Farmer’s suicide attempt after son’s advanced degree doesn’t pay off raises question about social structure

October 25, 2012Jing Gao2 Comments, , , , , , , , , , , ,

A master’s graduate coming from rural China did not find an ideal job in the city and returned to his village to work on the farm. His father, who has been a peasant for his entire life, felt so humiliated and depressed by his son’s choice, or rather, lack of any, and attempted suicide. On the Internet, 43 percent of netizens surveyed thought it was “sadness of the education system” that a farmer’s son continues to farm despite having received advanced education.

Miao Weifang, 41, used to be the pride of the entire Liushugou village in the remote suburb of Baoding, Hebei province in central China. In 2008, he was accepted into the master’s program in recent and modern Chinese history at Hebei University, and became the very first one with an advanced degree in the tiny village with fewer than 100 residents.

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Miao Weifang (in white shirt)

After Miao graduated from the program three years later, he wanted to get a stable job with decent income which offers a comfortable working environment that is suitable for him to pursue his dream of writing. In other words, he desires an Iron Rice Bowl, a nickname for a job in the civil service or any state-run institution, for example, a school or a news organization.

But the doors to the civil service, whose entrance examination imposes an upper age limit of 35, are effectively closed to 40-year-old Miao by then. So he focused on state-run institutions. He tried quite a number of them, but always came back from interviews with disappointment. He once applied to a teaching position at a junior high school in Baoding and passed several rounds of interviews before he got eliminated at the final round. He believed the recruiting process is not fair.

In July, another middle school contacted him and offered him a teaching position that pays 2,500 yuan per month (US$400), but Miao insisted on getting 2,800 yuan a month. The school, unhappy with Miao’s haggle, refused his request.

After the series of setbacks in his job hunting, Miao returned to where he belonged – the farm – and started farming. Speaking of his choice, Miao said, “Do you call this escape, flinch, or a choice of compromise? Maybe it is a combination of all.”

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Miao works on his family farm.

Most of his fellow villagers found it hard to understand and kept talking about it in disbelief. Miao Xiping, a resident in the village, said, “So many years of education this kid received are wasted. What he learned has nothing to do with farming.” Others even used him as a cautionary tale figure: “Look at him. What a waste of time. Do not follow his example.”

Miao’s parents also “regret supporting the son’s education.” They had always expected their kid to get a good job after graduation so that the poor living conditions at their household can be changed. But in the end, he came back as a farmer. They felt stressed-out that they had become the talk of the town.

Miao’s father, deeply depressed, took over 100 sleeping pills to commit a suicide at one night after his wife fell asleep. Luckily, his wife timely woke up in the middle of the night and found him unconscious. He was rushed to a local hospital and finally got saved.

“I was thinking, after I die, I will see none of those worries,” Miao’s father recalled.

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Miao’s father lies in bed in local hospital after being rescued.

On October 11, a video blogger uploaded a short documentary of Miao’s story to Youku, one of China’s largest video sites, and gave it the title “Master’s Student Return to Do Farm Work After Graduation; Old Father, So Pissed, Took Poison”. The video was reposted by many social media and discussion forums. Many netizens lamented that “Knowledge hardly changes destiny.”

Of the 25,637 net users that responded to a survey on NetEase, 43% said it’s “Sadness of education (system)”; 20% said that they “feel sympathetic”, but also believed “what the father did was too extreme.” Only 15% said it is an isolated incident and should not be magnified.

One net user at NetEase, one popular net portal, wrote, “We spent a gunny bag of money on college and bought a gunny bag of books. After we finished reading the gunny bag of books and graduated, we found that what we make is less than a gunny sack’s worth.” Another user wrote, “What else can he blame for not finding a good job? He does not have a good father!”

The story of Miao’s failed education has resonated deeply with China’s new social class, Diao Si, or “young unprivileged losers”. We often hear news media talk about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in China, but it would be so disheartening to Chinese youth if the only problem were the unequal distribution of wealth. Rather, it is the solidification of social classes and their hereditary nature that have shattered so many ‘Chinese dreams’.

“Knowledge changes destiny” used to be part of a pep talk given to students from humble roots in that education was their only stepping stone to success and breaking into a higher class. For thousands of years in Chinese history, the wide citizenry’s paths had centered on studying for imperial exams that could hopefully pluck them out of their class and groom them for the officialdom, as they knew, only the powerful have money. Without the power base, personal wealth was never guaranteed.

Today, rather than reforming the system and turning China into a land of opportunities for everyone, the government has taken the rigidly stratified society to the next level. This is especially true for those living in the bottom of hierarchy. ‘Second-generation farmers’, or nong er dai, is the definitional label that children of farmers who left for the city receive, even if they have spent more time in the city than in the remote villages, as if they will be forever trapped in the identity. The ‘second-generation rich’ and the ‘official offspring’, in contrast, refer to children who have inherited the class and status from their parents and will never have to worry about the future. Success is predicated more on family connections, access to resources and opportunities than on education alone, and those are exactly what ‘young unprivileged losers’ do not have.

There are many rags-to-riches stories in today’s China, but those protagonists were lucky enough to emerge in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, which was so anti-elitist that anarchists turned the social structure upside down, and ride the tides of the economic reform in the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decade, the old set of rules of the game that everyone plays has come back, but the competition to gain a foothold has only gotten fiercer. A century ago, if you were educated, you might stand out from the rest of the population and earn yourself a ticket to good life. Today, you don’t even get enough education if you are poor, and even if you manage to get a college degree, like Miao did, by spending your family fortune, so many more people are like you, and without connections that make you different than others, you are nobody. “Those students studying abroad can afford to do dishes happily, but it is impossible here,” said one net user.

The unprivileged Chinese youth are faced with the same problem: they want a decent job, but their talents are not appreciated; they want to start their own enterprises, but they have no capital, political or monetary; they think about giving up and going broke, but there is no social safety net to live on. In the pressure-cooker-like real world, every one of them feels the sense of urgency, insecurity and madness and tries to change their own destiny, but the entire country does not even have a single decent prescription for their dire situations. They cannot tolerate the status quo, and feel powerless to change it. They pin their hope on a force to tear down the current social structure and built a new one that offers fairness, equality and transparency. They take out the portrait of Chairman Mao because they long for an egalitarian society with no wealth gap or corruption, but they do not even understand Mao or have any idea about the atrocities and tragedies brought about by the Cultural Revolution. This, can be the largest hidden peril in the next decade.

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2 comments to “Farmer’s suicide attempt after son’s advanced degree doesn’t pay off raises question about social structure”

  1. Blacksoth | October 29, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    I think it’s a stretch to go from this one example and then say this is all class warfare. I’m sure many of the points made in the article could be true, but in this case the guy was offered a job and he didn’t take it. End of story.

    Miao Weifang may have a good education but he has no practical work experience in his field and has to start at the bottom like anyone else. After he secures a job he can always continue to look, can’t he?

    I understand the frustration but the bottom line is, he gave up. (Besides, I thought history was the one subject in China not worth studying since they just TELL you what you should think. And this, told to me by a very well educated chinese teacher.)

  2. Hao Zhou | October 31, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Thousands of students from poor, improvished backgrounds graduate from China’s top universities and go on to lead successful careers.

    Miao’s problem is two-fold:
    - He is a graduate at age 40. Even considering that in China’s villages it is common to start school at age 7 instead of 6, you should still be going to college no later than 20, and graduating with masters at 26. I don’t know the whole story, but why did he graduate 14 years late? Perhaps it is this question that makes people not want to hire him.

    - Given his age problem, he should have accepted that 2500 yuan job. Its honestly not that bad, considering that farmers make 500 yuan or less, and with pay rising some 10, 15% every year in China, it is better to get thorough the door first and get some experience.

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