many because they found better jobs abroad than they could find back home. Many students who graduate from foreign universities stay abroad after they graduate, creating a brain-drain situation. At one time about 75 percent of the students who studied in the United States stayed there.Students who want to leave the country now have to post a bond of about a $10,000 before they leave, but even so many of them still don't come back.

A study by Fujian's Huaqiao University said that less than a third of Chinese students who've studied abroad since 1978 eventually return to China. From 1978 to 2009, only 497,400 students out of the 1.62 million who've left have made their way back to China. [Source: Shanghaiist August 19, 2011]

These days, some say, the brain drain situation is not serious as it one was. Instead of staying abroad after finishing studies, more Chinese students choose to come back after graduation.The number returning home from foreign universities increases at rate of about 13 percent a year. Students are returning from overseas are starting up all kinds of new businesses. Graduates who formed the bulk of the "reverse brain drain" have sometimes been labeled "sea turtles" for their journeys home. "Reverse brain drain" has increased as the American economy has faltered.

Yu Jiangtao, a businessman who is based in Silicon Valley, believes that these trends are already outdated. "Nowadays, talent flows are far more balanced than before," she notes. "Due to the economic growth, more and more fresh graduates from Tsinghua can find decent jobs in China with better career development opportunities than here in the US." "Now there are 'seagulls'," Yu says, "who fly back and forth between China and the US, leveraging the strength of both sides."

The shortage of high-end professionals is also posing a challenge to local governments, and an increasing number of provinces and cities in China in recent years have been designing local benefit packages to lure overseas talent.

Sea Turtles

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Returnees from studying abroad are known as ‘sea turtles,” ‘sea turtles” swim home after going away. Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Sun Yatsen all studied or were radicalized abroad. Between 1978 and 2009, 1.62 million Chinese went abroad for graduate studies. Only 460,000 returned. In 2009, 229,000 left, up 27.5 percent from 2008, but returnees leapt to 108,000. More than 1 million Chinese have studied in the United States, with only about a quarter of them returning home. About 42,000 students returned to China from the United States in 2006, up 21 percent from the previous year.

Many are lured back with lucrative enticements and growing research funding. One program offers them a basic $150,000 payment plus additional money from their employers. They are also given hard-to-get residency permits (hukuo), preferential employment access and privileged university admission for their children.

Many ordinary Chinese resent the perks given to sea turtles and regard them as overpaid interlopers. Those studying and working abroad are often discouraged from coming back by the heavy-handed government oversight common in Chinese universities and research centers and rampant plagiarism and fabrication in Chinese academia.

Molecular biologist Shi Yigong, a prize-winning professor at Princeton with more than $2 million in funding, left all that behind, to return to China to head the life science department at Tsinghua University in Beijing. On why he came back he told AFP, “China has contributed disproportionally to the advancement of science and technology in the United States...Behind China’s shiny glass skyscrapers, it has an extreme shortage of top talents and that is really regrettable...For talented people to apply their talents, the sky is the limit now in China in terms of innovation.”

Sometimes sea turtles have a hard lading a good job or getting ahead when they return to China because they are perceived as being out of touch with what’s going on in China. Those that do get jobs often find the have to work long hours for little pay. "Sea turtle" plays on a homophobic Chinese term that also means "returnees from overseas".The Mandarin word for “overseas returnee” sounds like the mandarin word for ‘sea turtle.”

Some middle class Chinese who lived in the United States returned to China because they found life in the United States boring and predictable. Some ea turtles that have been away for some time find the China they have returned too to be almost unrecognizable from the China they left. One told the Washington Post, “People think in a more complicated way. I’m more straightforward now, but they’re all zigzagging.”

In a typical case a Chinese who returned to China after four years with an MBA from a good American university and fluency in English hopes to land a $40,000 information technology position but can only secure an $16,000 a year entry-level job with an insurance company. Those that can’t get any work at all are referred to as ‘sea weed.”

Chinese-Americans or Chinese who have had success in the United States have similar problems. Even those with million-dollar support and sophisticated technology and management have problems and often have to turn to relatives to help them navigate through red tape and figure out who to bribe.

Seaweed: U.S.-Educated Chinese Students Who Can’t Get a Job in China

Mei Fong, Los Angeles Times, “Thanks to a vast expansion of the higher education system, China is awash in domestically educated college graduates. And increasingly, employers in China see graduates returning from the United States as problematic hires with unrealistic salary expectations. They don't even come back with the same kind of English skills they used to because there are now so many Chinese students on U.S. campuses that they can socialize almost exclusively among themselves. The result has been a new term to describe returning students who can't find work---hai dai, or "seaweed." [Source: Mei Fong, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2012]

“Most Chinese students I've worked with as a lecturer in USC's Annenberg School or interviewed as a reporter have hoped to work in the United States for a few years after graduation. Many no longer succeed in that goal. The U.S. job market is brutal, and attitudes and stereotyping compound the problem. [Ibid]

“And what are seaweeds studying in U.S. universities. “Unlike the earlier generations of China scholars, they are not just majoring in the hard sciences. They are in creative writing programs, in art schools, even in journalism, despite media restrictions back home.” [Ibid]

Tsinghua Graduates Take Over Silicon Valley

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In April 2011, Kelly Chung Dawson wrote in the China Daily, “As Beijing Tsinghua University celebrates its 100th anniversary, the university estimates that approximately 20,000 graduates are overseas, with the majority in North America and about 10,000 in California's Silicon Valley, says alumni organizer Yu Jiangtao, in an interview with China Daily. [Source: Kelly Chung Dawson, China Daily, April 24, 2011]

"Silicon Valley is probably the world's central hub for hi-tech, biotech and clean-tech companies," she says. "Many Tsinghua graduates go abroad for higher education and quite a good percentage of them go on to find jobs in the Silicon Valley area."

Tsinghua is considered to be the most prestigious university in China, counting numerous top-level government officials among its alumni. Notable Tsinghua scions who have achieved great success in Silicon Valley include Feng Deng, the founding managing director of Northern Light Investment, Xie Qing, a co-founder of Netscreen and founder of Fortinet, which went public in 2009, and Wu Ping, who upon returning to China established Spreadtrum, a Nasdaq-listed company.

There is no other area in the U.S. with such a high concentration of Tsinghua graduates, Yu says. There are Tsinghua alumni organizations in other parts of the country, but the numbers are so high in Silicon Valley that two such organizations serve the area. They are the Silicon Valley Tsinghua Network (SVTN) with over 3,500 members, and the Tsinghua Alumni Association of Northern California (THAA-NC), with almost 2,000 members.

Difficulty Getting a Job After University in China

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About 6.3 million university graduates entered the work force in 2010. They joined some of the 6.1 million graduates from the year before that were unable to find good jobs because of the global economic showdowns. There were also some from previous years. Of 5.59 million college graduates in 2008, an estimated 27 percent were unable to find jobs by the end of the year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The new graduates also face lower stating wages ($371 a month in 2010 compared to $450 a month in 2007).

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, the Chinese “economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee. “College essentially provided them with nothing,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. “For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 11, 2010]

“In a kind of cruel reversal, China’s old migrant class---uneducated villagers who flocked to factory towns to make goods for export---are now in high demand, with spot labor shortages and tighter government oversight driving up blue-collar wages. But the supply of those trained in accounting, finance and computer programming now seems limitless, and their value has plunged. Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant laborers grew by nearly 80 percent; during the same period, starting pay for college graduates stayed the same, although their wages actually decreased if inflation is taken into account.” [Ibid]

“In 2010, the number of 20-to-25-year-olds in China reached 123 million, about 17 million more than there were just four years ago. “China has really improved the quality of its work force, but on the other hand competition has never been more serious,” said Peng Xizhe, dean of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University in Shanghai. Given the glut of underemployed graduates, Mr. Peng suggested that young people either shift to more practical vocations like nursing and teaching or recalibrated their expectations. “It’s O.K. if they want to try a few years seeking their fortune, but if they stay too long in places like Beijing or Shanghai, they will find trouble for themselves and trouble for society,” he said.” [Ibid]

From 1982 to 2005, the percent of the population with a higher education rose from 1 percent to 7 percent while the percent of white collar jobs rose from about 7 percent to less than 13 percent. Evidence of the job squeeze appears not only regularly on Chinese television but in the civil service exams where 1 million people recently competed for 15,000 openings.

In 2003, there were two million college graduates, almost double the year before. More than half the graduates at private universities were unable to find jobs. Even graduates at elite universities had hard times finding jobs. Only about 70 percent of graduates from Beijing University and Fudan University were able to find jobs. Students with foreign degrees are also having a hard time. In 2006, 4.1 million students graduated, an increase of 22 percent from 2005. Those that dished out big money question the sacrifices they made.

The pinch started to really kick in 2009 after the global economic crisis. In 2008 students from top universities applying for jobs had gotten two or three offers by the winter, sometimes for a starting salary 20 times the average Chinese annual income. But in 2009, after weeks of looking, even graduates of top business schools with several years of work experience, returned to their hometowns, unable to find work.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 24, 2009]

Recent college graduates are more likely to unemployed than the average urban workers. By one measure unemployment rate for recent college graduates is around 13 percent. But many believe the true figure is much higher than that. The plight of college graduates is expected to get worse because Chinese universities are increasing their enrollments each year. Furthermore, the ranks of overseas Chinese who are returning to look for work are swelling because of the recession in the United States and Europe. [Ibid]

A participant in an anti-Japanese protest told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Even if students graduated from university, they can’t find a job of they don’t have connections. Children of senior party officials and the rich can get on the elite track even if they’re incompetent. This society is really unfair.”

Chinese Government Policy Difficulty Getting a Job After University

Wu Zhong wrote in the Asia Times, “The government is trying to create more civil service posts for fresh graduates... Some regional governments encourage grads to work in villages with a promise that they will be employed by the government two or three years later. In some places, local governments also offer loan guarantees for small- and medium-sized enterprises if they employ university graduates. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 3, 2009]

“Chinese authorities are also offering financial subsidies and taxation incentives to encourage graduates to start their own businesses and become self-employed. A few years ago, a Peking University bachelor degree holder opened a butcher shop, after spending some time in vain seeking a job. The headline “Peking University graduate becomes a butcher” shocked the public, with critics saying it was a big waste of education resources and personal talent. Today, however, that shop owner is quite well off, and often cited by city officials as a good example to convince graduates to become self-employed.”

“This is not the first time in recent years that university degree holders have had trouble finding employment. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the then Zhu Rongji cabinet launched a series of measures to boost domestic consumption to counter the negative impact of the crisis on economic growth.” [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 3, 2009]

‘since China began to enforce the “one-child” policy in late 1970s, every year about 15 million babies have been born. That means each year some 15 million youths reach working age. University graduates thus make about half of this army. This is one reason why the Chinese government attaches such great importance to the unemployment problem facing the university graduates.”

“One of the measures involved expanding the enrollment of university students by “commercializing” and “industrializing” tertiary education. Under this policy, the number of university students grew five-fold in a decade, from 1.08 million in 1998 to 5.68 million in 2008. And each year from 2003, fresh university graduates have found it increasingly difficult to find jobs. In the beginning, students from lesser-known schools felt the burn. But lately even degree holders from top schools such as Peking University or Tsing Hua University have been unable to find work.” [Ibid]

Chinese Graduates Respond to Tight Job Market

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.[Ibid]

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.”

Chinese Government Worries About Unemployed Graduates

Wu Zhong wrote in the Asia Times, “Ensuring economic growth and preserving jobs” has become thetop priority of Beijing's agenda this year. And helping university graduates find employment falls under the category “preserving jobs”, for it is no longer an economic issue. For Chinese authorities, this is an issue with serious political and social implications that will impact the country's stability. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 3, 2009]

“In recent years Chinese students have become increasingly indifferent to political issues, caring more about their personal future than the future of the nation. So if the economy is doing well, they might not be so concerned... However...I f a great proportion of graduates can't find jobs, they may become restless and... take collective action, which in turn could spark social unrest. Moreover, those students who are still studying would become restless worrying about their future. This could be another source of potential unrest.”

Premier Wen Jiabao, in a visit to a university campus in 2009, personally assured the students: “Please put your minds at ease. The government will do whatever it can to help you find jobs.”

Urban Students to the Countryside

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, ‘supporters say it will help bridge the soaring gap between village and city, giving privileged youth a taste of how others live. Critics complain it has unpleasant echoes of the cultural revolution. The south-western Chinese metropolis of Chongqing has announced that it will send urban-born students to live and work in the countryside for a month as part of a community service plan. Many have welcomed the initiative, which addresses a generational gulf as well as a geographical one: the sharp increase in living standards has created a youthful urban elite with little conception of their parents' struggles. Tu Jingping, deputy secretary-general of the municipal government, said it would improve students' all-round abilities, give them practical skills and help them better understand society. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, November 12, 2010]

But some dismissed it as a waste of time and others compared it to the 60s, when university entrance exams were suspended and millions of educated youths including many of China's current leaders sent "up to the mountains and down to the villages" for re-education by farmers. "[They said] the youth could learn from the countryside, and become 'both socialist-minded and professionally qualified'. But look how that turned out. It is the same today," wrote Wang Yi, education editor at a publishing firm. Although students should gain broader social experience, "having these detailed requirements---is just another form of restriction on the students' thought, which will in no way help them develop 'all-round talents' or help them when they enter society in the future," he said.

But Professor Zhou Daming, who was sent to labor in the fields at 16, said the new exercise was completely different. "We had barely graduated from high school. We did not even have the most basic knowledge about many things," he said. "They are much older than we were. It is good for them to go and learn about another kind of life." Zhou, now dean of anthropology at Sun Yat-sen University, added: "The experience was good in that it taught me to 'eat bitterness'. Everything that came afterwards did not seem challenging or impossible anymore. I think this experience  especially now that I am doing social study work  broadened my view of society."

Parents hope the new plan could bring similar benefits to children who have led a sheltered life."My daughter spends all her time watching TV, or on the internet at home during holidays. She does not have any social experience," Zhou Yujun told a local newspaper. Wang Hongxia added: "My son has grown up in a relatively wealthy environment---he has spent all his time studying and is weak at doing other things. "Encouraging them to participate in social practice gives them a platform and opportunity to learn from different places and different people."

Chongqing's 750,000 students will also have to plant 100 trees each, spend a month in military training, work in factories and complete a month's internship at a business or government body. A press officer for the city's education committee said the activities were voluntary and would not affect grades or graduation, although some Chinese media have said all students are expected to take part. The plan is the latest attention-grabbing initiative from Chongqing's ambitious party boss, Bo Xilai, who unlike most Chinese leaders has courted publicity rather than avoiding it. Previous campaigns include a high-profile crackdown on organized crime and a "red culture" drive involving mass singalongs of revolutionary songs and text messaging residents with quotations from Mao Zedong.

Working in the Countryside to Become Civil Servants in China

Thousands of Chinese university graduates have been sent to the China's countryside to do Peace Corp style work. The jobs fulfill two important missions: to help villagers and to provide employment for recent university graduates and give them something to do. The Cultural Revolution slogan: “Go to work in the countryside and mountainous areas!” has been resurrected to encourage university graduates to take those jobs and accept positions in rural areas that would have previously been regarded as inferior.

In Xianying, a small village of around 8,000 inhabitants located in Beijing Municipality, Beijing university graduates have accepted offers to work as counselors in village administrations - jobs that are part of a nationwide plan conceived by the central government to modernize public services in rural areas of the country. [Source: Cristian Segura, Asia Times, September 10, 2009, Cristian Segura is Beijing correspondent of the Spanish daily newspaper AVUI]

About 10 percent of the 2,000 university graduates serving as counselors in the surroundings counties of Beijing work in the town of Yanqing, as part of the cun guan project, which began in 1996.” Cristian Segura wrote in the Asia Times. “Cun guan (village official) is the description in Mandarin for their task as local assistants. There will be 100,000 cun guan job offers available until 2010, according to the central government. Beijing expects to increase the number of cun guan vacancies in the poor regions of Western China and offer them to recent graduates who can't find an employment as a consequence of the global crisis.” [Ibid]

“The 45 cun guan based in Xianying represent almost the half of the total staff working under the local administration. They say that their daily duties are exhausting. They are divided in teams of two. In their assigned district they are responsible to answer any doubts the farmers may have, to assist the municipal arbitration office and to collect relevant statistics that can be useful to analyze the economical and social development of the area. They are usually responsible to teach the villagers how to use computers or to help them filling out official forms. Depending on their academic background they will assume specific missions.” [Ibid]

“Jia...is an expert on disease prevention and often inspects outpatient departments, checks the distribution of vaccines or teaches first-aid procedures to nurses. Zhang is 25-years old and has a graduate degree in economics. He focuses his skills on showing the farmers the best way to maximize their benefits, “I remind them that they will earn more money if they grow a certain kind of fruits depending on the situation of prices in the market. I tell them that they will be more successful if they joint their plantations or that there is the possibility to rent part of their lands if they don't use them.” [Ibid]

Benefits of Working in the Countryside in China

The monthly salary of a Beijing cun guan ranges from 2,000 yuan to 3,000 yuan (US$293-$440) per month. After a three-year service period, cun guan are rewarded with a permanent civil service job. This privilege is the main reason that many graduates apply for a the post - most of the students working as rural counselors couldn't obtain the marks required to immediately get a public servant post. [Source: Cristian Segura, Asia Times, September 10, 2009]

Another great incentive for graduates, particularly those from peasant families, is that they are granted hukou or a permanent residence permit for the city where they have studied---Cristian Segura wrote in the Asia Times. “This means they can go back to work there after serving the three years in the countryside. In the past, a person could live and work only in the place assigned by his residence permit. Today, people can live and work in a city without hukou (such as rural migrant workers), however they have no access to the benefits enjoyed by hukou holders such as government subsidies on housing, medical care and education for their children.” [Ibid]

And of course there is also altruism. One participant told the Asian Times he became a cun guan because they follow the Communist Party teaching “of being the first to volunteer for the people.” He said, “Mao Zedong said that there are many things to do in the rural areas. This is still true nowadays.” Segura wrote, “The rural experience could help this younger generation, who may become the next leaders of China, understand concerns in the most populated regions of the country. It is also an opportunity for them to have first-hand experience of the freest elections in China: the elections of village councils and commissions.”

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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

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. [Ibid]

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.” [Ibid]

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. [Ibid]

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." [Ibid]

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.” [Ibid]

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. [Ibid]

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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

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." [Ibid]

‘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.” [Ibid]

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." [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

"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. [Ibid]

“Ji is now in his second year and is interning at ifeng.com 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." [Ibid]

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 July 2012


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