No place to call home - China's migrant workers
From The Economist, Jun 7th 2007
In A narrow alleyway in Liguanzhuang village, residents idle away a hot afternoon near a stinking rubbish dump, worrying about when the bulldozers will come. To prepare for the Olympic Games next year, Beijing's authorities are removing such eyesores. Old villages surrounded by the expanding city are being demolished. With them goes cheap housing, vital to the city's huge pool of migrant workers. China does not like to admit it has slums. But it does, and it will find it needs them.
In the past two years or so, cities across China have announced plans to "transform" these "villages within cities". Because of the Olympics in August 2008, Beijing faces a particularly tight deadline. The aim is to "renovate" (ie, usually, flatten) 171 urban villages by the end of this year. Between 2005, when the campaign was launched, and the end of last year, 114 of them were thus transformed.
Officials have given few details of the number of people affected. A state-controlled newspaper in 2005 said 33,935 households in 231 villages would be moved out. But these are only the "permanent residents", ie, the villages' original inhabitants. They are heavily outnumbered by rural migrants, most of whom work as traders or in the city's service and construction industries. Their numbers have soared as Beijing has boomed.
In a city of fast-rising house prices, the former villages offer affordable accommodation. Rents are as low as 200 yuan ($25) a month. The villagers of Liguanzhuang, a cluster of shabby single-storey brick houses in the north-east of the city, can afford to sit around moaning. They lost their fields several years ago, but their houses are large by city standards. They have roofed over their courtyards and partitioned their homes into tiny, dark rooms, which they rent out. Conditions in the village are grim. The only lavatories are foul-smelling public ones. But the slumlords are making an easy living.
Breaking the usual taboo, Qiu Baoxing, a deputy minister of construction, admitted in a magazine article in May that many villages within cities had become "Chinese-style slums". They are indeed distinctive. In spite of the rapid influx of rural labour into the cities (by official estimates an average of 8.4m people a year between 2001 and 2005, bringing the total to around 120m), they have not spawned huge shanty towns. This is mainly because of controls on the use of rural land for construction. Instead, scattered villages within cities, often behind walls built to hide their squalor, and old state-owned apartment buildings have filled the gap.
The villages have survived thanks to the haphazard expansion of Chinese cities, driven more by the whims of developers and local governments than by grand municipal plans. It has often proved easiest and cheapest for these governments to appropriate rural farmland and leave the farmers in place. To keep them happy, officials change their residential status from rural to urban. This gives them welfare benefits and better access to health care, education and city employment.
Some governments are now regretting their hands-off approach. Many of the villages have turned into not just slums but also criminal enclaves. In Weizikeng village about 3km (2 miles) south of Liguanzhuang, police recently cracked down on a thriving black market for stolen bicycles. The official media often portray the villages as rife with drugs, gambling and prostitution-a "time-bomb" of disorder, as a government adviser put it last year.
Some officials say that controlling the villages was made even harder by the scrapping four years ago of police powers to detain any migrant found without the correct permits. Such people were often put in prison camps for days or weeks and then sent home. From the 1950s on, Chinese governments enforced a rigid separation between urban and rural areas. But this began to break down in the 1990s because of the urban demand for cheap labour. This demand, say some Chinese academics, will impede government efforts to eradicate the villages. City governments build low-cost housing for the poor, but only for registered city residents, and often it is available only at much higher prices than rooms in the villages. Du Yang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says a lack of low-cost housing for migrants could worsen an emerging shortage of young labour from the countryside.
The eventual goal of Beijing's onslaught is still unclear. A government survey in 2002 found 332 villages with a total population of more than 800,000 migrants in the eight urban districts of the city proper-nearly one-third of the total migrant population. Bao Lufang of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences says the government should refrain from demolishing all of them because of the vital role they play in encouraging migration.