China’s elite graduates increasingly head to smaller cities for work opportunities, quality of life

2015-08-12 01:55:17 GMT2015-08-12 09:55:17(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English
Over 500 companies offer 10,000 jobs to graduates in a job fair in Nantong, Jiangsu Province in February. Photo: ICOver 500 companies offer 10,000 jobs to graduates in a job fair in Nantong, Jiangsu Province in February. Photo: IC

Before graduating, Li Simin had to choose whether to stay in Beijing, where he studied at the prestigious Beihang University, or heading back to his home in western China.

Li is one of the 7.5 million graduates that will leave China's universities this summer. More than 70 percent of them will join the battle to employment. The remainder will go on to postgraduate studies or join the swelling legions of entrepreneurs.

According to a 2015 report from headhunting website zhaopin.com, of the new job seekers, 34 percent want to land a job in the first-tier cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen - home to the majority of leading tech, cultural and entertainment companies. If this number seems low, that is because it is, compared with last year when 48 percent of new graduates sought their fortunes in the big four. In 2013, over 50 percent of them targeted these megacities.

Li received offers from companies in both Beijing and Chengdu and finally opted for the latter, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan.

"The Beijing company could not offer me a permanent residence permit. And the air pollution, and the traffic jams... my dominant memory of the place is the congestion," said Li.

Chengdu is close to his hometown, the traffic is better, the air is cleaner and his salary is almost the same as in Beijing, where housing costs is four times higher. Most importantly, he feels more valued by his company because he comes from a Beijing university, where "everyone knows" the best education is to be had. In Beijing, such an education is common.

To flee or not to flee

The top cities seem to be losing their glamour and fast-rising second-tier cities like Chengdu, Dalian and Wuhan are offering graduates more employment possibilities and perhaps a better quality of life.

Ten years ago, almost all graduates of Tsinghua University, one of China's finest, remained in Beijing, but that number is now below 50 percent and is expected to fall again this year.

A survey of 551,000 graduates in 109 universities showed the second-tier cities of Hangzhou, Kunming and Chengdu are favorite destinations.

Skyrocketing living costs, pollution and traffic problems have dissuaded many from staying in the traditional powerhouses of graduate employment, according to sociologist Zhou Keda. More importantly, he says, graduates are not just being pushed away by the negatives, but are being pulled in by the positives.

Second-tier cities have been working hard to provide top-notch facilities in fields like education and medical care. A lot of support is available to new businesses and governments' environmental concerns are often less.

While preferential policies and good salaries attract the intelligent and the ambitious, top cities are struggling to curb population growth.

Beijing is enclosed by its two neighbors, Hebei Province and Tianjin. A development plan for the region means that industrial and human resources are moving out of the crowded capital and into the comparatively stress-free hinterland. The city has also been ordered to reduce the quota of new permanent residence permits, which leads to fewer job opportunities.

"Previously we talked about 'fleeing' Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Now, it is more like a natural flow based on more uniform urban development," said Xiong Hanzhong, founder of the Beijing youth stress management center.

East west, home's best

Hu Yi (pseudonym), graduate of the China University of Mining and Technology, never wanted to work in the capital. She works as a geological surveyor in Kunming, a southwestern city she describes as having a good climate and promising development prospects.

Seeing her classmates getting offers from the capital, she was not jealous. "I know what I want. I want a better quality of life, not just a job."

If you want to start your own business, a smaller city may be able to offer more. Chen Jing, 28, returned to his hometown. Kaixian, a small county in Chongqing. There Chen founded an organic food company and now sells honey and nuts via the Internet.

When he graduated in 2010, he visited many cities before choosing a home for his company. With cheap labor and plentiful natural resources, he opted to return to his roots.

Sociologist Zhou believes the flow of graduates into smaller cities will not just relieve the population burden of the metropolises, but balance the distribution of human resources and bring growth to less-developed areas.

"These graduates will grow into a strong middle class, which will not only be good for the economic structure of smaller cities, but will be good for the whole nation," he said.

Subterranean homesick blues

While some are beginning a new life in less-renowned cities, many graduates still come to the big cities and insist on staying.

Some eight million people live in Beijing without a permanent residence permit, a huge army of Beipiao - outsiders who work and live in Beijing with great ambition but without permanent homes or a decent quality of life. Many Beipiao live in basements, unable to afford a room above ground. Liu is one of them.

The flute major has never had a permanent job since graduating in 2012. He earns his living tutoring kids. His schedule is full during the summer holiday and he has finally earned enough money to move above ground, but the slack season is approaching and he is worried. Liu has no plans to leave the city. "I will stay here and fight for a better life," he said.

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