By Liu Meng
Lian Si, a postdoctoral student of political science at Peking University, published his first book, Ants (Yizu), an exposé based on his two-year investigation into the communities of low-income college graduates living in suburbs of China's largest cities in September.
Ever since colleges and universities increased their enrollment a decade ago, many graduates leave school only to be rudely awakened by a saturated job market. Unable to continue to afford the high cost of living in the inner city, they are forced to the low-rent suburbs, which are rapidly developing into "slums of intellectuals."
Lian vividly describes this group of unemployed youth as "ants."
"Ants are the smartest kind of insect; despite their size, they are diligent, hard working, and if left ignored, can bring about serious problems," explains Lian.
"Also, they live in their own 'colonies' as ants do," he added.
Lian, a native Beijinger who did his doctoral thesis at Renmin University of China (RUC) School of Law, was president of the student body and even served as the assistant to the mayor of Guangshui, Hubei Province, would seem to be far removed from knowing the plight of such a marginalized group.
But two years ago, Lian ran across an article entitled The Down Youth (Xiangxia de qingchun) published in China Newsweek featuring the compelling story of Li Jing, an undergrad living in Tangjialing village of the capital's Haidian district. What he read intrigued him.
"Both Li and I are of the 1980s generation and have a college education. I can't imagine a graduate in Beijing suffering such hardship," said Lian.
Curious, Lian went to Tangjialing to investigate in late 2007.
As recorded in Ants, Tangjialing is a typical Beijing suburb; its convenient transportation and low cost of living make it an ideal place for struggling grads to collect.
According to Lian, compared with only 3,000 locals, most living in Tangjialing are college students who have graduated within the last five years, amounting to nearly 50,000.
"Most of them make no more than 2,000 yuan ($293) a month. They rent a bunk bed for about 300 yuan ($44), have two meals a day, and commute one to two hours' to work in central Beijing," he explained.
After returning from Tangjialing, Lian decided to further study this group.
"These graduates went to college with a dream and left with great ambitions, but the real world taught them what life is about," Lian said.
In February of this year, Lian and a group of researchers moved to Tangjialing, living in the "ant colony" for two months, finding that while some graduated from major universities, most are from lesser known colleges or private schools.
"Some are unemployed, while most are part-timers doing promotion, catering or sales jobs," he said. "Most living eight crammed in a room with no more than 10 square meters per person."
What impressed Lian most was spending the Spring Festival in Tangjialing.
"I experienced both their happiness and loneliness. When the New Year's Eve bell was ringing, many began crying on each other's shoulders," Lian said.
As young men who have graduated and are working in Beijing, most people assume they are now enjoying the good life the capital can provide. Many of their parents even brag of them as shining examples of success the youth in their hometowns should follow.
But on this holiday of family reunions, they dare not go back home, wanting to keep their parents from knowing how they really live.
"Life is hard for them, but generally they remain positive and strong-willed," he explained.
The book stresses how these "insects" never give up and are constantly striving for a better future. "An 'ant friend' told me, 'I don't think I am a loser, I just haven't succeeded yet,'" recounted Lian.
"Sometimes, it was their positive spirit that touched us the most and encouraged us to continue our research."
Lian discovered that there are more than 100,000 "ants" living in Beijing alone. Furthermore, similar communities also exist in Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou and Xi'an.
In Lian's opinion, the "ant" phenomenon stems from two important social issues – the disparity between urban and rural areas and increasing university enrollment quotas during the reform of the educational system in the 1990s.
According to the investigation, 54.7 percent of the "ants" hail from the countryside, with 38.3 percent coming from underdeveloped counties or prefectural-level cities.
Lian explained that after graduation, without money or social connections, students originally from rural areas return to communal village living by constructing "ant colonies."
"But those from big cities are able to find jobs much more easily," he said.
As for the expansion of university enrollment, Lian believes that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits, explaining that after the increased quota large numbers of students graduating with certain majors flooded the job market, squeezing many out of work.
But Lian recognizes the significance of the "ants" in society, suggesting they are a generation which offers a key to understanding Chinese societal change.
"They are a group little known to the public, but they are a well-educated generation. In 10 or 20 years, through their hard work, they will be an important resource for the development of our country," Lian said.
Lian is planning a follow up to Ants, focusing on the views of the group from many different social perspectives, including netizens.
"I can't help them solve all their problems, but I can use my pen to make more people aware, care and help them," Lian added.
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