Liu Jun sleeps in a room so small, he shares a bed with two other men. It’s all the scrawny computer engineering graduate can afford in a city so expensive that the average white-collar professional can’t afford to buy a home.
A dim fluorescent bulb hangs from the ceiling of the 17m² room on the fringes of Beijing.
The floor is littered with cigarette butts, dirty laundry and half-eaten paper bowls of spicy instant noodles.
“This is what I get for living with two guys,” the 24-year-old Liu says, hunched near a pile of used computer parts.
He’s a chain-smoker who speaks machine-gun rapid-fire fast.
“It’s not just the mess and lack of privacy, but it’s also embarrassing to bring girls home,” he said.
The dreams of many young educated Chinese are running up against the realities of China’s rapid economic ascent. Rising living costs and low salaries — the result of a surfeit of university graduates — are dashing high expectations.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in a small town forever, you know, like the frog in the well,” says Liu, who comes from a coal city in the often frozen far north. “I dreamed of achieving success on my own terms in the big city.”
One day he may. For now, Liu has joined the “ant tribe” — the millions of young Chinese so known for crowding together in slums in China’s largest cities.
His home lies about an hour north of downtown Beijing, down a tree-lined path where a rusty sign welcomes newcomers. Once a small village of farmers and laborers, Tangjialing emerged as a cut-rate bedroom community in 2003 after the opening of massive software parks nearby, including the headquarters of computer-maker Lenovo Group and the widely-used Internet search engine Baidu.com.
Now four to six-story cement buildings in pastel hues dot the village. Most rooms contain little more than a wardrobe, a bed and a nightstand. There’s no air-conditioning in weather that can reach above 38°C. Rent is US$45 to US$100 a month.
Those willing to pay US$15 more get a bathroom. Others use the public bath.
The term “ant tribe” was coined by Lian Si (廉思), a professor who wrote a book with that title about the post-1980 generation.
“Unlike slums in South America or Southeast Asia, these villages are populated with educated young people as opposed to laborers or street peddlers,” says Lian, who teaches at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.
The Chinese born after 1980 are among the most privileged generation in China’s long history. Living after the communist government gave up the radical politics that tossed their parents and grandparents between chaos and penury, they have known only ever-rising levels of prosperity.
In their lifetimes, gleaming new office towers have remade China’s cities. Hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty.
Travel abroad, private cars and apartments and a university education — all once the preserve of the elite — are increasingly common.
Vibrant megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai are the epitome of this good life. So the ant generation comes, bringing its aspirations.
But their very abundance keeps entry-level salaries low, while housing and other costs rise. Real estate prices have doubled in just three years in major cities, outpacing a 40 percent increase in urban wages from 2005 to last year.