Rachel Lu

Don’t Dream Big — Four Vignettes on Social Mobility in Modern China

Knife instead of steps on the stairs.
(via Bigstockphoto)

The New York Times recently ran an article that detailed the struggles of three young college women from low-income backgrounds, raising questions about whether education remains the “great equalizer” in America. How does the picture look in China, where education has been prized since the days of Confucius as a way to advance in society?

A recent thread on Tianya, a popular online discussion forum, engaged this issue directly and quickly went viral. The original post gathered almost 2,900 comments. One summarized version was retweeted more than 22,500 times on Sina Weibo. It was started by a user with the handle Dadi, a self-proclaimed human resources manager at a state-owned bank in a large city, who says he was tapped to oversee the bank’s internship program of about 60 college students.

Dadi’s story has not been verified. Although many comments are credulous, some question its veracity, particularly because Tianya is known for paying professional ghostwriters to stir up discussion with interesting or outrageous threads. But the story has hit a nerve for many Chinese Internet users because the characters face archetypal challenges in modern China.

In China’s hyper competitive job market for new graduates, a permanent position at a bank is highly coveted not only for its financial rewards, but perhaps more importantly, for its long-term stability, social respectability, and promise of future connections it offers.

While the bank had 15 openings for new graduates in that year, most positions would go to people with connections. Dadi described the internship program as a “sham” to score cheap labor and generate publicity. Only two or three out of the 60 interns would ultimately receive offers.

The interns all had good grades from the best university in the province, having aced the grueling gaokao college entrance exam. But Dadi wondered, did they really start the race from the same place? How would their family backgrounds affect their performance as interns, and their lives thereafter?

Dadi wrote that his curiosity was first piqued when one of his colleagues claimed that he could predict the interns’ behaviors on their first day based only on their files. Dadi marveled at his accuracy — the interns from poor rural areas arrived early, but were anxious and did not interact with the bank’s employees; those who greeted the internship directors and poured water for them all had Party officials for parents; those with family businesses traded jokes, and seemed carefree and jovial; then there were a few polite but standoff-ish ones – all of them, without exception, raised by urban professionals.

The colleague explained to Dadi that his observations were based on past experiences. Dadi spotted similar trends as feedback about the interns’ performances came in. The most well-liked interns were children of business owners – they were problem solvers, and sometimes treated existing employees to meals. The ones from rural areas had trouble communicating and mingling with the other employees, but were hardworking and rarely made excuses. The children of Party officials were well-spoken and knew how office politics worked, but some received mixed marks for being caught playing gimmicks. The group with the worst feedback: children of the urban professional class, who were seen as proud, stubborn, and sometimes disrespectful.

Thus began Dadi’s informal sociology experiment. He asked the interns about their families, observed them during the internship program, and kept in touch with many of them for more than a year afterwards. He wrote about four of his subjects in particular detail.

The Entrepreneur: Chubby

Chubby, the son of a furniture store owner from a smaller city, always had a smile on his face and never tired of joking with everyone around him.

Halfway into the internship, Chubby’s father took Dadi out to dinner and talked about his plans for his son. Without connections in the big city, said the father, he didn’t expect Chubby to get the offer for the bank job, but the internship was a chance for Chubby to get to know people at the banks and try to start a business serving those same banks. State-owned banks, the dad said, needed contractor services and would never refuse to pay.

Chubby took the advice to heart and eventually settled on an ATM installation service. Two months before Chubby graduated from university, his father gave him 200,000 RMB (about US$35,000) to start the company.

Because Chubby was well liked and knew how the system worked, his company gave competitive bids and developed a healthy business.

The Daughter of the Party: Zhou

Zhou is a fashionable and polite girl whose mother is a mid-level Party official in an important local department. Before the internship ended, the regional director of the bank told Dadi to give Zhou good performance reviews. Dadi was sure, however, that the director had never even met the girl.

Dadi later found out that Zhou’s parents had spoken to a high-level official at the local bank regulatory agency, who made a call to the bank’s chief. After Zhou sealed the deal to work at the bank, her parents had dinner with the official and several directors there. Dadi noted that the people at the dinner were way above his pay grade.

After they became colleagues, Zhou invited Dadi over to the apartment she shared with her newlywed husband, a young man with a similar background. Dadi and his wife were awed by the young couple’s 210 sq.m. (about 2,200 sq. ft.) place, decorated in the European style and sporting a RMB 270,000 (about US$ 41,000) stereo system. Everything was fully paid for by Zhou’s parents and in-laws.

The apartment completely dwarfed Dadi’s own place, for which he and his wife had labored for over a decade. But any jealousy or resentment was smoothed over when Zhou took Dadi and his wife out to dinner. They were won over by her easy manners, radiant confidence, and sweet sociability.

The Peasant Pride: Zhiguo

Zhiguo, the president of his university’s student association and a popular basketball player, was the pride of his impoverished peasant family. He interned in the bank’s high-paying risk management department. Because risk managers had the power to approve projects, they also entertained many offers of free dinners and gifts. Zhiguo wanted an offer from the department so that he could stay in the city and help his parents and his younger brother.

Dadi liked Zhiguo, but found him anxious and desperate.  Zhiguo only talked about himself and “wanted the job too badly.” Dadi declined Zhiguo’s meager gifts, and hinted to Zhiguo that the head of the department had a say in making the job offer. The department head later told Dadi, as a joke, that Zhiguo tried to give him some local delicacies as gifts but his wife threw them out for being too cheap and dirty.

Zhiguo did not get the offer, of course, and found a low-paying job as an insurance agent. About a year later, he asked Dadi to pull some connections at the bank to get him a favorable mortgage rate in order to buy a very small apartment at the city’s fringe that he shared with his wife, parents and brother, who had moved into the city with him.

When Dadi visited the family, Zhiguo’s wife fell silent when asked about their wedding banquet, because they could not afford one. Zhiguo’s father gave his life savings of 70,000 RMB (about US$10,000) to help with the down payment, and now expected Zhiguo, a young man in his early 20’s with a shaky job, to financially support the entire family.

A Yuppie dream, Deferred: Yuanzi

Yuanzi was a smart young man from a family of blue-collar workers from a small city. He also did not get an offer from the bank, but easily found a sales job that paid well. He married his girlfriend, also from a humble background, right after graduating from university. His family gave him more than 100,000 RMB (about $US16,000), all of their life savings, as down payment on an apartment.

Once Yuanzi had a job and an apartment with his wife in the big city, his parents and in-laws pressured the young couple to start a family. Yuanzi’s wife quit her job after she became pregnant, so they relied solely on Yuanzi’s income to pay their mortgage, the hospital bill, utility bills, and for the baby’s formula and diapers. Yuanzi’s salary soon fell short of the ever-growing list of expenses.

Yuanzi’s parents and in-laws rotated for live-in stints to take care of the baby while his wife took a low-paying job. Conflicts over laundry and dish-washing began to escalate into inter-generational shouting matches about the lack of money. On the phone with a fellow former intern, Yuanzi broke down in tears and said that marrying too early and having a baby was a mistake.

Social Mobility: the Chinese Dream?

The moral of his stories, wrote Dadi, was that young people should not engage in the Quixotic battle against fate to rise too far above their class in today’s China. One’s background means more than just the level of financial support from family; it also determines one’s outlook, and even personality.

Dadi’s advice? Know your capabilities and limitations, listen to your parents (if they are successful), don’t try to reach for the stars if you are starting from a low point, and don’t forget to marry wisely.

Many users agreed with Dadi’s pessimistic fatalism and related their own struggles in a society with no shortage of people like Chubby and Zhou, who are shrewd, likable as well as connected. China’s era of rags-to-riches stories may have already given way to an era of class entrenchment.

Some users allowed a glimmer of hope. @信息处理器 wrote, “I know every wealthy family is built on the accumulation of resources of the fathers and grandfathers, but maybe I can make my children a little bit better off than I am. Who knows, maybe my grandchildren or their children would also become wealthy?” It is perhaps telling, however, that he ended the sentence with a question mark. 

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • Jenny N. Crumbsey

    Rachel, your article took me straight back to a series of interviews I conducted several years ago with recent graduates of a college in Dongguan, Guangdong. We spoke about their plans and dreams for the future, and it struck me how torn they were between their dreams – what would be ‘nice’ to do – and their obligations – what needed to be done, following the expectations of society in the grand scale, and their parents on a smaller scale.

    They had dreams such as running their own café, being a travel writer, a TV hostess, or working from home as FOREX speculator…but they had already secured positions at banks, government agencies, or schools as teachers. They were well aware that dreams do not generate an income, and pursuing a dream through all the potential hardship that might take – dreaming too big – was not an option. They also strongly reflected this sense of “knowing their place”, even though most of them had already stepped out of line by choosing majors their parents did not approve of (for example Chinese Literature). Their responsibility was to build their lives through the expectations and limitations placed upon them, find a sense of security for themselves and their families, and ultimately happiness within that security.

    This self-restraint would have made for a rather disheartening story, but at the same time these young people also expressed immense gratitude for the opportunities they DO have now – that bank position, or that enviable government job. They knew just what they did not have, what they wanted, but to the same extent, they knew what they did have. And who knows, maybe that young woman with the café dream will someday, with the money she earned at the bank, still make it come true!

    • blaine

      sounds like u interviewed some of the lucky ones with good jobs. things are a lot more bleak for the majority. what about the taxi driver that works 360 days a year and makes close to nothing because he has to pay crazy fees just to rent the taxi. then they gotta send money back home too and can’t find a woman willing to marry them. nothing there but despair.

      • Jenny N. Crumbsey

        One of us is missing the point here ;-) )

        • blaine

          u no read english?

  • Bethany Reynolds

    Rachel, this is a very comprehensive article that so clearly challenges the misconception of education as the “great equalizer,” since we live in a world where social and cultural capital – networking and connections, appearance, and the like are critical variables to successful entry into high-profile careers. I wonder how important a role you think the “hukou” plays in employment at big companies in China’s tier 1 and tier 2 cities? Not simply the fact that many of the interns did not have the right connections and people skills to receive a job offer, but how about city jobs being saved for city natives (city hukou holders)?

  • Junzhao Ma

    Peter Hessler made a similar point in one of his recent interviews, that social mobility in China was high in the 90s but has dropped dramatically in the recent decade.

  • Carlos Martin

    Muy interesante, aunque bastante obvios resultados según la procedencia de cada uno. Como decimos en España, en todos sitios cuecen habas (at every place boil beans hahahaha).