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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: May 24, 2010 NO. 21 MAY 27, 2010
Escaping the Big Cities
More white-collar workers consider leaving major metropolises to find opportunities in small and medium-sized cities


WANTING A HOUSE: A young man falls deep into thought before an apartment building model in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, on May 15. Skyrocketing property prices are driving more and more young people out of big cities (HAN CHUANHAO) 

The energy and excitement of first-tier cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, have long served as magnets attracting enthusiastic young people. But recent surveys have overturned the perception of this urban draw.

In a survey conducted by Sohu.com of nearly 60,000 netizens in April, 82 percent said they wanted to leave big cities, citing high housing prices, difficulty in getting a hukou (permanent residence registration) in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and the stress, pressure and competition that come with living in a major city.

In late March, Henan Business Daily and Sina.com jointly conducted a survey of white-collar workers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, finding that 57.83 percent were thinking of leaving and looking for opportunities in second- and third-tier cities.

Big and expensive

Sun Liang came to Beijing nine years ago from central China's Henan Province to attend Beijing Normal University.

"I chose Beijing because it is the country's capital and I thought it had more opportunities than other smaller cities," he said.

After graduating in 2005, Sun found a job at an insurance company in Beijing's Chaoyang District and currently earns more than 8,000 yuan ($1,171) a month.

"I was lucky compared to my other classmates. I got a job and the salary is enough for me to live in Beijing," he said, adding that many of his classmates chose to pursue postgraduate education because they could not find good jobs.

However, Sun is still thinking of leaving Beijing and finding a job in Henan's capital city, Zhengzhou.

Sun, 31, got married during the Spring Festival in February. He and his wife are planning to have a baby within two years.

"I still don't have my own house in Beijing as I don't even have enough money to pay the down payment," he said.

According to statistics provided by bjfdc.gov.cn, a real estate website sponsored by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the current average price for a second-hand house in Beijing is 20,885 yuan ($3,058) per square meter.

"I would have to save my net income for more than 20 years to buy a 90-square-meter apartment in Beijing, if the housing prices stay at the current level. And that's if I don't spend a penny of what I'm making now," Sun said.

As housing prices increase in first-tier cities, people are sure to look for residency elsewhere, said Zhang Yi, a researcher with the Institute of Population and Labor Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The restrictive household registration system is also a problem. If residents don't have a hukou of the big cities where they live, they have little access to social welfare and are restricted from receiving some public services, such as education and medical care, regardless of how long they have lived or worked in that city.

"I have a Beijing hukou but my wife does not," Sun said. His wife, who also came from Henan, is working at a private training school and earns 3,000 yuan ($439) a month.

Sun said his wife does not even consider hospital visits when she falls ill, because she is not covered by the city's medical insurance.

"I do not know how we will spend our lives in the city after retiring, especially since my wife will have no access to social welfare," he said.

According to the Beijing Municipal Government, there are about 5 million people in the city who do not have a Beijing hukou, accounting for 29 percent of the city's total population.

Besides, the dry climate, poor traffic conditions and high living costs are also factors driving his decision to leave Beijing, Sun said.

Small but growing

The development of second- and third-tier cities in recent years is also an important factor attracting more white-collars.

"On the one hand, high land prices in big cities are forcing private and foreign enterprises to relocate to small and medium-sized cities," Zhang said. "On the other hand, the Chinese Government's emphasis on balanced regional development is paying off, as more resources are allocated to these cities."

A recent report from Sichuan Economic Daily said 139 Fortune 500 companies had set up offices in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province, and the number continues to grow. IBM announced on March 23 the establishment of a new R&D center in Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, together with its software analyzer lab and a regional software growth center.

Chongqing Municipality, Chengdu and other second-tiers cities along the Yangtze River are among the favorite destinations for white-collar workers from big cities, a report from 51job.com showed.

"It should be a normal phenomenon that social and economic development promotes a rational flow of talent," said Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Shanghai-based Fudan University.

In Zhengzhou, a national economic and technological development zone has also been established, becoming a prosperous city to attract high-level personnel.

"Zhengzhou has developed rapidly in recent years and become an important city in central China, creating more opportunities for young people to get decent jobs," said Sun.


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