A record number of 7.95 million students graduated from Chinese universities and colleges this year. And for these graduates, where to start their career after graduation is a big decision to make. A recent survey shows that 82.66 percent of 2017 university graduates who responded plan to start their career in a new city rather than in their hometown; among them, 43.75 percent will opt for first-tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou), while 45.18 percent will choose second-tier cities such as Chengdu, Nanjing, Tianjin and Hangzhou.
Where to work after Uni
While first-tier Chinese cities continue to raise their thresholds for residence permits, many second-tier cities have rolled out a series of preferential policies to woo target graduates, including providing them with hukou, rent and housing subsidies.
For instance, Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, offers graduates residency permits even before they have found a job. Likewise, Changsha, capital of Central China's Hunan Province, provides graduates with rent and housing subsidies.
The government in Wuhan, Hubei Province, also provides low-rent apartments to entrepreneurial graduates who start a business in the city.
But can these policies really entice graduates and young talents to live and work in second-tier cities? To gain an insight into the issue, the Global Times interviewed some Chinese university students in Shanghai and abroad.
Better career opportunities
Twenty-three-year-old Qiu Tianci from Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, is studying finance at Cardiff University in the UK, and expects to finish her master's program in November of 2017.
Qiu told the Global Times that the incentives launched by second-tier cities are attractive to her. "Hukou and housing are big challenges for university graduates, and if second-tier cities can provide graduates with hukou and housing subsidies, it will greatly reduce their daily living pressures and therefore many graduates might be willing to settle down in second-tier cities."
Despite this, Qiu said she still plans to go to Beijing or Shanghai to start her career because she believes first-tier cities will give her better work opportunities and the chance to broaden her horizons.
"My major is in finance and economics, and I also have overseas study experience. So I think there will be better work opportunities in big cities," she said. "Also, both of my parents strongly advise me to work in first-tier cities for a few years after graduating, because they believe work and living experience in Beijing or Shanghai can improve my outlook and prospects."
Another interviewee, 21-year-old Yuan Qiaodan from Anhui Province currently studies at Shanghai International Studies University.
Yuan said the packages launched by second-tier cities are attractive to her, because they can help reduce her financial burdens after graduation.
"The cost of rent is the main financial hardship for graduates, and many young people need support from their parents to pay rent in big cities. If second-tier cities can provide housing subsidies to graduates, it will greatly reduce young people's living pressure," she told the Global Times.
Apart from the financial aspect, Yuan added that career opportunities in second-tier cities are not necessarily fewer than those in first-tier cities.
"The development of some industries in second-tier cities has been very rapid. For instance, Hangzhou's Internet and e-retailing industries are among the forefront of all Chinese cities," Yuan added.
In terms of her plans after graduation, Yuan said Hangzhou and Shanghai are her top options. "During my undergraduate years in Shanghai I visited Hangzhou many times. The city left a good impression on me because it is developing so quickly and the everyday pressures are much less than in Shanghai," she said. "So if I could find ideal work opportunities in Hangzhou, then I would prefer it over Shanghai."
However, 22-year-old Zhou Xinyu from Southwest China's Yunnan Province said that incentives like hukou and housing subsidies are not major attractions for her.
"I grew up in Kunming, a second-tier city, and I already have hukou and my own house there, so the benefits offered by those second-tier cities are not so appealing to me," she said, adding that such incentives launched by second-tier cities might be more attractive to graduates originally from third- and fourth-tier cities.
Zhou also explained why she would prefer to work and live in a big city. "A first-tier city can offer me something more valuable than hukou and housing. I mean, in Shanghai I can enjoy more job opportunities and better career prospects than I do in Kunming, and the average salary in Shanghai is also higher than in other Chinese cities," she added.
Indeed, salary levels appear to be a very important factor for luring graduates to first-tier cities. According to a report released by zhaopin.com this July, among 37 major Chinese cities, Beijing has the highest average monthly salary with 9,791 yuan ($1473.12) before tax, followed by Shanghai (9,337 yuan), Shenzhen (8,866 yuan), Hangzhou (7,933 yuan) and Guangzhou (7,754 yuan).
Apart from salaries, Zhou added that her major is in journalism which makes it easier to find related work opportunities in first-tier cities. "Shanghai is an international city, and if I can find a job in the media industry here, then I can develop a global vision in the industry," she added.
Pushing out non-locals
It's certainly true that first-tier cities can boast greater career opportunities, more advanced infrastructure and better social resources than second-tier cities. However, first-tier cities' tightening of residency permits, rising house prices, expensive rentals and more competitive job environments also help to push non-local young people out of the job market.
Twenty-seven-year-old Li Chengkai from Jiangsu Province works in the architecture industry in Shanghai. And although Li is employed by a reputable firm and earns a decent salary, he is still finding it a struggle to become permanently settled in the city.
"It will take me years to get a Shanghai hukou because I didn't attend a university here and I only have a bachelor's degree. Without a Shanghai hukou, I cannot buy my own house in the city," Li said.
"Also, house prices in Shanghai have been skyrocketing. Even though my monthly salary far exceeds the city's average monthly salary, I still can't save enough money to buy a small apartment by myself."
Similar concerns were echoed by postgraduate student Qiu. She said she might consider working in first-tier cities for three years after graduating, but doesn't want to settle down in a first-tier city.
"Beijing and Shanghai definitely have the best infrastructure, and educational and medical resources in China. But the cost of living in these cities is also huge. You need to deal with high housing prices, a fast pace of life, long commute times and a very competitive work environment," she said.
"So I might eventually settle down in a second-tier city like Xi'an, where I can live in a larger property, spend less time commuting, and generally enjoy an easier lifestyle."
Her internship experience in Beijing also made her realize that she doesn't enjoy the pace of work in larger cities.
"I attended university in Beijing and when I did my internship there, I had to travel 15 bus stops to get to the office," Qiu recalls. "There was usually no free seat on the bus during peak hours, and I had to stand for two to three hours for each commute. When I got back to my dorm, I was completely exhausted and just wanted to sleep."
More rational choices
Despite the greater living pressures in first-tier cities, the majority of interviewees pointed out that most of their university classmates still prefer Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. "The main reason is that first-tier cities offer better work opportunities and higher salaries than smaller cities," Zhou added.
Qiu told the Global Times that some of her Chinese classmates and friends in the UK have specific reasons for choosing first-tier cities, while others just feel it is the right thing to do. "Many of my peers think it's shameful if they study abroad and don't end up working in a first-tier city. And to be honest, I feel the same," she added.
As for Yuan, she believes her peers are more rational in terms of which city to go to after graduation. "My schoolmates no longer think first-tier cities are necessarily the best options. They tend to make a decision based on their own circumstances," she said.
Yuan also suggested that graduates should consider their personal financial situation when it comes to choosing a career plan and deciding which city to live in. "It is unwise for graduates to simply follow the masses to go to first-tier cities. But it is also unwise to choose second-tier cities just because of the hukou and housing subsidies," she added.