From where I sit - Cultural revolutions

February 9, 2012

As the Year of the Dragon begins, many Chinese university graduates have decided to return to major cities: the very cities they previously fled for their home towns because of cut-throat competition for jobs and exorbitant living costs.

The return of graduates to cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen has become a hot topic for national and local media, just as it was two years ago when the Guangzhou-based publication New Weekly listed 10 reasons to abandon these cities in favour of home towns or other second-tier cities.

According to the Chinese College Graduates' Employment Annual Report (2011) published by the Mycos Institute, 22 per cent of those who found their first job in major cities left after three years. One survey conducted by www.Chinahr.com in 2008 could explain what triggered this cycle of stay-leave-return.

More than 60 per cent of respondents working in the four cities mentioned above said that the city's "level of modernisation" was the most important factor in their decision.

But to the question "which word best reflects the city in which you work", 48 per cent of Guangzhou respondents and 47 per cent of Shenzhen respondents said it was "depression"; for 21 per cent of Beijing respondents it was "exclusivism"; and for 26 per cent of Shanghai respondents it was "snobbishness".

Skyrocketing property prices were also a factor. As the popular writer and blogger Han Han once put it: unless the realty business in China collapses, Chinese youth will not have hope.

So graduates chose to bid farewell to the big cities in which they once placed their dreams, and go back to their home towns and parents. In football terms, it was akin to running out of attacking options and making a reluctant back-pass to the goalkeeper.

But in reality, going back home didn't make the lives of these graduates any easier. In one story that appeared in the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend newspaper, a student dreamed of becoming a newspaper columnist after he graduated from the Communication University of China.

But he found he couldn't bear life in Beijing: the low pay, high housing costs, bad traffic and boring job in public relations. So he decided to leave the capital and return to his home town, a small city in Hubei province.

Thanks to his parents' connections, he landed a new job - a good position in the local office of the state tobacco monopoly bureau - which was well-paid and undemanding. The daily routine was to send faxes and accompany his boss to various banquets.

But he hated the way he and his boss were treated by tobacco businessmen, with their gifts of cash and cartons of cigarettes. So he decided enough was enough and went back to Beijing to try his luck there again.

Wang Shichuan has argued, in the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post newspaper, that the return of these university graduates to these cities suggests that the new generation prefers transparency and rule of law, which are better observed in the metropolitan cities. But he pointed out that even in these cities, "sometimes it relies more on social networks and relations".

I imagine that thousands of difficult decisions like this are made every day. I just wish those who make these choices good luck, wherever they are.

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