China churns out more and more university graduates every year. This year alone, close to seven million Chinese students graduated from university. Many of these students will find decent, well-paying jobs, and many of them will not. Those who do not find "good" jobs and have no money end up in what is called the "ant tribe".
China is home to 1.3 billion people. That's billion with a B. Compound the domestic population with the number of foreigners moving into China, and you can see why the job market here is wrought with competition.
The "ant tribe" is, as its name implies, a group of young people living in ant colony-like conditions in China's major cities. These young people are college graduates who, after graduating university, chose to stay in or move to the city in hopes of finding a good job. Many of them are unable to find fulfilling or well-paying jobs. They often live in small communities, usually underground, where rent is cheap. The term is usually also used by the Chinese mainland press to refer to young people in similar situations in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Keep in mind, these are some really smart people and they live in these accommodations both through choice and circumstance.
Every year in the last 10 years around graduation time, Chinese media would bring up the topic of the "ant tribe". Currently, China Youth Development estimates that there are upwards of 160,000 members of the "ant tribe" in Beijing alone.
Kotaku spoke with Zhu Runshan, a former member of the "ant tribe". Zhu, 22 years-old, moved to Beijing after graduating university earlier this year. Originally from Shandong province, Zhu came to Beijing in search for a job in the IT industry, but unfortunately he wasn't able to land a decent job early on. Coming to a far away city, without any support, Zhu needed a place to live so he hopped online to China's version of Craigslist, 58.com.
After a quick search, Zhu said he found housing in Beijing's Haidian district. Zhu's housing wasn't exactly "housing": he had only rented out a bed.
"It was cheap, I was new to Beijing, I didn't have a job and I was still talking to companies," Zhu said. "It was $65 a month for a bed. I also had to share the bed with another man."
Zhu said his former "home" was literally one large room with multiple dividers set up to create the illusion of individual rooms. Close to 30 people lived in that one space -- with no window.
"It felt like I was living in college dorms again, (Author's Note: Chinese college dorms are pretty bad, they squeeze anywhere from four people to eight into a room) the space was so tight," said Zhu. "Luckily, the bathroom had a door. Unluckily, we had to share it with everyone in the space so it was pretty disgusting."
Focusing on his career, Zhu said he doesn't play games as much as he once did. He also said it was hard to play online games in a small room with "shared" internet. It was impossible to even load an online game, Zhu said. Everyone was either on their own computers, if they had one, or on their mobile.
"I used to stay in late at work and wait until the bosses left," Zhu said. "The internet at the office was much faster than anything we had back at the room."
Throughout his 3 and a half months of living in shared housing, Zhu said he watched about 5 to 10 people move in and out of the living space. According to Zhu, he and his roommates didn't do much together. Occasionally they would watch online videos together or even play the Chinese card game Three Kingdoms Killers. Despite the minor camaraderie, Zhu said there were still fundamental trust issues.
Now, with a better-paying job in his chosen field, Zhu has moved out of the shared housing and into an apartment with roommates -- roommates, not bed mates. Looking back, Zhu says it was an uncomfortable but necessary step in his Beijing life.
"I didn't have money, I was new to the city and I needed a place to stay," said Zhu. "Rent in Beijing is really expensive, and many landlords require three months' rent as a down payment. As a new grad, I didn't have the money, so it was worth it to save money this way."