Fu Ninghui is happier with her new life after moving to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province.
Job seekers speak with recruiters at Hefei University in Hefei, Anhui province, at a job fair for college graduates. (Photo: Xinhua)
Last year, after living and working for six months as a translator in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, the 24-year-old relocated to Zhengzhou, one of the country's "new first-tier cities".
Shenzhen is one of the four existing first-tier cities, along with Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong.
Fu said Zhengzhou offers a much slower pace of life and places less pressure on young people compared with existing first-tier cities.
"I no longer have to spend huge amounts of time at work or on commuting, which means I have more time for the things that I'm interested in, such as practicing yoga," she said.
Like many graduates, Fu's first stop after leaving college with a bachelor's degree in translation was a first-tier city to pursue opportunities in both her career and personal life.
However, she soon found that events did not pan out the way she had expected. Competition for translators was fierce in Shenzhen, and she often felt she was at a disadvantage. Property prices were also too high for young people to afford.
It was not long before Fu decided to move to Zhengzhou, the biggest city and the only "new first-tier" one in Henan, her native province.
The term "new first-tier cities" was first coined by the Chinese media six years ago, through rating cities on the basis of five factors: richness of commercial resources; convenience of intercity transportation; the active lives of the urban population; the diversity of lifestyles; and development potential.
Using these factors, 15 centers have been recognized as new first-tier cities. Along with Zhengzhou, they include: Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province; Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang; Wuhan, the Hubei provincial capital, Shenyang, capital of Liaoning, and Kunming, capital of Yunnan.
Ding Changfa, an associate professor of economics at Xiamen University in Fujian province, said the emergence of these cities stems from attempts by first-tier metropolises to resolve the "metropolitan malaise".
To ease overpopulation, congestion and pollution, the four first-tier cities have set targets to guide the outflow of people and industries. New first-tier cities, most of them provincial capitals or regional centers, are taking over some functions of the "big four" by becoming homes to professional talent and industries, Ding said.
Liu Yuanju, a researcher with the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, said that as property prices in first-tier cities have soared in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for young people to buy homes.
"In the meantime, household registration policies (hukou) in the four cities are becoming unprecedentedly strict, and only a very few college graduates are able to gain permanent residence permits and settle down. Against such a backdrop, some young people are looking elsewhere," he added.
In recent years, researchers have found the ability of new first-tier cities to attract talent, particularly young college graduates, has clearly increased, overtaking the "pulling power" of first-tier destinations.
Last month, a survey conducted by Xinhuanet and Ziroom, an online apartment rental platform, showed that the number of people renting homes in new first-tier cities such as Tianjin, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, and Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, increased last year at a faster pace than in first-tier cities.
Latest statistics from MyCOS, a Beijing provider of data survey and analytical consulting services in higher education, show the proportion of college graduates choosing to work in new first-tier cities rose from 22 percent in 2014 to 26 percent last year.
The proportion of those opting to work in first-tier cities during the same period dropped from 25 percent to 21 percent.
In May, a report on college graduate employment by the recruitment website Zhaopin showed that 44 percent of the graduates surveyed hope to work in new first-tier cities, 4 percentage points up from last year. Some 31 percent hope to work in first-tier cities.
The report said industries in new first-tier cities are developing rapidly and there is a greater need for talent. To attract this, the cities have implemented a series of preferential policies, such as lowering the threshold for gaining a permanent residence permit and providing financial support for college graduates to buy homes.
The report said the favorable policies, more job opportunities and relatively low living expenses have all helped these cities to surpass their first-tier ones in becoming graduates' favorite destinations to work and live.
After graduating from a Beijing university, Weng Tingyan worked as a designer for an internet company in the capital for three years before moving to Wuhan early this year.
"My company set up a branch in Wuhan, and was selecting staff members to work there, and I volunteered to go," said the 26-year-old, who comes from Ningde, Fujian.
"I had become tired of the rapid pace of work and life in Beijing and was looking for opportunities in new first-tier cities, including Xiamen, in my home province of Fujian," she said. "My company in Beijing was looking for someone to be transferred to Wuhan on a higher salary. I had no hesitation in agreeing to move."
Weng, who now earns 200,000 yuan (about $30,000) a year, said her new lifestyle is a great improvement to that she led in Beijing.
"When I was in Beijing, although I was not on a low salary, I still had to live very frugally, as my expenses, especially rent, were very high," she said, adding that as a photography fan she had to delay buying a good camera, which cost thousands of yuan, in order to save money.
Things changed greatly after she moved to Wuhan. She has bought a good camera, and now feels more free and relaxed about spending money. "My rent now is 1,000 yuan a month, only one-third of that in Beijing," Weng said. "With a higher salary and lower expenses, I'm confident I can maintain a comfortable lifestyle."
Weng's boyfriend, who is a master's student in Beijing, also plans to work in Wuhan, and the couple aims to buy a home and settle in the city.
"The price of housing－about 20,000 yuan per square meter－is within reach and it's relatively easy for college graduates to gain permanent residence in Wuhan," Weng said.
The ability of graduates to move to new first-tier cities is not only benefiting these young people, but also the destinations, and even the entire country.
Ma Yan, deputy director of the MyCOS Research Institute, said graduates are precious human resources that enable cities to thrive and remain vigorous, adding that the arrival of young talent will accelerate the upgrading and transformation of industries in these emerging cities.
"Meanwhile, compared with first-tier cities, which are all in East or South China, new first-tier ones are scattered throughout the country. Their development will drive local economies and help rectify the imbalance among different parts of the country," she said.
Closing the gaps
However, gaps still exist between first-tier and new first-tier cities.
After living in Wuhan for a time, Weng found the city lagged behind a first-tier metropolis in several respects, such as education, healthcare, transportation and entertainment. Environmental conditions in Wuhan also need to be improved, she said.
"For example, a lot of construction is taking place in the city, affecting the environment and traffic flow. In addition, when it comes to entertainment, I either find there is not enough choice, or that the facilities are not advanced enough," she added.
Fu, who moved to Zhengzhou, believes such shortcomings are only temporary. As new first-tier cities "chase after" the first-tier ones, gaps between the two are narrowing.
"New first-tier cities such as Zhengzhou are developing rapidly and creating more opportunities for young people than overpopulated first-tier ones. If young people can seize the opportunities, they will be able to lead good lives and have bright futures more easily than in first-tier cities," said Fu, who has returned to university to pursue a master's in translation.
She said an airport economic zone and a pilot free trade zone are being constructed in Zhengzhou, and these will need plenty of talented professionals with language skills. "I believe there are great opportunities and good lives waiting for us," she added.