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UPDATED: November 4, 2011 Web Exclusive
'Escapees' Return to First-Tier Cities
Young people weigh the pros and cons of living in different Chinese cities

OPENING SHOP: Wang Jianhong, a third-year undergraduate student at China's Northeast Forest University, arranges items at CO54 Shop in the city of Harbin in north China's Heilongjiang Province on October 9. The shop was established by Wang and his classmate Yu Pingping (XINHUA)

Finding a job in a bustling first-tier city or making a living in still-developing second-tier cities presents a dilemma for young Chinese people. They face pressures of house buying and hukou (registered permanent residence) discrimination if working in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. They are also annoyed by the prevailing cultural influence of guanxisocial connections and relationships—in the second- and third-tier cities. Many have found that they are not able to adapt to the tremendous differences between large and small cities.


Some young people work in the first-tier cities for several years before "escaping" to second- and third-tier cities.

However, many young people have recently begun to flow back to the three largest cities. What is the reason behind the migration? What are characteristics of small and medium-sized cities compared with larger cities? And what are their relative merits for young people flowing between large and small cities?

Some young people consider living in a small city might be easier, but in fact, some found they were trapped in the same barriers surrounding larger cities.

Last year, Zeng Jing, 26, left Guangzhou, capital city in east China's Guangdong Province, and went to Changping Town in Dongguan, a city in Guangdong, to do some planning and investment work at a foreign-funded company. Although there were many reasons for her to leave Guangzhou, what attracted her to Dongguan was her company's offer of food and housing accommodations.

"It is hard to imagine how expensive to rent a house in Guangzhou, which would account for a large portion of my wages," said Zeng. Eating is a big problem for her. She often filled her stomach with instant noodles, biscuits and bread to save money.

Reasons for young people to escape large cities include expensive housing, heavy traffic and a higher cost of living. However, is small city life, with its slower tempo and cheaper housing, truly a tranquil paradise?

"Working in a small city like Dongguan with a fixed working time and free meals, I thought the lower income was workable," said Zeng. However, she found that she could not tolerate the accommodations. Four women shared one room, and often a young man would talk with one of the girls until midnight. Although the meals were satisfying, the television in the dining hall was her sole source of entertainment.

In addition, she could not find a young man with her required education level for dating. Therefore, she often missed the days when she lived in Guangzhou, listening to music at Xinghai Concert Hall, and gathering with her friends by the Pearl River.

Zeng returned to Guangzhou in October this year to continue working. She became more steady and mature in the year she spent away. "I will treasure what I have today," she said.

Some experts said large cities may satisfy people's spiritual needs in ways other cities cannot. Large cities are equipped not only with numerous public facilities like cinemas, cultural centers and gyms, but are also more socially open and tolerant, providing young people more opportunities to meet peers with similar lifestyles. This social safety net prevents them from falling into depression amid rapid economic development.

Lost in guanxi

Some young people find that it is difficult for them to develop themselves further in small cities where guanxi is a high priority for employers. Guanxi refers to traditional Chinese social networking practices and exchanges of favors.

Zhang Chao, a young man, has a dream to work in Guangzhou to buy a house to live in with his parents. However, earning less than 5,000 yuan ($790) a month, his dream has been broken by the skyrocketing housing prices over the few years of his employment there. He then decided to return his hometown Changde in central China's Hunan Province.

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