Project 211

Graduate 'ants' keep faith in a better future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am

They are intelligent, vulnerable young people who work hard for low pay and tend to live together in poor-quality housing. Little wonder, then, that a Beijing-based academic termed them 'the ant tribe'.

Professor Lian Si, of the University of International Business and Economics, headed a team that surveyed 4,807 such ants in seven mainland cities. Their number has grown to more than 1 million - with 150,000 each in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and more than 100,000 in various second-tier cities such as Wuhan, Hubei .

The results: ants view mainland society as insecure and unjust, with their personal safety also threatened, but migr-'ants' in their 20s with university degrees hold high expectations of being able to trade up to a decent life in a couple of years.

About one-third of those surveyed graduated from China's top universities, such as Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan.

'This figure shocked us,' said Lian, who recorded the survey results in his book Ant Tribe II - Whose Era?, which has yet to be released.

These young people live in various kinds of housing, ranging from farmer-built yards in suburban Beijing to villages inside cities such as Guangzhou and Wuhan, and 'high-density' flats (with several roommates) in Shanghai. According to Lian, their average living space is about five square metres, their average monthly income is 1,903 yuan (HK$2,217), and more than 80 per cent are from rural families.

Lian's team learned that more than half of the survey participants had bachelor degrees, 7.2 per cent had postgraduate degrees and 18.8 per cent had completed technical school.

'That means technical school graduates can easily find jobs, while people with higher education are facing a tough job market. Education could not bring them enough good luck to avoid being an ant,' Lian said.

Next year, 6.6 million university graduates will look for jobs, along with the hundreds of thousands of this year's graduates who are still unemployed.

One of the other characteristics that set the ants apart from migrant workers with less education was that they cared about social development on the mainland and did not hesitate to voice their concerns through miniblogs or online forums.

'They have mixed feelings towards those in the 'rich second generation' [children of entrepreneurs] and 'official second generation' [children of government and Communist Party cadres]: they're outraged, sad and jealous,' Lian said.

In their own lives, they think they too often receive unreasonable treatment and are looked down upon.

'For example, private enterprises don't pay them overtime or fire them at the end of a probationary period,' Lian said.

'A man wrote to me that one day security guards in downtown Beijing sent away the minivan he and his friends drove, saying that no parking was allowed in the area. But not far away was a parked BMW.'

Many ants said they had no sense of loyalty to the cities where they lived and had no sense of dignity.

'They say this is an era with everyone feeling insecure. People in today's society lack a sense of social security, personal safety, justice and even dreams,' he said.

Even so, the ants were optimistic about their own futures, said Lian, who expressed concern over the bursting of so many dreams.

'If they find they still can't afford to buy a house or car five years later,' he said, 'what will they do then?'