Many young Chinese are losing faith in China’s economic miracle. Although the nation’s economy has expanded to more than $7 trillion and is poised to overtake the US in the next decade as the world’s largest, fewer Chinese feel they are sharing in the prosperity.
A sense of disillusionment is spreading, particularly among the post-1980 generation, who are well-educated and mobile but still struggle to find profitable jobs.
Signs that the economy is slowing only add to the malaise. The Chinese government predicts the economy will grow by 7.5 per cent in 2012, down from 9.2 per cent last year, which would be the slowest growth rate since 1990. Economists say this could mean the loss of two million jobs.
At the same time a record number of new graduates are looking for work. Some 25 million Chinese will be on the job hunt this year. Even those who find work are frequently disappointed.
Surveys show that young Chinese office workers in big cities are widely unhappy. Most complain of a feeling of insecurity.
After two decades of economic reform, per capita GDP has risen 13-fold, and average salaries in major cities are on par with those in many developed countries. The post-80s generation, the first to come of age in this era of opportunity, has been raised on a belief that if one can do well in school, graduate from a good university and work hard on his or her career, one can enjoy a measure of success.
Instead, many find themselves squeezed by skyrocketing housing costs, rising prices for basic necessities and family pressures. As a large percentage of the post-80s generation are only children, they alone will be expected to provide for their parents and older relatives.
As many as three million young Chinese professionals toil in slum-like conditions in cramped housing on the outskirts of big cities. They are known as ‘ant tribes,’ a term coined by scholar Lian Si, China’s foremost researcher on post-80s graduates.
“They share every similarity with ants,” writes Lian. “They live in colonies in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid.”
Li Zhirui from China’s northeast is one of them. Home is an eight square metre space outside Beijing that costs 500 Chinese yuan per month, a quarter of his salary. He dreams of one day buying an apartment, but with average real estate prices in the capital soaring to more than 20,000 yuan per square metre, he could be in for a very long wait.
He has already lost his fiancée, who dumped him when he refused to buy a second-hand car and an engagement ring. The experiences of Li and other ‘ant tribes’ resonate strongly with young Chinese and have spawned a popular song and a TV series called Struggle of the Ant Tribe.
But for some despair takes over. Suicide has become the biggest cause of death for Chinese between 15 and 34 years of age.
In a recent trend, some young graduates are deciding to flee the big cities and instead seek opportunity in smaller cities and towns. But there, too, they are frustrated, as they discover that good diplomas – and even ability – do not open doors. Local networks and family background do.
Leading Chinese sociologist Guo Yuhua calls this phenomenon of young Chinese “escaping and returning” an example of widespread disappointment that is spreading across China. She says people are bitter when they see their social status languishing in contrast to the “rise of a great and powerful nation”.
“People are discovering that society’s resources and opportunities are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. People in the middle and lower strata of society are becoming increasingly marginalised and are finding that improving their lives is getting harder,” she says.
She warns this imbalance could lead to “the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, the strong permanently strong and the weak permanently weak …. The biggest harm may not be in the gap between rich and poor itself, but the deterioration of the overall societal ecosystem.”