A Million Frustrated Graduates Swarm Squalid Colonies, Posing a Social Quandary – Update

Sim Chi Yin reports in The Straits Times (Singapore):

They are smart, industrious and marginalised, huddling together for comfort.

Hordes of China’s underemployed or underpaid university graduates have formed squalid enclaves on the fringes of the country’s big cities, earning themselves the label yi zu or ‘ant tribe’.

As their ranks swell, some observers have warned of the dangers that a mass of young and frustrated people – doing jobs they are overqualified for – might pose to social stability.

Last month, several delegates at Beijing’s annual parliamentary session urged the government to build better housing for these graduates and to do more to help them find jobs.

There are a million ‘ants’ massed around major cities, with about 100,000 in Beijing alone, estimates sociologist Lian Si, who led a two-year study that was published in a book last September.

A typical ‘ant’ hails from rural China, is a graduate of a non-brand-name university aged between 22 and 29, and earns no more than 2,000 yuan (S $414) a month working long hours as an insurance salesman, computer technician or waiter.

The LA Times has published other case studies on members of the “Ant Tribe” as well as a the socio-historical background to the crisis:

… an estimated 3 million jobless or underemployed college graduates in China, products of a mass social experiment by central planners to churn out more professionals for China’s economic development. Nicknamed the Ant Tribe, after the title of a recent book documenting their struggles, they now constitute a vast army of educated young people whose growing restlessness worries the Chinese government.

“They represent the pain and confusion of a whole generation,” wrote author Lian Si, a sociologist who spent two years living with and researching the graduates. “When all their anger and grievances reach a critical point, a special event could trigger a large-scale mass movement.”

Recognizing the potential threat, Beijing is urging state-run companies to put college graduates on their payrolls, and it’s encouraging degree holders to work in the countryside. Others are being steered into the military. State media have reported female graduates seeking marriage just end their fruitless job hunt.

The ants’ story began a little over a decade ago, in 1999, when the Chinese government launched an ambitious plan to boost university enrollment by 30% annually. At the time, the country’s factories were suffering from the Asian financial crisis. Planners believed a rise in college rolls would help China transition from a largely export-driven, low-wage manufacturing economy to a more balanced one populated by upwardly mobile white-collar workers.


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