China's "ant tribe" poses policy challenge for Beijing

Wed Feb 17, 2010 7:07pm EST
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By Ralph Jennings

TANGJIALING, China (Reuters) - They sleep in boxy rooms crammed into dingy low-rises and spend hours commuting to work on crowded buses as part of a trend of poorer white-collar workers being forced to the fringes of China's wealthiest cities.

Some say these struggling college graduates who swarm out of their cramped accommodations and head to work in the urban sprawl each morning are reminiscent of worker insects in a colony. Not surprisingly, they are often referred to as China's ant tribe.

The growing ranks of 'worker ants' poses a policy challenge for Beijing's Communist Party leaders as high property prices and dim career prospects thwart the ambitions of many graduates for a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

In Tangjialing, a dusty suburban Beijing village laced with dirt roads, college-educated software technician Kong Chao typifies the spartan existence of many such graduates.

"This is hard, but there's no other way," said Kong, 24, who is relatively fortunate as he has a toilet and cooking area in his cramped room and doesn't have to share with other tenants.

Kong pays 550 yuan ($81) a month in rent, about 10 percent of his monthly wage. A similar room in a central area of Beijing would eat up most of his salary.

"You see what a crowded city Beijing is," he said. "We younger people all come to seek work. But we can take it."

The rising number of graduates living on the edge of poverty in China's biggest cities could become a socio-economic challenge for the Chinese government, whose biggest fear is that economic stagnation could stoke discontent among educated urban classes, fuelling protests that challenge Communist Party rule.   Continued...