The 'China Dream' Deferred: How The Lack of Social Mobility Limits Ambitions

A study of four archetypal bank interns illustrates how difficult it is for the humbly born to advance in Chinese society.

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The New York Times recently ran an article that detailed the struggles of three young college women from low-income backgrounds, raising questions about whether education remains the "great equalizer" in America. How does the picture look in China, where education has been prized since the days of Confucius as a way to advance in society?

A recent thread on Tianya, a popular online discussion forum, engaged this issue directly and quickly went viral. The original post gathered almost 2,900 comments. One summarized version was retweeted more than 22,500 times on Sina Weibo. It was started by a user with the handle Dadi, a self-proclaimed human resources manager at a state-owned bank in a large city, who says he was tapped to oversee the bank's internship program of about 60 college students.

Dadi's story has not been verified. Although many comments are credulous, some question its veracity, particularly because Tianya is known for paying professional ghostwriters to stir up discussion with interesting or outrageous threads. But the story has hit a nerve for many Chinese Internet users because the characters face archetypal challenges in modern China.

* * *

In China's hyper competitive job market for new graduates, a permanent position at a bank is highly coveted not only for its financial rewards, but perhaps more importantly, for its long-term stability, social respectability, and promise of future connections it offers.

While the bank had 15 openings for new graduates in that year, most positions would go to people with connections. Dadi described the internship program as a "sham" to score cheap labor and generate publicity. Only two or three out of the 60 interns would ultimately receive offers.

The interns all had good grades from the best university in the province, having aced the grueling gaokao college entrance exam. But Dadi wondered, did they really start the race from the same place? How would their family backgrounds affect their performance as interns, and their lives thereafter?

Dadi wrote that his curiosity was first piqued when one of his colleagues claimed that he could predict the interns' behaviors on their first day based only on their files. Dadi marveled at his accuracy -- the interns from poor rural areas arrived early, but were anxious and did not interact with the bank's employees; those who greeted the internship directors and poured water for them all had Party officials for parents; those with family businesses traded jokes, and seemed carefree and jovial; then there were a few polite but standoffish ones -- all of them, without exception, raised by urban professionals.

The colleague explained to Dadi that his observations were based on past experiences. Dadi spotted similar trends as feedback about the interns' performances came in. The most well-liked interns were children of business owners - they were problem solvers, and sometimes treated existing employees to meals. The ones from rural areas had trouble communicating and mingling with the other employees, but were hardworking and rarely made excuses. The children of Party officials were well-spoken and knew how office politics worked, but some received mixed marks for being caught playing gimmicks. The group with the worst feedback: children of the urban professional class, who were seen as proud, stubborn, and sometimes disrespectful.

Thus began Dadi's informal sociology experiment. He asked the interns about their families, observed them during the internship program, and kept in touch with many of them for more than a year afterwards. He wrote about four of his subjects in particular detail.

The entrepreneur: Chubby

Chubby, the son of a furniture store owner from a smaller city, always had a smile on his face and never tired of joking with everyone around him.

Halfway into the internship, Chubby's father took Dadi out to dinner and talked about his plans for his son. Without connections in the big city, said the father, he didn't expect Chubby to get the offer for the bank job, but the internship was a chance for Chubby to get to know people at the banks and try to start a business serving those same banks. State-owned banks, the dad said, needed contractor services and would never refuse to pay.

Chubby took the advice to heart and eventually settled on establishing an ATM installation service. Two months before Chubby graduated from college, his father gave him 200,000 RMB (about US$35,000) to start the company.

Because Chubby was well liked and knew how the system worked, his company gave competitive bids and developed a healthy business.

The daughter of the Party: Zhou

Zhou is a fashionable and polite girl whose mother is a mid-level Party official in an important local department. Before the internship ended, the regional director of the bank told Dadi to give Zhou good performance reviews. Dadi was sure, however, that the director had never even met the girl.

Dadi later found out that Zhou's parents had spoken to a high-level official at the local bank regulatory agency, who made a call to the bank's chief. After Zhou sealed the deal to work at the bank, her parents had dinner with the official and several directors there. Dadi noted that the people at the dinner were way above his pay grade.

Rachel Lu, editor and co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, spent her childhood in southern China. She is currently based in Hong Kong.  

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