Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The "Ants" of China

China places an enormous value on education – both the society and the government are, rightly, obsessed with it. As a nation it has done a fantastic job of educating huge chunks of its population and providing them with job opportunities. But it’s a massive task and sometimes education and jobs are not always in tandem. This was brought out to me in vivid detail when I read the book review of Ants (Yizu), a book in Chinese by Lian Si, a post doctoral student in Beijing.

Considering the scale of the task, China has been immensely successful in educating its population. In fact, so successful, that it has become a problem. In 2009, China produced more than 6 million college graduates. That gives it the headache of creating 6 million additional jobs every year. Not factory worker jobs, but skilled jobs befitting university graduates. How on earth do you add 6 million jobs year after year ? Just for appreciating the scale, the entire outsourcing industry in India, an undoubted success story, employs only 2 million people. And China has to find work for 6 million graduates, every year.

Ants is the story of the educated who can either not get a job at all, or get only a low wage job. They find it impossible to live in the inner city in the great metropolises of China – Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. They gravitate towards distant suburbs where the rents are affordable. Lian Si calls these localities “slums of intellectuals” and likens them to ant colonies in a positive sense. Ants are extremely diligent, hard working and smart. And they live in their own colonies

Lian Si lived among these ants as research for his book. He says they are mostly from the rural areas and were the product of China’s thrust into university enrollment. They went to college with a dream, but the real word has taught them a few lessons. In the last couple of years they have run bang into a saturated job market. After graduation, they neither have the money, nor the connections, so important in China. They therefore retreat to communal village living by creating “ant colonies”. They now live eight to a room and commute two hours one way to whatever work they can find. But they never give up and strive for a better future.

Chinese society is undergoing massive change today ; a change of such magnitude and speed that few societies in the world have seen. The ants, suggests Lian Si, will be a generation that will determine the future of China in the next 10 to 20 years.

A similar situation exists in India, of course, but I wrote about China because I stumbled on this book review. I wish I could read it, but alas, I fear I may never get around to learning to read Chinese. Echoing in my mind is a beautiful quote from Lian Si’s “ant friend” that perhaps sums up their attitude to life. “I don’t think I am a loser”, said his friend. “Its just that I haven’t succeeded as yet”.