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Young, educated and jobless in China

With millions graduating from college each year and few jobs awaiting them, the country's central planners worry that a mass social experiment that created a class of professionals is backfiring.

February 18, 2010|By David Pierson

Reporting from Beijing — Six months after graduating from university, Guan Jian was unemployed and living in an 8-by-8-foot rented room on the fringes of this sprawling capital.

His quarters were so hastily built that the landlord didn't bother to include a bathroom. When duty calls, Guan must trudge to the neighborhood toilet. Yet at $65 a month, it's all he can afford. Money is so tight at times that he has learned to suppress his hunger with a single steamed bun a day.

This wasn't how things were supposed to be for Guan, a 24-year-old broadcast journalism graduate who sports an easy smile and has a love affair with foreign film. A native of China's northeastern Rust Belt and the first in his family to earn a college degree, Guan thought opportunities would come more easily.

Instead, he is one of an estimated 3 million jobless or underemployed college graduates in China, products of a mass social experiment by central planners to churn out more professionals for China's economic development. Nicknamed the Ant Tribe, after the title of a recent book documenting their struggles, they now constitute a vast army of educated young people whose growing restlessness worries the Chinese government.

"They represent the pain and confusion of a whole generation," wrote author Lian Si, a sociologist who spent two years living with and researching the graduates. "When all their anger and grievances reach a critical point, a special event could trigger a large-scale mass movement."

Recognizing the potential threat, Beijing is urging state-run companies to put college graduates on their payrolls, and it's encouraging degree holders to work in the countryside. Others are being steered into the military. State media have reported female graduates seeking marriage just end their fruitless job hunt.

The ants' story began a little over a decade ago, in 1999, when the Chinese government launched an ambitious plan to boost university enrollment by 30% annually. At the time, the country's factories were suffering from the Asian financial crisis. Planners believed a rise in college rolls would help China transition from a largely export-driven, low-wage manufacturing economy to a more balanced one populated by upwardly mobile white-collar workers.

Undergraduate enrollment quintupled to 20 million students by 2008; last year 6.1 million Chinese earned diplomas, up from 1 million in 1999. But it soon became clear there weren't enough suitable jobs for these freshly minted graduates. Beijing has slashed college enrollment growth to 5% annually.

"Everyone's realized the government has failed to create enough jobs," said Su Hong, 23. The sociology graduate was one of 1 million Chinese who took a civil service exam in December to compete for 15,000 openings. "People's expectations for employment are getting lower and lower," she said.

For journalism grad Guan, a college degree was supposed to be a leg up from his working-class roots in Fushun, an industrial city best known for its gigantic open-pit coal mine.

After graduating last year from Bohai University in his home province of Liaoning, a region better known to Westerners as Manchuria, Guan headed for Beijing. He was one of thousands to apply for work at a television station. He made it to the final round of six. Two were chosen, but not he.

Shrugging off the rejection, he joined three college buddies living in a cheap neighborhood called Fuyuanmen, or Gate of Fortune and Destiny, in a far-northwest section of the capital.

Homeowners there, sensing the demand for affordable rentals, started putting additions on their square, gray-brick houses. Guan's landlord purchased two prefabricated metal shelters, the type used to house migrant Chinese laborers on construction sites, and attached them to his roof. He then subdivided them like rabbit hutches to create four cramped rooms, each about the size of a typical American bathroom.

To reach his room, Guan must climb a steep, steel staircase to the roof, which doubles as a patio. The four friends share one sink and cook on an electric hot plate covered with a waxy layer of grease. The quarters are often chilly, but Guan's Manchurian roots have toughened him to Beijing's frosty winters.

Guan has done what he can to enliven his surroundings. He laid interlocking colored foam tiles on the floor to act as a carpet. He hung a $1 poster of a lighthouse. His girlfriend visited from Liaoning province and affixed cartoon monkey stickers to the tatty walls. She gave him a teddy bear in denim overalls. It sleeps with Guan under his Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck bed sheets. Nearby is an empty cookie box where he stores his DVDs. One of his favorites is Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 classic "Blow-Up."

Despite the cramped and dirty conditions, Guan is stoic. "The bathroom situation is inconvenient," he admitted. But "Chinese people are used to small spaces. My friends say my room is cozy."

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