'Ant Tribe' start life from scratch in big cities

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Wang Wei, 23, was basically satisfied with the nine-square-meter apartment he jointly rented with his girlfriend.

After graduating from a science university in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region half year ago, Wang chose the Tangjialing village in northwestern Beijing to be his starting point for a middle-class life.

Currently, he works for a small computer company with a monthly salary of 2,200 yuan (323.5 U.S. dollars).

Though it is surrounded by garbage, not very safe, and without an indoor washroom, the apartment, with a rent of 1,100 yuan per month, is more homely than the neighboring places, each of which accommodate seven or eight people.

Tangjialing, ten kilometers from Zhongguancun, China's Silicon Valley, has become a slum-like colony harboring more than 40,000 newly graduated young Chinese seeking their careers in Beijing. The low rent and relatively convenient transportation links have drawn the cash-poor recent graduates.

A survey by Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) sociologist Lian Si estimates the population of this group, dubbed the "ant tribe," at approximately one million across the country.

Even though they have received college education, they are not able to find a stable job and have to reside in cramped, low-end communities, leading a life "similar to the tiny, clever and laborious ant."

Lian's survey showed the "ant tribe" members are usually temporarily employed by small companies at an average monthly salary of 2,000 yuan, about half the average salary in large cities, and typically are not covered by social security. More than half are from poor, rural regions, the survey revealed.

"College graduates, with hopes for a better quality of life, rush to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai because of the large rural-urban, rich-poor gap in China," Lian told Xinhua,

"But they have little access to quality social resources and the chance for upward mobility is slim, due to their lack of good social connections," he said.

"Most are reduced to low-end jobs even after years of hard work."

College education in China is considered to be the key factor in changing one's life for the better, particularly for farmers.

Though optimistic and up-and-coming initially, the ant tribe members gradually become anxious and frustrated in the face of their dim prospects for advancement and sky-rocketing housing and living costs in large cities.

"I do the same simple work everyday, like photocopying, that has nothing to do with my major, and, what is worse, is that I see little in the way of career prospects," Wang said.

Lian attributes their weak standing in the job market partially to stiff, impractical college teaching that fails to mesh with labor market demand.

"Schools should provide more job training and encourage students to do innovative things before graduation," he said.

Lian also suggested the government provide basic social services to the ant tribe, upgrading the living conditions in their neighborhoods, for example.

Fortunately, the Beijing municipal government is considering renovating Tangjialing to make it into a government-funded apartment community. Even so, the city's housing welfare system is only available to those with a Beijing Hukou, or household registration.

During the seven-day Spring Festival holiday that began Saturday, a local volunteer group offered free medical checkups, a film show and a library service for the ant tribe members in Tangjialing.

"It is necessary to enrich their cultural life and offer regular psychological interventions to boost their self-help ability and to prevent potential social crises," Lian said.

Liu Dan, 29, will complete his post-graduate program at Yunnan Agriculture University in southwestern China this summer. A former member of the "ant tribe" in Beijing, he rented a basement room for 300 yuan a month between 2002 and 2007 and he worked temporarily at the Dell English School, a private language training camp.

Talking about his future, Liu insisted that he would try his luck again in Beijing before returning to his hometown in central Hubei Province.

Peking University's Prof. Zhang Yiwu said young people should end their metropolis-obsession and seek career development in smaller cities, in which the competition is not so intense.

However, Prof. Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Renmin University of China, is optimistic about ant tribe's future.

"Different from the general hedonistic, parent-dependent generation born in the 1980s, the ant tribe at least boasts an unswerving determination to advance. I hope they make headway in the new year."

Wang Wei's new year hope is to save the money to buy a 8,000 yuan laptop computer.

"I majored in computer science in college, and so a laptop is a must-have item."

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