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China's Ant Tribe: millions of unemployed college grads

Despite China's fast-growing economy, many Chinese college grads are struggling to find jobs or scraping by on meager salaries. Beijing worries that this new group - the "Ant Tribe" - could pose a threat to political stability.

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Even those graduates who have found jobs to suit them are finding life a lot harder than they had expected.

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Bent over a 75-cent plate of noodles in a crowded restaurant one recent Saturday lunchtime, Zhang Haijuan is one of them. Like Deng, she too studied biomedical engineering. But instead of rushing to Beijing upon graduation four years ago, she stayed in the province of Henan, where she had studied, and did a boring job in a yeast factory for a couple of years.

That gave her the work experience she needed to land the job she has now, as a quality controller in a Beijing factory making medicines, Zhang says.

But she still earns only 2,500 RMB ($370) a month, which is no more than the average urban worker earns in China regardless of their academic achievements. The only place she can afford to live is a tiny bed-sit in Tangjialing, a warren of dorm-style buildings on the very edge of Beijing where an estimated 50,000 young people like Ms. Zhang have found cheap lodgings.

She buys only what she really needs, she says, so as to be able to afford food and clothes and medicine for her parents, peasant farmers who never dreamed of going to university themselves but put all three of their children through college.

Her parents “would never say anything about my salary,” Zhang says. “But I sometimes talk with my friends about whether it’s been worth it; we made so much effort in college and now I earn less than some of my classmates who didn’t go higher than middle school. That frustrates me.”

Running on determination

Most of the ‘Ant Tribe” in Beijing are like Zhang, says researcher Lian – single twenty-somethings from the provinces, with degrees from minor universities but ambitions in the major leagues.

“The big gap between the cities and the countryside means that talent and resources all go to the big cities,” Lian explains. “The graduates do not want to go back; they prefer a single bed in Beijing to a house in their hometown.”

Most of them, like Deng – confident he will make a career in marketing, or get into grad school, or both – and Zhang, who has just moved into a more comfortable bed-sit, closer to the bus stop, seem optimistic about the future, says Lian.

“But if their dreams collapse and they cannot find a good explanation for their failure it could be dangerous,” he predicts. “They were taught that knowledge could change their fate, but they find that is not true. If they can’t even find a job, they may oppose society.”

For the time being, Lian says, he sees no great threat to social stability, and the government is moving to head off any danger. “But the future depends on how society guides this group,” he adds. “If society treats them badly…how will they pay society back? Paying attention to the “Ant Tribe” is paying attention to society’s future.”

For her part, Zhang Haijuan is focusing only on her own future. “This is the way things are, we have to face facts,” she says bluntly about her parsimonious lifestyle.m “I feel that since I have worked so hard, all I can do now is to work even harder and learn more skills for a better future,” she adds. “I have no other option.”