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November 22, 2011

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The Chinese dream - illusion or reality?

ZHANG Liyong and Jia Zuosheng are living proof that dreams sometimes come true. After dropping out of school when his parents could not pay the fees, Zhang left his rural home to eke out a living as a migrant worker in Beijing.

At 21 he got a job as a cook at China's renowned Tsinghua University. He took advantage of this position by studying English. For eight years, woke up every day at 4am to study vocabulary and grammar before working eight or nine hours in the kitchen. In the evenings he continued his studies from 7pm until midnight.

At 29, he passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language -- not an easy feat even for full-time students.

Jia also grew up in a rural area and had to leave school because his parents couldn't afford it. He held down various jobs, scratching out a living and hoping to study.

His lucky break came when he signed on as a security guard at Tsinghua University. He was tasked with observing the library, and he read and sat in on lectures every chance he got.

At the age of 27, he passed the national exam required for entrance to an accredited university. He enrolled in college in Shandong, his home province.

These stories of everyday heroes can be read as modern fairy tales about the transformation from a frog into a prince, or in these cases, the transformation from a worker to an intellectual.

The Chinese dream

Zhang and Jia are also two examples of people living the "Chinese Dream," a hot topic spread by intellectuals and the media. It means that success will come to anybody who works hard enough and takes chances.

Three decades of reform and opening up has created startling changes for China. People who once lived uniform, conventional lives can now choose their own lifestyles and improve their destinies through their own endeavors.

Rags-to-riches stories in which ordinary people realize the Chinese dream have become increasingly common.

But how realistic is this dream for the masses of young people in China?

The more people one talks to, the clearer this becomes: achieving the Chinese dream is never an easy feat.

The dream unravels

The competition to achieve the dream is heating up as about 6.6 million graduates flooded the job market in 2011, yearning for middle-class lives.

Rather than the dream held by many young, educated people, author Fu Guoyong quotes a friend of the post-1980s generation who said, "In my life there is no twist to better times. I am not different from the millions of other young people who are drifting."

Another friend of Fu's quoted the well-known Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), saying, "The worst thing in life is to wake up from a dream and not to know any way."

They have dreams of middle-class lives and are armed with the educations that promised to help them achieve these dreams, but these throngs of young graduates say it is getting harder to find a good job in China.

Meanwhile, job security has become a major concern for those who are gainfully employed.

Prices for apartments are rising too quickly, and added costs for medical treatment and child care are fear-inducing.

Besides concerns about an uncertain future, other restraints on the young generation could make them forget about their dreams.

"Everybody has a dream, but there are lots of problems," says 24-year-old student Lin Meng.

After successfully sitting the national college entrance examination, she managed to leave her small city for one of Beijing's most distinguished universities.

She wants to stay here after four years of studying, but she will not have access to the same rights as Beijingers who have permanent residence.

Lucky in love?

Life is not easy, and neither is love.

Wang Yu, 29, has been with her boyfriend for three years. She keeps her relationship hidden from her parents, because her mother would not approve.

Wang is positive that her mother will think that her boyfriend is not tall enough and does not make enough money, even though he has a decent job in the IT-business and can afford a car. "For my mother it's all about money," she says.

When her parents come to visit once or twice a year, her boyfriend takes all his belongings out of their shared flat and stays in a hotel until they leave.

The relationship with her former boyfriend, an artist, fell to pieces after he met Wang's parents. Even though one of his works can sell for 100,000 yuan (US$15,625) and he will exhibit in Hong Kong soon, her mother did not think he was able to guarantee the materialistic security of her daughter, Wang says.

Wang's parents' old-fashioned beliefs are limiting her dreams of finding a partner of her choice that both she and her parents can agree on.

Playing the lottery

Even young people whose dreams revolve around car ownership are feeling let down.

After 1,000 new cars hit Beijing's streets every day last year, authorities began raffling off registration approvals for new cars this year in a bid to tackle traffic problems.

Those lucky in the lottery can register a new car, while the unlucky ones may wait for years.

(Alexander Schwabe is a writer with Xinhua news agency.)


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