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    Big City Dreams, Small-Town Realities for China’s Rural Youth

    As more rural youth return to their hometowns due to employment, family, or big city life pressure, small cities are serving as a buffer zone between their dreams and reality.

    Editor’s note: Wang Defu’s new book “Age of the Masses,” published in May, is a collection of his reflections on and explorations of urban community governance in China. As an associate professor from the School of Sociology at Wuhan University, Wang conducted over 1,000 days of field research in more than 100 urban and rural communities across the country. The book covers issues such as the renovation of old neighborhoods, the current state of grassroots cadres, and the return of young people to their hometowns — all closely related to how positively people view their lives in today’s China. Following is an excerpt from the book.

    Are small cities still reliable places for young people to settle?

    “Small cities” refer to prefecture-level and county-level cities at or below the fourth or fifth tier in Chinese city classification. China’s urbanization has unfolded as a gradual process characterized by the continual flow of rural residents between cities and the countryside. While big cities are the drivers of urbanization and rural areas are the anchors of stability, small cities are the buffer zones — they give rural migrants an initial urban foothold while providing a tactical fallback option for those seeking to escape megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

    Through ongoing observations of “small-town youth,” my research team has identified generational differences in motivations for young people returning to their hometowns. The post-’80s generation tends to come back because of family matters such as sending their children to school or taking care of their elderly parents — natural products of life progression. In contrast, the post-’90s, especially post-’95s, are more driven by employment factors, either returning home to start their own businesses or returning for prearranged jobs facilitated by parents. Whereas the post-’80s still perceive big cities as more desirable than county-level cities, this attractiveness gap is rapidly narrowing or even reversing for post-’90s mindsets, suggesting a generational shift in the real value of big cities.

    In July 2022, while conducting field research in an industrial town in eastern Zhejiang province, I interviewed more than 10 post-’95s who had moved back home from big cities like Hangzhou and Ningbo. Far from feeling inferior to peers staying in big cities, they instead conveyed a sense of comfort. One young woman, born in 1998 and a vocational college graduate, had quit three jobs in Hangzhou and Ningbo due to “uncomfortable” workplace dynamics before returning.

    Acting independently certainly comes at a cost, but these young people in Zhejiang province can afford to, as their parents’ strong economic and social capital provides a safety net. Another key factor is urban overstimulation and fatigue — those exhausted by the relentless rat race of big cities simply opt out.

    After returning home, the young people reintegrate into their family networks and local support systems, strengthening family ties. With their parents’ economic resources and social support, they enjoy more flexibility in life planning while maintaining a relatively comfortable lifestyle. It could also be argued that small cities mitigate the anxieties surrounding marriage, childbearing, and the social pressures endemic to big cities. However, for suburban youth aspiring to upward mobility, it is a different story.

    The career turmoil of a suburban youth

    I conducted an in-depth study of two villages in Yichang, central Hubei province — Guan Village and Dianjun Village. Among the subjects, Xiao Lin exemplifies the tumultuous career path typical of young returnees. At 33 in 2020, Xiao, who graduated from a vocational college in Wuhan, embarked on years of “career turmoil.” His first job, chasing his dreams in a big city, was in education and training in Beijing. Two years later, he started his second job as a wholesale daily chemical products business, which lasted only a few months without profit. His third involved partnering in retail at an electronics mall, but it also fizzled quickly. His fourth saw him renting a clothing wholesale storefront with 80,000 yuan ($11,025) from family. However, he lost money after two years.

    Xiao’s first four jobs were entrepreneurial, relying mainly on his classmate connections. Except for the first, they were mainly sales-related. His last entrepreneurial attempt was the clothing store. After its failure, he followed his father’s advice and started working at a shipyard in his hometown of Yichang through family connections. After a year, Xiao married and moved south to Chongqing through a relative, settling with a monthly income of over 10,000 yuan. In 2018, he even bought a house in Chongqing.

    Xiao’s story captures several quintessential themes. First, being of the post-’80s/’90s generation makes him emblematic of China's new rural youth demographics. Second, vocational college diplomas are the educational norm for this generation. Third, his career has been markedly turbulent, with numerous job changes. Fourth, trying one’s luck in top-tier cities before returning to their hometowns for a few years later is commonplace. Fifth, he has entrepreneurial experience. Sixth, his social capital remains locally anchored, as almost all young returnees need to rejoin hometown networks like former school ties. Additionally, some, like Xiao, still need to rely on their parents’ social capital to obtain job opportunities, another form of returning home.

    The struggles of class mobility

    Education is generally seen as the main path to class mobility. For rural youth, getting into university, improving human capital, finding a decent job in a big city, and settling into the urban middle class is usually considered the “ideal” way to rise in class structures. In a sense, rural youth pursuing education, moving to cities, and seeking employment are all efforts to break through their lower-class constraints and enter more privileged classes.

    The suburban youth I studied are also attempting such class breakthroughs, albeit with some difficulty. Guan Village has a “glory board” displaying photos of locals who were admitted to prestigious universities. For this large village of over 4,000 people, only a handful of people have been accepted into elite Project 211 universities, while a few others went to second-tier universities. This is not discriminatory but rather illustrates that by the measure of university attended, the human capitalization rate among young people in Guan Village is very low.

    Many people have experienced failure in big cities due to at least two significant reasons: an inherent lack of resources for talent competition, and a deficit in both initial social capital and acquired capital such as school connections. After returning to Yichang, they continue to explore upward class mobility, with entrepreneurship being the most typical behavior. Starting a business to become an economic elite is a shortcut for many, often involving speculation and a “go-for-broke” attitude. However, entrepreneurship involves risks, and success is rare.

    After all, Yichang is only a mid-sized “large city.” Today’s industrial clusters increasingly emphasize economies of scale, so local high-end industries are relatively few, meaning limited economic activity to support a sizable middle class. Thus, most returning rural youth can only find jobs in lower-middle service industries. For example, many women work in educational training or mall retail. On the other hand, suburban youth can live a dual urban-rural life, minimizing living costs by relying on parents while investing their own limited resources in consumption that supports their middle-class status and offspring’s education.

    Young people’s return to their hometowns is also quietly driving social transformation. They bring outside knowledge, information, ideas, and lifestyles, subtly promoting greater openness in their hometowns. They adeptly use new technologies and media to reveal and amplify the charm of these “small places,” gradually reshaping perceptions of urban versus rural desirability.

    We should create a more supportive public environment for young people, providing buffer space in this tense, competitive era. Big cities should not be the sole symbol of “success” in our value systems. We also need a more comprehensive institutional environment for young people, eliminating factors that might induce speculation or overspending while strengthening forces that can help them live decently and work diligently. This way, more young people who choose to stay in or return to their hometowns can find a sense of belonging and create a beautiful life of their own.

    This article, translated by Vincent Chow, is an excerpt from the book “Age of the Masses” by Wang Defu, published by The Oriental Press in May 2024. It is republished here with permission.

    Editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: VCG)