The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

The New York Times describes what the Chinese themselves call the “Ant Tribe”: the millions of unemployed young university graduates who are leaving their hometowns in the interior in search of Bright Lights, Big City.


Despite exhortations by the Chinese government to “go West”, the difference between the coasts and the interior may grow ever larger. Wikipedia quotes estimates that over the next 15 years almost 250 million people — until quite recently the entire population of the United States — will flock to the great cities on the coast.

The authorities have responded by trying to control internal movement through a system of registration, but it has barely stemmed the tide. By 2030 there will a billion people living in China’s cities. A fascinating slideshow by McKinsey graphically demonstrates the expansion of “supercities”.  They are like explosions blossoming across the map of the Middle Kingdom. At least fifteen cities will top 25 million by 2025 — that is 15 cities 1.25 times the population of the present day New York Metropolitan area. By comparison to these mega-metropolises, Gotham will be a small town.

Into the vast maws of these cities pour the Ant Army. “Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.”  But those dreams are often cruelly dashed.

Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.

Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. “Beijing isn’t like this in the movies,” she said. …

Emerging from the sheltered adolescence of one-child families, they quickly bump up against the bureaucracy of population management, known as the hukou system, which denies migrants the subsidized housing and other health and welfare benefits enjoyed by legally registered residents.


A lot of the new arrivals are going to have to accept jobs less than they aspired for or go home. But although it may disappoint, the future is often better than it should be, though not always as good as we hoped it would turn out. Greed and dreams — and often failed greed and dreams — make the world go round.

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Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” print edition
Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” Kindle Edition”


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