Chinese migrants rest in front of a advertisement for a new real estate project in Beijing. AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

Government promises haven’t changed much for the city’s underground-dwelling underclass.

China’s incredibly fast urban growth has also been incredibly unequal.

In its cities, residents who have migrated from villages have long been considered second-class citizens, both in the eyes of the government and the original residents. Decades of exclusionary urban policies coupled with skyrocketing housing prices have forced China’s urban migrants to live in unlit, unventilated, often-illegally rented basements originally intended to be bomb shelters and storage facilities. Some are even living in sewers.

These awful conditions caught the attention of the news media several years back. But in a new research paper, SUNY-Albany scholar Youqin Huang reports that very little has changed. After analyzing government archives and surveys on Beijing migrants, conducting field inspections of seven basement rentals in the city, and holding in-depth interviews with owners, managers, tenants, and other building occupants, Huang concludes that official promises for more migrant-inclusive urban growth have failed to correct the problem.

Here’s Huang, via the journal Urban Studies:

Overnight, a huge underground population was revealed – a city under the city. Basement tenants are popularly called the ‘mouse tribe’ (or ‘rat tribe’, shu zu) in the media, living in an overcrowded warren of underground tunnels and cellars lacking windows and proper ventilation, all underneath the modern city of Beijing and invisible to the world.

A 2013 estimate peg the number of such migrants at 260,000, but Huang suspects the actual number of people living underground is much higher. This population lives in basements that are structurally unsafe and overcrowded, that have poor sanitation, and that offer inadequate access to safe water. The hazardous environment harms not only the current pool of urban migrant workers but negatively impacts their children—the future of the urban labor force, Huang tells CityLab.

Decades of discrimination

As it urbanized, China saw a rise in the numbers of migrant workers traveling from villages to cities in search of better economic opportunities. In 2014, more than 260 million rural migrants lived in cities and towns, making up more than a third of the urban population.

Previously agricultural workers, these migrants typically take on low-wage jobs in manufacturing, construction, and service industries. The ones in Beijing’s basements mainly work in restaurants, beauty salons, and supermarkets, Huang reports. But despite contributing significantly to the country’s economy, migrants have long been blamed for the city ills, such as pollution and congestion, by the government, Huang says.

Migrant workers in Beijing in 1997. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

The poor treatment goes back decades. In the 1950s, the government introduced the registration (hukou) system, which classified citizens according to their birthplace. Urban residents got access to state-run services such as education, subsidized housing, health care, employment, and food rations. Rural residents and migrants without hukou, however, did not get the same rights. The chart below, from a 2013 European Commission report, shows how sharply the number of migrant workers without hukou rights has risen over the last few decades:

The hukou system, despite being relaxed at times, still contributes to segregation of the migrant underclass in Chinese cities like Beijing; via The Guardian:

“Hukou is basically apartheid – apartheid against domestic servants," said Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. "One [question] is whether this makes a difference at the material level, in terms of entitlements and access to education. The second is [how it affects] some of the 'softer' discrimination against people with a rural hukou, with people in cities looking down on them."

“Floating population,” “peasant workers, “rat tribe”

Through ill-treatment and derogatory language, other urban citizens deepen the prejudices against migrants. Huang explains in her Urban Studies article:

They are afraid that basement tenants are overburdening the infrastructure and public facilities in their neighbourhoods, overcrowding public spaces, bringing crime, undesirable people and disamenities to their neighbourhoods, occupying their underground spaces, damaging the image of their neighbourhoods, and causing devaluation of their properties.

These fears are expressed through terms like “floating population,” long used by the government, which evokes negative traits like laziness, aimlessness, and vagrant tendencies. “Peasant workers” is another one. And now with the rise of more underground living, terms like “rat tribe” and “mouse tribe” have become popular.

“How you name them matters,” says Huang. By using these terms, the government and the urban public are telling migrants they don’t belong, even after they’ve lived in the city for decades, she says. “You’re creating a difference between urban residents and migrants that basically legitimizes saying, ’I can treat you differently.’”

Ultimately, the name-calling perpetuates the divide between the two groups. Here’s what one migrant told Huang about his above-ground neighbors:

“You know, we live in basements, so we probably should not use the garden above the ground. Some Beijing local residents are very bossy. They look down upon us. I do not want to get into a conflict with them.”

The future is unclear for basement migrants

In 2014, the Chinese government announced new guidelines to get 60 percent of the country’s population to live in urban areas by 2020. To achieve this growth, they promised that 100 million more migrant workers would “get urbanite status,” according to the state-run Xinhua News agency. As an incentive, they’re trying to get 40 percent of all city residents hukou rights, up from 35.7 percent of such workers in 2013.

But the seemingly good news comes with caveats. Here’s Dexter Roberts of Bloomberg reading between the lines:

First, the government wants to maintain restrictions on migration to China’s biggest cities, which also happen to be its most popular. Instead, the plan calls for liberalizing migration to small and midsize cities, or those with less than 5 million. Whether migrants will willingly flock to designated smaller cities, rather than the megacities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, is an unanswered question.

Even if more migrants in Beijing gain access to the benefits associated with hukou as promised, and more affordable housing is constructed as promised, a large number of Beijing’s migrants may still be left out. They may still have to rely on informal, unsafe housing to keep a roof over their head. Or in this case, a floor.

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