Debra Bruno is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.
"We're creating a huge urban underclass of people who can’t function in the society."
It’s the biggest migration in human history: China’s population is moving to cities so fast that by 2030, roughly one in eight people on this earth will be a resident of a Chinese city.
That great influx is helping create the world's largest number of slum-dwellers. Right now, China has 220 million migrant workers. These workers live without "hukou," the permit that allows Chinese people to buy an apartment or send their children to public school. Without hukou, these workers have become second-class citizens in their own home, living in squalid rooms on the outskirts of cities, places with no heat in the winter and no cool air in the summer. They are crowded into communities with only public toilets, where rubbish piles up in heaps.
Others live in cities' vast underground basements, renting unventilated rooms and sleeping in shifts so more people can share a single bed. Still others live in pre-fab dormitories on factory grounds or near workplaces, or camp out in tents near construction sites. Last summer, a small village popped up alongside an apartment complex in one Beijing’s high-rent neighborhoods. Construction workers slept under Army-green tents, hung their clothes to dry alongside sidewalks, and played pingpong in the evenings.
"The rules of the game are permanently stacked against them," says Tom Miller, author of China’s Urban Million: The Story Behind the Greatest Migration in Human History. Miller, editor of China Economic Quarterly, has lived in Beijing since 2002 and has visited 85 Chinese cities. His book chronicles this urban explosion and its impact on cities.
So far, he says, not so good. The cities are "shitholes," he says. They are inefficient with their space, they have gigantic problems with traffic, pollution, and sidewalks that open up gaping holes and swallow pedestrians. Plus, they're ugly.
Part of the blame falls on the Soviet Union, Miller says, which revered enormous buildings and sweeping boulevards designed to make the human feel small. Chinese cities also tend to emulate Beijing’s vast monuments to power: Tiananmen’s flat sweep of pavement, dotted with fire extinguishers to discourage protesters who might want to set themselves alight; the Great Hall of the People, which measures 1,849,239 square feet and seats 10,000 in its great auditorium.
"Communists are the least nostalgic people you can think of,” Miller notes, which means that preserving, say, an ancient city wall is not all that important. "It’s all about creating for the future and producing cities that are centers of production, essentially. The entire point of a communist city is to be functional."
But China's cities are designed for a time when people lived in their work units and never went anywhere. "When you have economic transformation into a capitalistic system, which means people buying stuff, and people have to move around the city, then suddenly this model doesn’t work very well," Miller says. China's surging middle class wants to window shop at the Gucci store and buy a BMW and ride their fixed-gear bike in the countryside.
And the cities are only getting bigger. Cities like Chongqing are moving millions of the province’s farmers into the city, expanding the population from 10 million to 20 million by 2020. Those farmers will move into public housing, swapping the land where they’ve tilled a small plot in subsistence farming for an apartment inside the city.
"That kind of displacement could only be disastrous for workers who have no work skills transferrable to urban life," Miller says. "If I’m a farmer ... I’m being put into a new tower block, where there’s nowhere I can keep any hens, and I have no chance of getting a job. I have no urban skills. What this is actually doing is creating a huge urban underclass of people who can’t function in the society."