BEIJING - Live to work, or work for a life -- Ding Shuai had to make a tough decision after six years living in the Chinese capital, home to nearly 20 million people.
A month ago, Ding, 24, packed all his belongings and moved to Xiamen, a coastal city of 2.52 million people in southeast China's Fujian province.
It was not Beijing's notoriously high housing prices that made him leave, but the lifestyle.
"The rat race in the capital exhausted me," Ding says.
He had struggled in Beijing, working as a model and TV program host with a monthly income of about 5,000 yuan ($732.5) after graduating from a leading university in Beijing.
"Last November I suddenly lost my voice after days of round-the-clock work," Ding said. "I still feel uncomfortable when singing high notes."
The incident helped seal his decision to accept an offer to be a host on a local TV station in Xiamen.
He bought a 70-square-meter apartment in Xiamen.
"My parents can come to stay with me after I move this summer," he says. "It's a new beginning rather than a retreat from failure."
An ongoing poll by China's leading portal, Sina.com, shows many young Chinese feel the same way. From March 1 to Saturday, 75.3 percent of the total 8,729 participants said they planned to leave big cities, like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Professor Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University, welcomes the trend.
"We still can't say it is the mainstream choice among young people to leave big cities, but it is good to see that well-educated youth have a better understanding of life and make rational plans," says Xia. "This also gives small and medium-sized cities a good chance to draw talent."
For decades, cities like Beijing have been magnets for young people, promising good incomes, more career opportunities and a fast lifestyle.
They still do, but smaller cities in east China and provincial capitals have been catching up, thanks to the economic boom, with other advantages like light traffic, moderate living cost and relatively good air quality.
Biking with friends along a twisting cobblestone lane leading to his new home, Ding still marvels at the relaxed pace of life.
"Don't be fooled by the casual atmosphere. Xiamen is no backwater," Ding says.
He was surprised to find Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton in shopping malls in the city, whose gross domestic product rose 8 percent to 16.23 billion yuan ($2.38 billion) in 2009.
A report issued by the United Nations in March said China's urban population had more than doubled from 1980 to 2010, surging from 19 percent of the total population to 47 percent, and it was estimated to reach 59 percent by 2025.
A warm welcome
Cities like Xiamen have generous policies to woo young talent.
Ningbo, a fast growing port city in eastern Zhejiang province, gives housing subsidies ranging from 500,000 to 1.5 million yuan ($73,250 to $219,750) to sought after professionals.
Tianjin, Dalian and Qingdao had flexible residency permit (hukou) policies to enable easy access to health care, home purchasing and education.
"Given the higher operating costs and tough competition in large cities, many companies are also thinking about relocating to small cities where the infrastructure is in place," says Kuai Yanli, an urban planning expert at Renmin University.
Tianjin, 30 minutes from Beijing by high-speed train, had attracted 136 of the world's top 500 companies listed by Fortune magazine with $901.9 million of foreign investment by last year.
Microsoft and Boeing have set up outsourcing delivery centers in Wuxi city, Jiangsu province, with a population of 3.71 million.
With more companies arriving, smaller cities have more job opportunities. According to jobkoo.com, a job-hunting website in China, Tianjin provided about 20,300 positions in March, double that of February. Jobs in smaller cities in the Yangtze and Pearl river deltas rose by 70 percent from February to March.
"With more people, smaller cities should be aware of sustainable development, learning the lessons from big cities," Kuai says. "They should carefully maintain a balance. Without a moderate population, they will lose their advantages and people will leave again."
She says big Chinese cities should review their development policies. "We can't say urban planning in Beijing or Shanghai has failed, but they need to improve. A city has a responsibility to provide a comfortable environment for its residents. A large population is not an excuse for poor planning and management."
However, despite the problems, many want to move to or stay in Beijing.
"If I had a choice, I would live in Beijing," says Liao Wenying. After graduating from the elite Peking University, she went to work as a journalist at a newspaper in Ji'nan, capital of Shandong province.
"I like Beijing. It has a long history and rich culture and a tolerant character," she says.
Others stay in the hope of career success.
More than 40,000 college graduates, dubbed the "ant tribe," live in the slum-like colony at Tangjialing, 10 km from Zhongguancun, the high-tech heart of Beijing. Many hope to find opportunities there.
"As the country's cultural center, Beijing is still the best place for my career," Ding says. "One day, maybe I will be back."