China’s economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty. But China’s education system only leads to jobs for a few, with two million graduates each year like Wan Chao, joining the ‘ant tribe’ of the jobless, desperately trawling round job fairs. Good exam scores and confident ambition aren’t enough, and Wan can’t pay the rent or eat properly. Poor rural peasants are worst off – Wang Pan’s low exam scores mean her parents have to rally round the village to fund her education. Meanwhile, unregulated private colleges exploit desperate young people and their families by offering worthless diplomas, with one college teacher delivering well-rehearsed tearjerking appeals to the transformative power of education. Exhausted, low on self-esteem, and unable to feed himself properly, he’s just glad he has a job.
One young jobseeker notes that there’s a distinct lack of Communist spirit in a situation where those at the top don’t need to work and those at the grassroots stumble around big cities trying to make a living. The Chinese government still tells its citizens that the country is a meritocracy where individuals’ best efforts will contribute to the overall success of nation and party. But its monetised education system mocks the naïve reliance that Wang Pan and her parents have on the maxim “To Study is To Escape Poverty”. These are the words of Wang Zhenziang, sent to drum up signups for his college, via a presentation including fake pictures of impressive teachers and lavish college facilities. Urbanisation in China has created insecurity in rural families, who know that without modern office skills the children won’t be able to care for their uneducated parents. Colleges exploit this fear, teaching students the bare minimum, often through lectures based on superficial internet research, and frequently offering no knowledge beneficial to their future ability to secure a job.
Wang Pan’s one-armed mother works as a manual labourer in a brick factory, and is determined to fund her daughter’s education somehow. Family and friends feel duty-bound to help out, even though their resources only extend in one old man’s case to having a few chicken in the garden. The price of education is obscene, with the top tier of colleges bizarrely being far cheaper than those at the bottom. The comparatively-urbane Wan Chao from Wuhan went to one of the better colleges, but even when he does manage to secure a trial position after a long struggle, he’s quickly dismissed for not being “a skilled excel auditor”, soon runs out of money and motivation, breaks down, and moves home.
China is in the midst of a youth crisis – lacking an education and a good job even makes it hard for a man to retain his girlfriend. Rural communities become unsustainable as the young migrate to the cities, Meanwhile, urban areas struggle to cope with large number of starving jobless young people. The country’s boom is entrenching an elite at the top drifting away from the increasing poverty at the bottom, and inequality is widening.