China's 'ant tribe' still struggling

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Several hundred strangers received "love letters" from a young man on the street, who asked passers-by, as he handed them the notes, "Do you suffer from pressure?"

The letter was written and distributed in December by Yang Yang, a student majoring in human resources at Chongqing University of Science and Technology, who hoped to vent his frustrations with job hunting.

"Dear, I have been waiting for you for a long time" local media quoted the letter as reading.

"You can be disappointed, but never be desperate... You need to be a tough person sometimes, but insist on tolerance when you are bullied."

Yang's story has captured media attention perhaps because it is similar to those of millions of recent graduates, who are seeking jobs and eking out meager livings in the country's wealthiest cities.

They have diplomas rather than professional skills and scramble to metropolises in hopes of better lives only to find low-paying jobs and miserable living conditions.

They are China's "ant tribe", a term coined by sociologist Lian Si in his 2009 book, Ant Tribe, the sequel of which will hit shelves next week.

Lian, who is a post-doctoral fellow at Peking University, put it this way: "They share every similarity with ants. They live in colonies in cramped areas. They're intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid."

The term, sociologists have said, also speaks to their helplessness in a world governed by the law of the concrete jungle - only the strongest survive.

A survey in Ant Tribe II found nearly 30 percent of "ants" are graduates of prestigious universities - almost triple last year's proportion. Most had degrees in popular majors, such as medicine, engineering, economics and management.

In addition, 7.2 percent of "ants" have at least a master's degree compared to 1.6 percent in 2009.

Most said the economic recovery did not really improve their financial situations, and 66 percent said their incomes fell short of their expectations, the survey also found.

An "ant's" average monthly salary is 1,904 yuan ($286), with about 64 percent of them earning fewer than 2,000 yuan a month.

About 46 percent spend more than they earn, and 80 percent have no savings and have never given their parents money.

The survey was administered to 4,807 interviewees in seven cities nationwide over six months.

Another survey in the 2010 Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Talent, released by the Social Sciences Academic Press in June, found more than 1 million "ants" live in big cities.

"Most ('ants') are from rural families or small towns, and their experiences in ordinary universities didn't arm them well enough to fight with competitors in big cities' employment markets," Renmin University of China professor of politics Zhang Ming said.

"They could not depend on their parents to find better opportunities in their hometowns. Therefore, they choose to stay in the big cities and eke out livings," he said.

The "ant tribe's" embarrassing living situations have become a serious social issue, and the government should develop "second- and third-tier cities" to lure more graduates from big cities, Zhang believed.

However, "ants" expect more study and training opportunities in big cities, which keeps them in positive mindsets despite their situations.

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