“Silent is Cambridge tonight… very quietly I left… Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away.”
So ends Xu Zhimo’s Saying Farewell to Cambridge – a poem that few alumni of the British university will be aware of.
But it turns out to be one of the most famous poems composed in China during the 20th century. For that reason a journalist at China Business was not surprised when he noted a text message mimicking Xu’s work, sent by young graduate Luo Lin as he quit Shanghai.
But whereas Xu’s poem may have been penned as a wistful lament, for a frustrated Luo there were fewer fond memories. His text? “I will not come again; I gently waved, bidding farewell to the high-rise buildings in Shanghai.”
Luo’s lament came as he waited at the city railway station to catch a train back to his hometown. The newspaper reckons it’s a story that speaks volumes about a serious social and economic problem facing the city.
Shanghai is always in the news – especially this week with the opening of the Shanghai Expo. But China Business looks beyond the metropolitan glitz and growth to ask if the future is quite as promising.
After all, the newspaper asks, didn’t Shanghai’s mayor, Han Zheng say recently that graduates like Luo were vital? “Young people are the hope of a city,” Han had said, “we hope with our efforts to make Shanghai one of the best cities for young people to learn, start businesses and make it a place that provides the best work environment.”
So China Business wonders why so many young people are “fleeing” the city. It returns to Luo Lin. “The mayor’s statement didn’t shake Luo’s decision. He did not hesitate, but said farewell to Shanghai and the living conditions that brought him no happiness.”
Luo graduated from a university in Wuhan and was drawn by Shanghai’s economic promise. But he soon found life tough. He got a job paying Rmb6,000 ($878.8) per month but after taxes had little money left. The city’s rapidly increasing cost of living – rent, meals and such like – meant he had no savings.
So Luo took the decision to join what local media have called ‘the ant tribe’: not a street gang but an unenviable lifestyle choice that sees young graduates cram into tiny, shared accomodation. Luo traded his apartment for a room just big enough for three berths, where he slept alongside two other lodgers.
The term was coined by sociologist Lian Si. Like graduates “ants are smart,” he told the Global Times. They also live in confined conditions. Luo’s move saw his monthly rent drop to Rmb500, but he still wasn’t happy. “I did not expect that I would fall into the ant tribe,” he says. “I originally had the idea I would do something big when I came from Wuhan to Shanghai.” Instead he found that he spent all his time either at work or stuck on congested roads or subways. Everything seemed to be gettingmore expensive and he was left with no time to “make serious friends, or cultivate an interest, let alone enjoy life.” Hence his decision to leave.
Professor Hu Junchen, a human resources expert at Fudan University, says Luo’s case is far from unique. “I have been concerned about the phenomenon of many young people leaving Shanghai. It is a challenge. Shanghai’s problem is not only whether it is able to retain existing personnel, but attract young talent. The main reason is housing prices that are too high and the rising price of commodities.”
Last year, the city’s house prices soared 50% and China Business reckons that has made it even harder to lure talent. It interviewed a Stanford Ph.D called He Danwei who said that, even with incentives offered by the city to attract talent from overseas, he won’t return: “I am now unable to return to Shanghai. It is better to find work in the US, as the pressure of buying a home in America is smaller than in Shanghai.”
Meanwhile the sociologist Lian warns that growing numbers of disaffected ‘ants’ should worry the government. “There is a Chinese saying that a 10,000 mile dam can be breached by a swarm of ants”.
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