Tuesday, 3 November 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”.

19 comments:

  1. i loved the last line and Im going to read the link completely, just breezed through it and it seems like a very gripping account..

    6 million every year! wow.. didnt know that there could be such a huge downslide to educating the massess..thanks so much for a very informative post.

    on a different note, i wish the perseverance of the 'ants' leads to some sweeping self employment advancements..

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  2. Vo!6million?every year?? I always wonder, with the sweeping increase in self-financial engg colleges in India,budding up every nook and corner,how are they going to place them appropriately. Now, this figure is nowhere compared to the figure you mention!Oh!Unbelievable!!


    And what an attitude that was? If only it is the thought in all of us, oh,what a scale of change that would be??

    //The ants, suggests Lian Si, will be a generation that will determine the future of China in the next 10 to 20 years.//
    I bet!!

    Wish none of the unemployed's mind gets corrupted by anti-social elements, be it India or China?

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  3. ping guo sha la3/11/09

    Yes, this is aboslutely a problem for Chinese education. There are a huge number of college graduates who live in the suburb, spend three or even more hours on road and get a low salary in big cities. They want to realize their dreams in big cities not rural area. Maybe I'll be such an ant later on.

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  4. Exkalibur6663/11/09

    Great post. I should get hold of translated copy of the book if available.

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  5. The power of china is the dynamics of scale. they taught the world what cost manufacturing is all about. Now they are out to create a new history. low cost service industry. this is just a forewarning for all the countries. it is just a matter of time, these ants are going to give a new meaning to intellectual outsourcing. Beware India. Beware ROW

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  6. The post and review leaves me with mixed feelings of pity and admiration. In the original article, the author suggests that this plight is worse for those without social connection ...
    //
    "But those from big cities are able to find jobs much more easily," he said.
    //
    This government policy, misguided though potentially well-intentioned, removed people from their familiar settings and made them unfit for both city and rural life. As long as these "ants" stay positive, it is a huge asset for China but there is also the real danger of resentment brewing.

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  7. Durga3/11/09

    6 million graduates and 6 million additional jobs! But aren't we forgetting the migratory population here Ramesh? I know it wouldn't even account for 10% of those 6 million, nonetheless, to that extent there will be a brain-drain in China. The number of Chinese one gets to see in US is phenomenal, or for that matter, any of the first world countries. Likewise in India. Only, that all "reverse" brain-drains are temporary in India, unlike in China. The Chinese government is much more geared up to handle this than the Indian government!

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  8. Very exact thought I was thinking about Ramesh... One of the biggest burden of India is its population... But this burden has to be transformed into its strength by educating... the one education will brand them as intellectual mass...

    These ants, as you call has the power to build a new India in the coming decades....

    I don’t think I am a loser”, “Its just that I haven’t succeeded as yet" - excellent quote!!!

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  9. In a way its good! This very hunger and drive has turned the Asians into a sought after workforce everywhere!

    In this part of the world, the comforts of their lives have actually screwed up the level of education in their society. Students don't wish to study beyond high-school. You have Mr. Obama urging Moms to study on facebook, addressing school children every now and then and similar things.

    I'd prefer to be in the 'ant community' fighting and striving, rather than complacency decaying my skills.

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  10. @AJCL - You are very right. Chinese are born entrepreneurs. The impression of China is of huge state owned companies. Actually small businesses started by entrepreneurs employ many times more people than big monoliths. Many yougsters start their own businesses.

    @athivas - Yes 6 million is large, but the Indian number of 3 million or so is huge as well. Both countries face the massive challenge of creating enough jobs, else as you say it will lead to social trouble.

    @Zhang - No way, you'll never become an ant. You are a born teacher and you will simply excel at this, so much so, that employers will compete with each other for you to join them.

    @Exkalibur - Not sure if the book will ever be translated. Much of Chinese work never gets published in English.

    @Sandhya - I don't see China as a threat. There are many aspects of how things are run here that other countries can copy. They have pioneered a unique model of development. And naturally, not everything is good as well; there are things others should not copy !

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  11. @J - Its the same conundrum that India and China grapple with - rural vs urban. In both countries, opportunities are being created only in the urban world. Rural folk migratingare at a disadvantage, but I believe only for one generation.

    @Durga - In terms of numbers the numbers going abroad are miniscule. The problem is that they are usually the cream at the very top. Even in China, very few people really care whether those gone abroad come back or not.

    @Bala - Education is the abolute holy grail. The way China has developed its universities is breathtaking. India had great institutions at school and collge level, but they were primarily created in the Nehru era. Since then we have stagnated. The only solution, as you say, is widesperad education. China was way back after the cultural revolution. In 20-25 years, they have virtually turned everything around.

    @Deepa - Yes, they are hungry for success and work hard for it. But the phenomenon of easy life is coming here in China as well. Where the first generation toiled and have made great strides, their children do not exhibit the same hunger for success as their parents had. I suppose this is human nature.

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  12. The last line rings so true!! The scarcity of jobs is as bad as having a drought isn't it?

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  13. Thats a brand new information for me! 6 million people every year competiting for few jobs! thats pathetic. I always thought education is good until recently when I saw someone working on the street collecting cans.

    I told myself if everyone is educated in finance and science, would they be interested to do cleaning/cooking or washing jobs? so how long its going to take to have a generation where everyone is educated!?

    In a weird way the irregularities of the soceity helps sometimes, I mean i am not saying someone should earna hard labour but there has to be a better way. Perhaps finding passion in your work would help.

    There would be no dentists who are born painters, no programmers who are born hair stylists.

    p.s: you seem bit busy these days :) everything alright ? :)

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  14. Is this the fall out of massive industrialisation, that the jobs in rural areas are diminishing or the craving for material benefits

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  15. I love the last line. It will be a part of my quotable quotes from now on.

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  16. From 'factories without smoke to Ants'...Chinese have really come a lobg way. But one thing needs to be seen as quality of education given to the guys.
    India also produces nearly 2 lakh engineers but industry find only 20,000 of them suitable for jobs. This is clear mismatch between needs of industry and training imparted.

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  17. Coming as I did from a Government Arts College in a small town, that had law and order problems constantly and produced several MLAs and one Chief Minister, I count myself a near-Ant. I tell people I am lucky, thats all. For every bright Indian who has made it, there are 25 others who never had the chances he had. Something that all of us should keep in mind. "There but for the Grace of God go I.

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  18. @thoughtful train - Worse than a drought , I think.

    @Sri - A general problem everywhere is that growth seems to happen withoutn jobs. Jobs are fundamental to any society and this is a real problem everywhere. Thanks for asking Sri - I'm just getting a bit lazy.

    @sabareesan - There's a separate problem in China with the non graduate factory worker - there the migration from villages is a staggering number.

    @Priya - Its very nice, wasn't it ? Its echoing in my ears.

    @Adesh - Same problem here too. Much of the education is of dubious quality. But they are improving by leaps and bounds every year - therein lies the difference. The investment China is making in eductation is many times that in India.

    @Ravi - We are blessed indeed. We were lucky. When we were young and there weren't many job opportunities in India, how many unemployed brilliant graduates there were. Truly India has come a long way too.

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  19. It is in-depth analysis. Well done.

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