BEIJING // Liang Dong sits on a chair in his tatty bedroom, a laptop computer on a tiny desk beside him and piles of rubbish on the floor. The walls are plain white and the tiles on the floor would be white as well, but the footprints and smears of mud dirty them.
Outside, in a dank corridor where electrical wires hang from the grimy walls, are another eight doors leading to rooms that other young adults call home. To some, a place such as this may seem only a few steps up from a slum, but there are thousands of people in the Chinese capital living in accommodation little different from Mr Liang's. What is more, many of them, like Mr Liang, are graduates. "There are 50,000 people living here," he said of Tangjialing village, a district in the north-west of Beijing that has seen its population rocket in recent years, causing it to be named an "ant colony". The area is packed to the rafters with modestly paid graduates attracted by low rents.
Mr Liang, 28, who graduated in materials engineering in Sichuan province in central China four years ago, is looking for a job after quitting his previous post at a software company. A room in the four-storey block where he has lived since September costs about 600 yuan (Dh333) per month. A room nearer the centre of Beijing may cost twice as much. Inside his block, which residents said was built in the 1990s, most of the rooms are secured by small padlocks. At one end of the corridor is a tiny dark kitchen with greasy work tops.
The ground-floor entrance sits beside an alleyway in which washing hangs from coat hangers and a handful of chickens live cooped up in enclosed recess beside the alley. Mr Liang is luckier than some of his contemporaries, because at least he has his room to himself. Some are reported to share rooms with as many as five others to save money. The term "ant colony" has been used widely in the Chinese media to describe such graduate magnets, particularly since a book titled Ant Tribe was published last year by the Beijing-based academic, Lian Si. According to Mr Lian, who declined to be interviewed for this article, there are as many as one million "ants" in total living in Beijing and other major cities such as Shanghai, Xi'an and Guangzhou. The vast majority have come to the large cities from smaller towns and rural areas.
Yang Ru, 24, lives with her boyfriend in the same building as Mr Liang. A languages graduate from Hebei province north of the capital, she said the term "catches the theme of the young graduates trying to start their life after college" with salaries that typically do not exceed 2,000 yuan per month. "It describes these people who work hard but they're a weak group in society," she said. But Tangjialing, thought to be home to about 3,000 original Beijing residents as well as the 50,000 "ants", may not be an ant colony for much longer. The area is one of dozens the Beijing municipal authorities have said they plan to renovate by the end of this year, which many believe will mean large-scale demolitions, forcing the graduates out.
For the moment, however, the paper advertisements plastered on walls advertising cheap rooms remain, and although there are reports that some people have already left in anticipation of the renovation, others are staying put. Even though Tangjialing may soon no longer be an ant colony, the factors that created such places are likely to remain, according to analysts. Ren Xianfang, a China analyst at IHS Global Insight in Beijing, said the creation of the ant colonies reflected "structural problems in the Chinese economy".
In particular, the heavy increase in enrolment at universities has created a vast supply of graduates, but the number of skilled jobs has not grown at the same rate. In 1998, China's universities produced little more than one million graduates; last year the figure was 6.1 million. "China's economy is still anchored in the low-skilled, labour-intensive industries, but it doesn't have a significant increase in demand for better trained professionals such as college graduates. It's a mismatch in supply and demand," Ms Ren said.