Chen Chenggong’s family back in Ningde, Fujian province, has always been proud of his accomplishments. The 22-year-old graduate of Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture is the first in his hometown to enter a college in Beijing.
However, Chen still finds that the white-collar lifestyle remains far out of reach.
“I was raised to believe a college degree was a sure route to a comfortable life. But after months of searching for a job, I only receive offers with salaries lower than what factory workers earn. It’s as if I never went to college at all,” he said.
It is a dilemma echoed by other rural and small town students. Once graduation rolls around, they face more difficulties climbing up the social ladder than their urban peers.
According to a 2014 report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the unemployment rate among college graduates from urban families is about 12 percent, while for graduates from rural backgrounds it’s 30 percent.
A separate 2014 report by the China Youth & Children Research Center points out a similar gap between small town and urban graduates.
Roadblocks to success
This gap is one of the clearest expressions of the hardening barriers to social mobility, according to Tian Feng, the report’s lead researcher. She explains social mobility as a person’s ability to move from one class to another.
“The current social mobility in China is low. Many urban graduates, with their well-off parents’ social networking, have a better chance to secure a decent job. Their family’s already privileged social status is quickly passed on to the next generation in this form,” she said.
While this trend could easily be dismissed as only affecting individuals, it actually has a major impact on social equity on the macro level, said Liu Jingming, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University.
“Low social mobility will ultimately result in class solidification. When that happens, not only will individuals have little chance to move up the social pyramid, their offspring will also be less likely to end up in a different class, enjoying better social resources and opportunities,” he said.
Though he has met difficulties, Chen doesn’t lose faith in his future. And he finally gets a job at a Beijing-based architecture design institute.
“Compared to previous generations, I’ve already gotten the chance to experience the world outside of our village. I got to know all sorts of information online. And I also made my own connections,” he said.
Different mind set
Li Chunling, a professor of sociology at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, encourages all graduates to share that kind of resilient spirit.
She attributes the disadvantages of coming out of small towns and rural areas to the lack of socialization. It can be remedied in college and later in life, as students broaden their horizons, develop their own social networks and pick up social skills they once lacked.
“Our research has shown that the rural-urban employment gap mainly exists in the first two years after graduation,” she said.
Students with rural backgrounds have their advantages too. “They are tough and have a lot of perseverance, which can help them in bridging that gap,” she said.