Smart, Young, and Broke

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu and Marije Vlaskamp

White-collar workers are china's newest underclass.

At first glance, Guo Yilei looks like a Chinese success story. Born to a poor peasant family in China's remote Gansu province, he's now a 26-year-old computer programmer in the Big Cabbage (as some call Beijing nowadays). By Chinese standards he makes decent money, more than $70 a week. When he has work, that is. It can take months to find the next job. And meanwhile, he's living in Tangjialing, a reeking slum on the city's edge where he and his girlfriend rent a 100-square-foot studio apartment for $90 a month. "When I was at school, I believed in the saying, 'Knowledge can help you turn over a new leaf,'" says Guo. "But since I've started working, I only half-believe it."

Guo and an estimated million others like him represent an unprecedented and troublesome development in China: a fast-growing white-collar underclass. Since the '90s, Chinese universities have doubled their admissions, far outpacing the job market for college grads. This year China's universities and tech institutes churned out roughly 6.3 million graduates. Many grew up in impoverished rural towns and villages and attended second- or third-tier schools in the provinces, trusting that studying hard would bring them better lives than their parents had. But when they move on and apply for jobs in Beijing or Shanghai or any of China's other booming metropolises, they get a nasty shock.

They may be smart and energetic, but some are starting to ask if the promise of a better life was a lie. They're known as "ants," for their willingness to work, their dirt-poor living conditions, and the seeming futility of their efforts. "These ants have high ambitions but virtually no practical skills," says Prof. Zhou Xiaozheng, a leading sociologist at the People's University of China. It's a potentially explosive situation. Unrest is sweeping the manufacturing sector, where strikers at several factories have demanded not only better pay but also the right to elect their own representatives for collective-bargaining efforts--a demand that could pose a serious political challenge to the regime.

The discontent rising among the ants is even more worrying. Blue-collar wages have actually soared recently, while white-collar pay is shrinking, thanks to a massive glut of university graduates. And salary cuts aren't their only complaint. Official Chinese labor statistics (which tend to be unrealistically rosy) claim that 87 percent of college grads find work of some sort sooner or later. In other words, even the government admits that at least one in eight is permanently unemployed. And those who get jobs don't always find work in their chosen fields. Nearly a third of Beijing's ants are employed in "sales in private business." For tech engineers, that often means peddling low-end electronic gear for the city's computer wholesalers.

Tangjialing used to be a quiet farming village of 3,000 or so, but in the past few years it has mushroomed to a population of 50,000 mostly underemployed young people, crammed into a trash-strewn warren of cramped alleys and subdivided rooms. …