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We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States.  This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations.  For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”

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The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there).  Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.

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Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China

Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit.  The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born.  So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there.  Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.

To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:

The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.

The ants live in extreme penury.  They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated).  So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country.  China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects.  The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish.  They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.

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Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.