Subterranean homesick blues

Updated: 2013-12-14 07:15

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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As a matter of fact, media coverage of the so-called "ants tribe" - those living in tiny cells a la ants - in the city's suburbs or basements caused a similar backlash when municipalities cracked down by strengthening and enforcing the fire code. Was it a preemptive act of responsibility for those living within its jurisdiction, or was it a step to drive out those who economically do not belong in the city? My guess is both.

An individual's early departure from a city in the aftermath of a crackdown might have meant the loss of a coveted job. On an optimistic note, the "ant" might have got a better offer elsewhere for the same reason. In recent years, large numbers of people have swarmed to big cities and then left en masse when disappointed in job seeking. It is a manifestation of supply and demand of the job market. Long term, it should reach equilibrium, at least in theory.

What should be done at the state level is to achieve a more balanced deployment of resources. In China, large cities receive an overwhelming share of investment. Take education. Almost all of China's best universities are in first-tier cities. The best companies are also headquartered there, not to mention government agencies. If you are an ambitious student, you would not even consider a second-tier city for employment. You would want to be enrolled in a first-rate college and not step down afterwards.

When everyone thinks and acts that way, "ants" communities emerge around a metropolis.

Now, if half of the nation's top schools of advanced learning are moved to second- or third-tier cities or their suburbs - more importantly, if half of the nation's large employers are moved out of those megacities - people may not feel compelled to go there for work. Compare this situation with the United States. How many of its top universities and top companies are headquartered in the biggest three cities of the country? Even without the state-driven concentration common in China, New York is already superjammed with rents sky high.

The propensity for concentrating all we have on a few prominent cases is rooted in our cultural genes. Even a poor Chinese family would spend a king's ransom to dine and wine an outside guest - mainly to make a good impression. In that effort we tend to forget that everything will be magnified in such a situation, including undesirable elements. The bigger the city, the bigger the problems managing it.

Ever since the go-west campaign was introduced about a decade ago, there has been a palpable change. Fewer people are migrating to big cities as more jobs become available closer to home. What appears as a labor shortage along the coast can be read as a positive sign for the hinterland, which has been receiving more investment. I once interviewed a farmer's wife in Guizhou province who said her husband was moving back home because he could make 2,000 yuan a month at home versus 2,500 yuan far away. On balance, the dip in nominal income was deceptive because it was cheaper to live with the whole family.

Now, Wang Xiuqing and his squatting family have been offered jobs both in Beijing and back home. Reportedly the one in Beijing comes with a monthly wage of 3,000 to 4,000 yuan, plus free food and lodging. He'll probably weigh the pros and cons of the options. Of course, his is a special case, which got tons of publicity. Others may not be so lucky or find jobs that enticing. But it's only natural that people go around searching for something better.

Authorities are also looking into whether Wang and his children are eligible for financial aid, which tests the integrity of the welfare system.

There will always be poverty. Even if the poor hide themselves underground, the sparkle of the urban landscape will be dimmed a bit. But a society has to make sure the majority moves up the economic ladder to ensure that prosperity trickles into every nook and cranny. Compassion can alleviate symptoms, but it'll take structural reform to prevent an army of dungeon squatters forming in our big cities.

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