BEIJING — Western tourists who visit Beijing often remark on its lack of slums. Although it is home to seven million migrant workers, the capital appears to be without the squalid shantytowns that pockmark or ring other developing cities, like Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro.
Beijing does have slums, however — only they are mostly hidden from view and, despite bleak living conditions, many of their residents are surprisingly hopeful.
Some communities of slum dwellers are called “rat tribes” because they live in damp, dark rooms located in one-time air-raid shelters and basements. Other migrant workers live in former villages that have been engulfed by the ever-expanding capital. (The state media’s euphemism for these is “villages inside cities.”)
Both types of slums are tolerated by the state. The government turns a blind eye because it needs a large migrant workforce to provide the cheap manpower behind China’s astonishing urbanization. Whenever the slums become an eyesore it simply tears them down and sells the land for development, forcing migrants to look further afield for housing.
In the eastern part of the city, just past the Fourth Ring Road, opposite a smart high-rise residential unit with a guard at the gate is the village-inside-the-city of Xinzhuang. Here, whole families cram into single rooms in makeshift concrete or brick structures. There are no showers or kitchens. In one building, just one public sink and a couple of hot plates are located down a poky corridor with low-slung electric wires. Rubbish putrefies outside. Residents use outdoor toilets: communal open troughs with no partitions that are infested with flies during the oppressively hot summer months.
Migrants without a Beijing hukou, or official household registration, have limited access to social benefits like health care and education. This leads many of the poorer ones to leave their children behind in their hometowns. Others make compromises: One family I talked to in Xinzhuang last week could not afford to pay the annual $1,600 fees to educate their small son. For now, the boy is going without schooling.
And yet, during my recent visit, the overriding feeling I encountered was optimism.
Zhang Kai, a 25-year-old waiter who earns roughly $300 a month, spends $40 on renting a small shared room. He has enough spare cash to occasionally go to Internet cafes and visit some famous sights, like the Summer Palace and the Bird’s Nest. In Xinzhuang, he has to wash his clothes next to a fetid canal, but life is still better in this slum than in his home village in eastern Shandong province. Looking around the dusty street, he said: “Thank God there is this village so that migrants aren’t forced to move too far outside the Fifth Ring Road.”
One neighbor, a 53-year-old migrant vendor who goes by the surname Zhu, has lived here for 18 years and earned enough money from selling 16-cent ice creams in a roadside store to send all three of his children to university. They are studying graphic design, electronics and economics.
The promise of such social change has kept Beijing’s slums contained. They are not as poor or disease-ridden as those in India. Here, most migrants can find work. Serious crime is rare. Outsiders club together, creating a palpable sense of community. And so even slum dwellers seem upbeat — at least as long as living conditions keep improving, as they have in China over the last three decades.
Can this last? In “China’s Urban Billion” Tom Miller warns that without a reform of the hukou system and the development of affordable mass housing, by 2030 almost half of the one billion Chinese who live in cities will belong to a “giant underclass.” Were that to happen China’s slums might go from being places of aspiration to cauldrons of discontent.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore