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White collars throw in the towel

MANY white-collar professionals are burning out in big cities and moving back home to second-tier cities where the grass is greener and the prospects seem brighter. Yi Ling and Cao Yan report on promised lands.

Cheng Ding is keen to end his "seven-year itch" against the city of Beijing once and for all - by retreating back home to Sichuan Province.

Following a failed investment that led to the closure of his own company in Zhongguancun, known as "China's Silicon Valley," the 32-year-old mobile phone games producer had to relinquish his dream of building a game empire based in the Chinese capital city.

For Cheng, the incentive to return home, nearly 2,000 kilometers southeast to Beijing, is more than just financial.

"Career setbacks are one thing. More important, I'm longing for another kind of life - one with no rush, no rent, no pressure," he says. "Beijing is no longer the home of my dreams."

While millions from rural peripheries continue to flood booming metropolises in hopes of better education, better jobs and better lives, a rising group of burnt-out white collars is retreating to the smaller cities in search of a relaxed life style.

Most are out-of-town degree-holders around 30 years old, with year-long working experience in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Cheng's feelings are pervasive among his peers. More than 80 percent of 7,000 Chinese white collars surveyed in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, said "yes" to the question that "would you like to work in a second- or third-tier city if offered a job there?" They were queried in a survey conducted last April by China's leading online job search website

Rising living costs, enormous work pressure, pollution and crowded public transport are the major reasons they want to leave - escalating housing prices top the list, the survey said.

"Now, we believe some of those who said 'yes' are taking actions," says Hao Jian, senior human resource consultant at

Hao's conclusion is backed by the website's survey released last December on the online job applications in six major cities. It showed the number of applications for work in Beijing and Shanghai declining, while increasing in second-tier cities like Chengdu, Wuhan, Chongqing and Nanjing.

For example, between October 2009 and October 2010, the number of applicants for Beijing dropped to 12.19 percent from 13.72 percent, while those for Chengdu rose to 3.40 percent from 3.19 percent.

Meanwhile, the daily average job offers increased 97 percent to 55,284 in Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan Province, from January to October 2010, while Beijing only saw an increase of 32 percent.

Researcher Zhang Zhanxin, with the Institute of Population and Labor Economics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the figures indicate adjustment in the human resources distribution in top-tier cities and second-tier cities, especially provincial capitals.

"Though months of observation is still needed before we can conclude there's a trend of talented people moving to second-tier cities, it's obvious that signs of a trend have appeared since second-tier cities are becoming increasingly attractive to talents," says Zhang, who studies labor force mobility.

He notes the move's short-term impact on the big cities is "very limited," because "human resources go where capital goes."

"For the cities like Beijing, their traditional advantages in education and industries such as high-technology, information and finance, will keep them magnets for investments in the coming five to 10 years," he says.

As Zhang says, top-tier cities, namely Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou that lead in economic power, have been the favored destinations for degree-holders seeking to start their white-collar career. That's been the case since 1994 when the government completed a decade-long reform of the state-controlled job assignment system - graduates were on their own to find work.

Brand-name employers and modern amenities are the main attractions for the young people.

With job offer from a game company, Cheng rushed to Beijing in 2003, convinced that the country's geographic capital was also going to become its computer gaming center.

His family also believed the capital was the best in every sector and a place where only the best, including their son, could survive.

The company Cheng worked for in the residential compound of a northern Beijing suburb and had 15 employees. Only a quarter of them were locals.

It was beginner's luck. Cheng rose from programmer to chief technology officer, and eventually started his own company.

But the pleasure of success subsided, while his feelings of belonging nowhere mounted and living costs soared.

Cheng moved six times, changed jobs four times and opened three more companies within five years, while family support seemed impossible in what he called his "lonely fight for a bright future."

Like many other young Chinese, Cheng put some emotional distance between himself and his parents, reducing his filial duty to a two-week visit every Spring Festival - his wife calls it his "hibeernation."

"Reunions were always sweet. But I never told my family about my suffering. They would be disappointed and worry about me," says Cheng.

Then his wife, who had been with him for four years in Beijing, moved back to Sichuan Province in 2009 to take care of her elderly father. Cheng felt homesick and wanted to leave.

"I've never thought of owning my own flat in Beijing. The housing price now is more than 10 times that in 2003, and with the pollution, the traffic and the indifference among people - the city isn't livable," says Cheng.

Last fall, when the market rejected the new game developed by his third company, Cheng realized that the time to say goodbye had come.

"I'm no longer 24. I've opened the magic box and have enough experience. There's no more curiosity about the city and all my passion has been consumed in the past seven years," he says. "It's time for me to live for real now."

According to Hao Jian form the job search website, Cheng belongs to a group most inclined to and able to move - degree holders aged between 25-35 with a monthly income between 5,000 (US$760)-15,000 yuan, working in IT, administration, accounting or human resources.

"Their jobs are boundary-free compared with those working in the industries like finance or education, which are traditionally strong in Shanghai or Beijing," says Hao.

Moreover, there's less job competition in second-tier cities. Take the IT industry. The job-hunting website's survey showed an average of 36 applicants compete for an IT job in Beijing, while there are 20 competitors in Chengdu. Their working experience makes it easier for big city exiles to find a similar job elsewhere.

Urbanization is the invisible hand behind Cheng's decision to leave or stay, according to Xu Zhaoyuan, a researcher on urbanization with the Development Research Center of the State Council.

China has feverishly embraced urbanization. From 1950 to 2005 the rate of urbanization rose from 13 percent to 41 percent.

This pattern is likely to continue and by 2025 China will have another 400 million urban residents, accounting for 64 percent of the total population. That's the conclusion of research released in July by the McKinsey Global Institute, the San Francisco-based research arm of the world's leading consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Researcher Xu says urbanization is very unbalanced as a traditionally agrarian country is being transformed into a modern industrialized nation.

Smaller cities have been facing intense pressure to attract and build an educated workforce and to create appropriate jobs. Many young people in those cities have left to work in factories in coastal cities or for multinationals in big cities.

However, the central government has given priority to development of inland areas, first in the Western China Development Strategy in 2000 and then the Rise of Central China Plan in 2004. These areas receive more financial support as China strives to balance its economic structure and narrow the income gap between the coastal regions and inland areas.

"As multinationals and leading native enterprises tap new inland markets with rich natural resources and a cheaper labor force, more jobs will be generated and a new round of talent distribution will come to the country - it's time for the birds to come back to the roost," says Xu.

Dissatisfied Cheng decided to settle down in Chengdu, his wife's hometown and the provincial capital; it's about an hour's drive to his hometown, Leshan City.

With 12.8 million residents, Chengdu is the largest city in western China in terms of economical strength and population.

It is expected to become the top choice for professionals seeking to start a career in western China this year, says Chen Weizhao, an official with the city's human resources administration.

The city offers jobs since more multinationals are moving there, a good living environment and low cost of living.

"The public facilities of Chengdu in health care, education, transport and recreation are improving fast to match the level of top-tier cities. What's more, the culture of a leisure life here can be rarely seen in Shanghai or Beijing," Chen says.

Meanwhile, many preferential policies aim to attract talented professionals. Chengdu, which vows to become the "IT capital" in southwestern China, aggressively attracts IT industries and features high value-added industries.

Chengdu will offer 20,000 jobs in the software industry in 2011, while the city drafts a plan to build a 10-square-kilometer "IT development park" in its high-tech development zone.

"We will provide free offices, testing facilities to those who would like to start their business in our park, especially graduates, once their projects are approved," says Fu Xuekun, deputy director of the Chengdu High-Tech Development Zone.

According to Fu, Chengdu is home to more than 100 games companies, and some of them have been invited to the park. The enterprises moving into the park receive tax reductions and a support from the government of up to 500,000 yuan.

"The stage is ready. We hope more professionals can come to work and stay here - it's win-win for both of us," says Fu.

But going home isn't win-win for everyone. Ding Xingzhou has found his hometown is not necessarily the Promised Land. The 31-year-old magazine editor spent more than six years after graduation working in Guangzhou, Beijing and Lanzhou (Gansu Province) before he returned last year to Xi'an, the provincial capital of his native Shaanxi Province.

He says that he felt like "an injured soldier fleeing from battlefield."

Xi'an, the capital of 13 dynasties, is the largest and most developed city in the less-populated northwestern province. Despite the economic boom, it has barely changed in Ding's eyes.

Going back home eased financial pressure but didn't offer career opportunities.

"People here may be too risk-aversive. The clash of mindsets is usually vicious," says Ding.

His ambitions of "making changes" have been undermined by the fact that career development often relies more on guanxi, or personal connections, than one's capabilities in these smaller cities.

"We always say there's fierce competition in big cities, but at least you get a chance to compete. Here, there's no way," says Ding. "Besides, the city is growing crowded, indifferent and snobbish. It's being transformed into another Beijing."

Ding plans to leave again, but he hasn't figure out where to go.

On the questions of leaving or staying, experts say people should thoroughly investigate the place they consider moving and be mentally prepared for hardship.

"Research on the job market, room for future development, income and cost is necessary," says Hao Jian from the job search website.

As a coda to his stay in Beijing, Cheng plans to revisit the Summer Palace where he promised his wife a bright future in the city.

"I was then just a passerby in Beijing," he says. "One day, I may pass by again."


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