News / Asia

Chinese Graduates Grow Restless in Beijing's Low-Cost 'Ant Colony'

On the outskirts of China's capital Beijing is a bustling ghetto dubbed the ant colony - a vast community of young professionals forced to live in tough conditions because of a tight job market and rocketing property prices.

Hugging a heater for warmth, 23-year-old Fu Ming surveys the small cell-like room she calls home. She admits it is not quite the life she envisaged after graduating from university as a computer programmer.

She is one of around 50,000 living in Beijing's so-called ant colony - a community of young, educated professionals forced to live in cramped but cheap conditions on the fringes of a suburb called Tangjialing.

Fu Ming, from Inner Mongolia, moved to Beijing in search of a career two years ago. But success has been hard to find. She makes the long commute to a low-paid job - the average wage for a university graduate is around $320 a month - from the shanty town because rents in the city are too expensive.

She says she gets up at 5.30 a.m. and gets to the office via the bus and subway, and she gets home around 9 p.m. Fu says she can not afford to move nearer to work, and that she would like to buy a house.

Fu's room only has one window, which looks onto the dark narrow corridor. The rooms have no running water or air conditioning, but they do have heat and a hot plate for cooking. Laundry is strong along the walls.

Passers-by peer in, adding to the prison atmosphere. But she says she is lucky because she can afford the 300 rmb rent. As many as four tenants are crammed into some rooms.

There is Internet access for those who can afford it, but a television is a luxury Fu cannot afford. She writes a blog about her life in the ghetto and e-mails friends and family detailing her disappointment and "empty feelings".

Tangjialing has become an example of the paradox of China's fast-paced economy.

After expanding universities in the 1980's, China now has more than six million graduates a year, but there are not enough well-paid jobs to go round.

Considered over qualified in their hometowns, the graduates flock to the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai - only to discover they must share bunk beds and rent Spartan rooms to survive. Their dreams of the urban middle-class lifestyle are put on hold.

Just over two years ago, Tangjialing ago was a rural village of 3.000.  But the farmers cashed in on the need for affordable housing and hastily built two and three story dormitories, often illegally. Few of the complexes have fire escapes and other safety measures.

But Fu's home and those of her peers are under threat.

Concerned about the bad image of young university graduates living in slums and the resentment it could foster, the authorities plan to demolish Tiangjialing. They say the area needs to be rebuilt and promise low cost, modern housing for the ant tribe.

The issue has been deemed politically sensitive, however, and officials are reluctant to talk. But many of the "ants" are growing restless. They agree the place is a slum. But as migrant workers, they do not posses the important Beijing hukou registration papers that entitle them to subsidized housing.

Every Chinese is entitled to social security - but only in their home cities, towns and villages.

Computer engineer Zhou Hung is from Hunan and he says life is hard in Beijing without a hukou. Many fellow workers are priced out of the city. He says that he arrived last March with a group of about 30, but now only five or six of them are still here. The rest all left. He says work is hard to find and their expenses are rather high yet the wages are low.

He says if they demolish his home, he will return to his hometown, even though he has no prospects there.

He says he feels hopeless but he thinks the wrecking ball will anger the locals. He says he does not think the government can enforce demolition on the landlords. The landlords will protest because they earn a living.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

There is a good community spirit up and down the corridors. Many residents extend their university life by sharing a room with classmates.

House hunters and university friends Li Yu, Wang Xin and Wnag Yuan, from Shanxi province, are optimistic.

Wang says the buildings are OK and the security is good. If the price is reasonable she will try to live here for a long time. Her work is quite nearby.

Back in her room, Fu Ming says she will try to stay another year to see if her prospects improve. She props a piece of cardboard to block out stares from passersby and says she will make some pretty curtains when she gets the time.

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