The rat tribe of Beijing
Despite being the second largest economy in the world, deep contradictions continue to persist in modern China.
While city skylines are being decked out with new, futuristic-looking buildings, a part of the country’s population still cannot afford the sunshine.
They are the urban underclass, the group that contributed, in a large part, to the country’s tremendous economic growth over the past decade. Yet still, they struggle to find their own place in the new China.
“Rat Tribe” is the neologism created to refer to the people who live below ground level. Many are low income migrant workers, coming from the underdeveloped areas of the country, attracted by the opportunities and promises of the big cities.
In Beijing, the cost of renting a flat can be prohibitive. Thus, living underground becomes financially acceptable, at least in the beginning, until they save enough to afford better options.
For some of them it’s the only choice: their average income being only a few hundred dollars a month. For others, the alternative would be living outside the city in the surrounding suburbs, such as the Sixth Ring of Beijing. But this also means more expenses and time dedicated to transportation in the overcrowded metro, every day.
In order to save time and money, they give up safety and health, living in the dark and dank spaces, measuring approximately 7 to 9 square meters. Bathrooms, most often are common spaces shared with other underground residents.
The term “tribe”, anyways, can be misleading. Relationships with neighbors are almost non-existent. “Everyone here lives on his own” says Wilma, a 27-year-old woman living underground. “From my point of view, it’s a sort of protection. Being friendly to neighbors means having to deal with their requests, sooner or later; and this means more hassle”. Therefore, at the end of the day, she quietly returns to her room, avoiding eye-contact with neighbors.
Her story is peculiar. Wilma was born and raised in Beijing, where her parents also live. But her relationship with them isn’t very good. A few years ago, she found a boyfriend and left their house to go live with him. Soon after, he was arrested. She lent him money to cover his legal expenses, using up most of the savings she had. She is now unemployed and had to relocate to a more affordable place.
This phenomenon originated in the 60s, in the years of tensions with the Soviet Union. Fearing a forthcoming strike, Chairman Mao ordered the construction of 85 square kilometers of underground shelters. The war never came, and for some time those shelters remained empty and unused.
During the 70s, the economic reform made money appealing once again, and many Chinese moved to the cities in search of better opportunities. The underground shelters were then inhabited by rural migrants, who didn’t possess the urban household registration, and as a result, couldn’t access many public services in the cities.
Nowadays, the underground dwellings (地下室, dixiashi) are mainly the result of rampant overdevelopment. They are built as car parks, then divided into small rooms, and subsequently rented out to maximize the profits.
Recently, the government declared these dwellings illegal, but, similar to many other aspects of China, the phenomenon still exists in a grey zone.
It is hard to tell how many people still live below ground level in Beijing. According to an evaluation from a few years ago, there were approximately a few hundred thousand. This number might now be drastically reduced as many underground dwellings were evacuated by law enforcements at the end of 2017.
In recent years, Beijing has undergone profound mutations aimed to transform it into a modern, top-notch city. It is not clear, though, where these people will go after the last dixiashi is evacuated.
It seems like, in the new Beijing, there isn’t a place for them to stay.