A string of villages on the outskirts of Beijing has become the unlikely focus of a national discussion about China's stubbornly tough job market for young people, as officials meet in the capital for the annual session of China's legislature.
The area north of Beijing is populated by young people who call themselves the 'ant tribe' because of their industriousness as well as their crowded, modest living conditions. Members of the National People's Congress, which is meeting this week in Beijing, held a press conference Thursday to highlight the plight of unemployed graduates and call for far-reaching reforms in the education system, which they say hasn't prepared students adequately for the job market. Proposals included more vocational training and greater interaction between schools and employers.
'The living conditions of some 'ants' could easily make people feel worried and also trigger people's discontented mood,' said Ge Jianxiong, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the advisory body that meets alongside the congress this week. 'This has to be given great attention by both the government and society.'
Earlier this month, some conference members visited the village. Several said they were moved to tears when they heard two students, who share a five-square-meter (54 square-feet) room, sang a song they composed about their tough lives.
Government statistics show 87% of college graduates found work last year. But many graduates doubt those figures, and they say that jobs that are available often pay a barely livable wage.
Underemployment among young graduates is the product largely of a rapid expansion by the country's state-controlled universities over the last decade that dramatically increased enrollment without adjusting the curriculum to provide students with more marketable skills.
Officials have acknowledged problems. Premier Wen Jiabao, in his annual work report that kicked off the National People's Congress last week, pledged to adjust university curriculums to 'meet employment needs and the needs of economic and social development.' He also announced plans to spend more than $6 billion this year to stimulate employment, with an emphasis on helping recent college graduates.
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The term 'ant tribe' was coined by Lian Si, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. In survey he made of 600 Beijing-area graduates between 2007 and 2009, Mr. Lian found their average monthly income was the equivalent of $300.
'The life of these college graduates is pretty tough,' Mr. Lian said. 'And what's worse, behind them, there are more than a million Chinese families' who sent their children to college hoping they'd make it in the big cities.
One of the places where the young people congregate is Xiaoyuehe, a crumbling one-street village on the north end of Beijing. On one side is a small canal and the other a crazy quilt of dorm-like rooms, cheap restaurants and muddy paths. Several thousand migrants live there, many of whom are college graduates from across China.
One is Zhao Lei, a 24-year-old computer science major who graduated in 2008 from Beijing Jiaotong University. Mr. Zhao shares a 12-square-meter with five others. 'For most of us who live here, we choose to live here as we have no alternatives,' Mr. Zhao said. 'This is a place we could afford with our meager income when we first step into society.'
Mr. Zhao said it's good to know that the 'ant tribe' that he belongs to finally caught wide attention from society, but he also says that what they need is not discussion but 'real help that won't cause our dreams to be shattered by cruel reality.'
Mr. Lian, the professor, estimates that there are more than 100,000 college graduates living in different 'settlement villages' on the periphery of Beijing. The number has grown quickly in recent years as more college graduates from rapidly expanding universities around China flocked to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. A big portion of the college graduates stuck in the settlement villages on the outskirts of Beijing are from rural China. Those who have jobs are mostly engaged in temporary IT-related work in Zhongguancun, a district of the city sometimes called China's Silicon Valley, or in the services industry.
Local officials say they're trying to improve the situation. Officials in Tangjialing recently rolled out an ambitious plan to renovate the area by investing the equivalent of $600 million to replace the hovels with high-rise apartment buildings that can house 20,000 college graduates.