BEIJING — At a conference in Beijing, I once met a Cornell University professor who told me that he always likes to hire a taxi to explore the hidden corners of whatever city he is visiting. He said he was surprised to find that in all the Chinese cities he’d been to — unlike Bangalore, Mumbai, Calcutta, or even in New York or Chicago — he’s seen no “glaring slums.”
I tried to explain to this professor why slums don’t exist in China. It’s because of the housing allocation by employers, the household registration system and the so-called urban management system of China’s planned economy. But I somehow couldn’t quite convince the professor.
China’s urban areas are growing faster than anyplace in the world. During the 1980s, the population increase in Chinese cities was equivalent to what 19th century European cities experienced.
So how does China keep its first and second-tier cities so shiny and glamorous, and keep the extremely poor out of public sight?
The so-called “cavemen” who recently have been found living in Beijing’s wells offer one painfully clear answer. Around upscale residential areas and four-star hotels there are homeless people living among the city’s wells, giving them access to warmth from the nearby heating pipes.
China’s state ownership of city land and its supporting urban planning and management system help prevent widespread cases of unauthorized and chaotic construction. At the same time, an array of poverty relief measures, from subsistence allowances to low-cost housing, are all linked with household registration or resident permit.
But there are many migrants who have left their rural domicile to work in the cities without being able to find affordable housing. And urban management agents responsible for keeping the city clean and orderly kick out people who take refuge under bridges, in parks or other public places, day or night. All this makes the bottom of a thermal well an “optimal choice” for some of these homeless people.
Slum as solution
Beijing’s modern “cavemen” offer an important perspective about the dark side of urbanization. Although the Chinese government is built on Marxism — a critical theory — a crucial dimension of it has long been neglected in China. Economic development, the GDP and urbanization, which have evolved into complex concepts in the West, are instead pursued in China without reflection.
Only if this fact is addressed squarely can a solution be found. As a matter of fact, the slum itself can be considered a sort of solution. It is the manifestation of a liberal government’s limits of power and responsibility. The existence of slums illustrates how a government can leave part of a city’s space to the poor, to create some sort of shelter for themselves, unsightly as it may be.
Once these underground residents were discovered, Beijing authorities promptly sent people out to seal the wells with concrete. One can assume in good faith that this was done to prevent safety hazards and to protect the city’s heating equipment. And yet, if there is no appropriate follow up to provide relief to the underground residents who have been ejected from the only home they know this action can also seem quite abrupt and heartless.
A neat-freak government that is paternalistic and intolerant of the appearance of slums should naturally take more responsibility to provide shelter for the homeless that doesn't affect city infrastructure.
Last winter in Guizhou Province, five street children sheltering from the cold in a rubbish bin died of suffocation. Similarly the heating pipe wells are potential security risks. From the government point of view, it is obviously wiser to take preventive measures. But sealing the wells cannot solve the problem, and may even block another path to survival in the face of extreme poverty.
The next step is the hardest: how to find sustainable decent housing for China’s most vulnerable people. The hidden homeless are caused by various government policies such as household registration, one-child family planning, and urban management.
Wang Xiuqing, a father of three, washes taxis in Beijing by day, and lives and sleeps in the well near his work to save money for his children and for paying the fines of having more than one child. His wife and children live somewhere else.
The one-dimensional economic development that has made a small part of the Chinese population get very rich fast has left a heavy toll in terms of social justice and the environment.
In another epoch it was said that “the portals of the rich reek of flesh and wine, while frozen bodies by the roadside lie.” It’s time for the Chinese government to focus on the dignity of all people, on social justice and protection of human rights.
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