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China's 'Ant Tribe' Searches for Better Future

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Every day Yang Hongwei takes the bus home from work, staring silently at the European-style villas, luxury sedans and twinkling lights from plazas as they pass by.

The 25-year-old from northeast China's Heilongjiang Province says he dreams of living such a life and that hope has kept him in Beijing in the past three years since he graduated from university.

Yang eventually squeezes his way off the bus to the reality of his life: a collection of ramshackle buildings clustered in garbage-littered lanes of Tangjialing village in northern Beijing.

He scoots home -- a 10-square-meter room that costs 550 yuan (US$81) or about one fifth of his salary in rent every month.

He pulls tight his coat. "It's very frigid inside as the house is without a central heating system, but I am getting used to it."

Yang says many of his fellow graduates and other tenants at Tangjialing have to endure the same long and cold winter, too.

Finding love is another problem in a money-centered society like Beijing. "How could dare I date a girl? That costs."

He has been alone since 2006 when he came to the capital after graduating from Heilongjiang's Daqing Petroleum Institute.

Yang's frustration over his life is shared by many other low-income graduates that have moved into China's big cities like Beijing. Together the highly educated groups come to be called the"ant tribe", a term coined by Chinese sociologists to describe the struggles of young migrants, who, armed with their diplomas, scramble to big cities in hope of a better life only to find a low-paying jobs and poor living conditions.

They live in Tangjialing for cheap rents. The slum-like village, for instance, originally had a population of 3,000, but it has exploded to 50,000 with the influx of new "ant tribe" villagers.

"They are like ants: clever, weak and living in groups," says Lian Si, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Chinese and Global Affairs of Peking University, who studies the phenomenon. .

Over the past two years, Lian led a team of more than 100 graduates students to follow the groups in university towns like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Xi'an.

In his book "Ant Tribe", published in September 2009, Lian estimates the population of the "ant community" at 1 million across China, with about 100,000 in Beijing alone.

Most of the "ant tribe" are from poor rural families and take temporary and low-paid jobs like insurance agents, electronic products sales representatives and waiters, and some are unemployed or underemployed.

Lian, also an associate professor with the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics, predicts an increasingly challenging job market will see the ant tribe grow.

The number of graduates, aged 22 to 29, has been growing since China greatly expanded its university enrollment over the past decade. According to the Ministry of Education's statistics, the number of college graduates has jumped from 1.07 million in 2000 to 6.11 million in 2009.

Another 6.3 million graduates will join migrant workers and other job hunters in what promises to be a fierce labor competition this year.

On top of poor living conditions, the "ant tribe" also contends with a lack of social security in Beijing, where the official average monthly salary was about 4,000 yuan (US$586) in 2008. The average "ant tribe" member earns only half that.

As in the case of Yang, marriage, for now at least, does not seem to be an option for the "ant tribe", about 93 percent of whom remain single, Lian estimates.

Soaring housing prices and rents drive them to cheap rooms of up to 10 square meters each in villages like Tangjialing. The monthly rent for a single room downtown could be at least 2,000 yuan, a month's earnings for the ant tribe.

Cheap accommodation means a long and crowded journey to and from work, however. As only six bus routes link Tangjialing to downtown Beijing, a workday begins by wedging oneself into a congested vehicle.

"It's hard work getting on the bus," says Yang, who works for a software company in Zhongguancun, often referred to as China's "Silicon Valley."

For him and many other young and struggling migrant graduates, the pursuit of urban dream is the only way to a better life for their families back home. Trekking back to their rural communities is tantamount to an admission of their failure in big cities.

Determined to achieve their urban dreams, the "ants" switch jobs twice a year on average for better pay and personal development. Yang says he himself has changed jobs for "numerous" times in the past three years and is considering another quitting now.

He is optimistic about getting a higher-paying job soon, having received eight interview offers in a week after he sent out his resume.

The prospect of landing a higher-paying job keeps him hopeful of moving out of Tangjialing soon.

"If you cannot improve, it is meaningless to stay at the village. Others living outside the village will look down on you," he says. "I hope I can leave soon, the sooner the better, but that, again, needs money."

"A fellow upstairs stayed here for three years," Yang adds with obvious envy. "Then he bought a home downtown after he was promoted to a department manager.

"I've set a timetable. If I can't improve my situation within three years, I will return to my hometown."

(Xinhua News Agency January 16, 2009)


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