From where I sit: Ant music from a lost tribe

April 1, 2010

In early March, the day before the annual meeting of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, three CPPCC representatives paid a visit to Tangjialing, a village in the Beijing suburbs.

There they saw the home of Li Liguo and Bai Wanlong: a 5sq m brick house, rented for 160 yuan (£16) a month. Both musicians, Mr Li and Mr Bai sang a tune they had penned, The Song of the Ant Tribe, and the CPPCC representatives burst into tears.

"Ant Tribe" is a term coined to describe the unemployed and low-income college graduates who live in China's rural-urban fringe. The term became hugely popular last year when Lian Si, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics, published pioneering research focusing on low-income college graduates and social stability.

According to Professor Lian, the Ant Tribe is made up of college graduates aged between 22 and 29. They work in insurance promotion, electronic-appliance sales, advertising and the restaurant business without contracts or social security benefits. Typically, their monthly income is less than 2,000 yuan.

Mr Li was born in 1979. After graduating from a technology institute in Liaoning Province, the software major quit his job in 2000 to try his luck in Beijing as a musician. He has not realised his dream, but still holds on.

After he became acquainted with Mr Bai, born in 1987, through a shared love of music, they formed a band to earn a meagre living by busking in the Beijing subway.

Tangjialing has perhaps the cheapest rent around Beijing, a city where the average property cost more than 20,000 yuan per sq m in 2009.

The village now has more than 60,000 tenants, and more than 70 per cent of them are college graduates. It is a place where they can enjoy low rents and cheap food.

But as the China Youth Daily newspaper points out, traffic at peak hours from Tangjialing to the city is appalling, and since the village has been "overloaded" with temporary housing, disasters such as fires will sooner or later befall the Ant Tribe members who live there.

What the CPPCC representatives saw in Tangjialing became a top story in the media and soon turned into a major national issue.

Chen Guangjin, an expert on employment issues at China's Social Science Academy, said in 2008 that for the 5.59 million college students who graduated that year, the unemployment rate was more than 12 per cent, about three times the official figure. By the end of 2008, more than 1.5 million college graduates were unemployed.

The Beijing municipal government has decided to reconstruct Tangjialing, but Ant Tribes have also appeared in Guangzhou, Shanghai and other cities.

A popular online post among the Ant Tribe internet community is: "All the ants, please come and post. Let the public understand what a huge tribe we are."

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