Educated workers are fleeing the nation's largest cities because jobs and apartments are easier to find in second- and third-tier cities, Qi Xiao reports
Ma Xin listens intently to the person on the other end of the phone, her eyes narrow, her smile drops and then she puts the phone down. It is clear that she is disappointed.
She has just been turned down for a job at a university in Changchun, capital of North China's Jilin province. She says it wa
s her best chance so far to land a job in her hometown.
The 27 year old has been in Beijing for the past eight years, studying for six years and working as an assistant journalist for a Japanese news outlet for two years, earning 5,500 yuan ($806) a month.
"I just want to get out of the city before it's too late," she says.
She isn't alone.
White-collar workers appear to be leaving big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in droves. According to a recent poll conducted jointly by Henan Business Daily and sina.com, 57.83 percent of these cities' white-collar workers are thinking of leaving and looking for opportunities in medium-sized and small cities - the so-called second- and third-tier cities.
In an online survey by 51job.com, a leading job-hunting website, job seekers were asked whether they would "look for jobs in first-tier cities in March". About 50 percent of the respondents said "no", compared with 31 percent at the end of 2009 and 24 percent in the middle of 2009.
"As housing prices increase in the first-tier cities, people are sure to move on," Zhang Yi, a researcher with the Institute of Population and Labor Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), says. "It's comparable to the urban population movement in New York during the 1970s and 80s, only they moved to the suburbs while we are heading for second- and third-tier cities."
The price for a second-hand house in Beijing's Huilongguan community, which is outside the north fifth ring road, is over 20,000 yuan per sq m, says Zhang Yu, a real estate agent from Homelink House Agency in Lishuiqiao, Changping district.
In comparison, a new apartment in Changchun's Chaoyang district cost just 5,700 yuan per sq m, in February, data from Changchun Real Estate Trading Center shows.
"I would have to save my net income for 50 years to buy a 90-sq-m apartment, which is far from the city center, if the housing prices stay at the current level and if I do not spend a penny," Ma says.
The restrictive hukou or household registration system is also a problem. If city residents have a hukou that is not registered in the big cities they have little access to social welfare and are restricted from receiving some public services such as education, medical care, housing and employment, regardless of how long they may have lived or worked in the cities.
"I was not entitled to take the vaccination against H1N1," Ma says, referring to the time last year when only residents with a Beijing hukou could be inoculated. "I could stand the high cost of living, and I could stand being discriminated sometimes. But what about my children? They won't have a Beijing hukou, either."
Ma Xin says she started considering moving back to Changchun when she returned there for Spring Festival and spoke to her high-school classmates.
"They are either married and (or) have an apartment. And they have good jobs," she says. "What about me? Close to 30, still single and renting a basement floor for 1,500 yuan a month. So I ask myself, 'What have I done during my years studying and working in Beijing?'
"I feel like a drifter here: I've no roots and no sense of belonging. At least I've got my parents in Changchun. They support my decision."
She has even consulted a palm reader, looking for signs that she should leave the city.
Apart from the push, there is also the pull of developing second- and third-tiers cities.
"On the one hand, high land prices are forcing private and foreign enterprises to relocate to small and medium-sized cities," CASS researcher Zhang says.
"On the other, 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, and the number is mounting. IBM Corporation announced on March 23 the establishment of a new R&D center in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, together with its software analyzer lab and a regional software growth center.
In Changchun, a special development zone has also been set up with the aim of connecting with Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea.
"The flow of talent to these cities and their own development is forming a benign circle," Zhang says.
Chongqing, Chengdu and Hangzhou, and other second-tiers cities along the Yangtze River Delta are among the favorite destinations for white-collar workers from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, a report from 51job.com shows.
However, not everyone agrees that big cities are no longer a viable option.
Liu Tuo, who is from Changsha, capital of Hunan province, said he intends to stay in the city - for the long run.
"For one thing, I spent six years studying in Beijing. I have deep feelings for the city," the 27 year old says. "For another, most of my friends and contacts are here. It will be very hard to start anew in a new environment."
He added Beijing is more conducive to his career development: "Like it or not, Beijing still offers much, much more opportunities."
Without a Beijing hukou and without an apartment for the foreseeable future, he is not deterred. "You have to take a long-term perspective," he says.
While acknowledging that housing prices, competition and the hukou system are driving people away, experts say big cities are still a better choice for many.
"Everyone's case is different. Generally, it's more a process of natural selection," Zhang Ming, professor of politics with Beijing's Renmin University of China, says. "Those who can find better chances outside the big cities leave; those who can't, stay."
"It eventually boils down to your personal choice," says Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist also at Renmin University.
"Big cities like Beijing are full of uncertainties," he adds. "The important thing is the ability to cope with the risks. Beijing provides ample opportunities, but it could also force you to leave."