URBAN LIFE IN CHINA

URBAN LIFE IN CHINA

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According to the 2010 census, 49.7 percent of China’s population lives in urban areas. This is up from 36.1 percent in the 2000 census, which used a different counting system The urban population of China in 2007 was estimated to be 44 percent, compared to 90 percent in Great Britain and 13 percent in Ethiopia. The urban population of China has risen from 18 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2001. When the Deng economic reforms were launched in 1978 there 172 million urban residents. In 2008 there were 577 million.The percentage of people living in urban areas is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2030. Already around 20 million Chinese move to the cities every year and that figure could rise.

An additional 300 million to 400 million people---more than the entire population of the United States---are expected to move from the countryside to the city over the next 30 years, according to China’s Development Research Center, causing the China's population urban to rise from 47 percent to 75 percent. With consumption levels and wages three times higher in the city than in the countryside, this will put an enormous strain on energy and water resources  unless there is a change in the urbanization model.

Urban populations are fragmented into urban residents and migrant workers, those who work for the private sector, those who for state enterprises, the political elite, a small emerging middle class and the disenfranchised masses. Chinese cities, in contrast to those in many developing countries, contain a high proportion of workers in factories and offices and a low proportion of workers in the service sector. The average income of urban dwellers nearly doubled between 2001 and 2005. Monthly income in Guangzhou in 2010 was $164, four times what it was in 1993. City people are also becoming more educated. By contrast in rural areas, incomes have remained stagnant and schools have gotten worse and more expensive. The demographic trends in Shanghai are similar to those of other Chinese cities. Eight million of Shanghai's 13 million people live in the downtown area, twice as many as in 1949. The government has helped build over a million new housing units and helped workers set up saving plans to afford them.

Legal status as an urban dweller in China is prized. As a result of various state policies and practices, contemporary Chinese urban society has a distinctive character, and life in Chinese cities differs in many ways from that in cities in otherwise comparable developing societies. The most consequential policies have been the household registration system, the legal barriers to migration, the fostering of the allembracing work unit, and the restriction of commerce and markets, including the housing market. In many ways, the weight of official control and supervision is felt more in the cities, whose administrators are concerned with controlling the population and do so through a dual administrative hierarchy. [Source: Library of Congress]

“The two principles on which these control structures are based are locality and occupation. Household registers are maintained by the police, whose presence is much stronger in the cities than in the countryside. Cities are subdivided into districts, wards, and finally into small units of some fifteen to thirty households, such as all those in one apartment building or on a small lane. For those employed in large organizations, the work unit either is coterminous with the residential unit or takes precedence over it; for those employed in small collective enterprises or neighborhood shops, the residential committee is their unit of registration and provides a range of services.

See Real Estate

Good Websites and Sources: China Environment Forum wilsoncenter.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; City Photos peacham.com ; Library of Congress loc.gov ; Urban China Research Network mumford.albany.edu Hutongs in Beijing A good book on hutong life is Last Days of Old Beijing: Life on the Vanished Backstreets of a City Transformed by Micheal Meyer (Walker and Co., 2008). Web Sites on Hutongs Wikipedia ;China Highlights China Highlights ; Travel China Guide ; Hutong Photography ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Chinatown Connectionchinatownconnection.com ; China Dailychinadaily.com ; Links in this Website: MIGRANT WORKERS IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China

China's City Dwellers Now Outnumber the Rural Population

In January 2012, the Chinese government said the number of people living in cities exceeded the rural population for the first time. Urban dwellers now represent 51.27 percent of China's entire population of nearly 1.35 billion -- or 690.8 million people -- the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said. It added that China had an extra 21 million people living in cities by the end of 2011 compared to a year earlier -- more than the entire population of Sri Lanka -- while the number of rural dwellers dropped. [Source: AFP, January 17, 2012]

AFP reported: “The shift marks a turning point for China, which for centuries has been a mainly agrarian nation, but which has witnessed a huge population shift to cities over the past three decades as people seek to benefit from the nation's economic growth. The development experts warned was likely to put strain on society and the environment. "Urbanisation is an irreversible process and in the next 20 years, China's urban population will reach 75 percent of the total population," Li Jianmin, head of the Institute of Population and Development Research at Nankai University, told AFP. "This will have a huge impact on China's environment, and on social and economic development."

A significant portion of China's urban dwellers are migrant workers---rural residents seeking work in towns and cities---who have helped fuel growth in the world's second-largest economy. A national census published in April last year showed China counted more than 221 million migrants, and a government report released months later predicted that more than 100 million farmers would move to cities by 2020.

Li said the rising number of urban dwellers would put a strain on resources as new or expanded cities would have to be built, adding that different urban centres had adopted different attitudes towards the issue. "Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have already clearly stated they want to contain the population increase," he said. They "have implemented a number of measures that are necessary as it is a severe test for local resources and traffic." But he said some small and medium-sized cities were still actively encouraging the rural population to become urbanites, which put a strain on resources and could pollute the local environment.

Urbanization in Maoist China

China's cities grew rapidly in the early and mid-1950s as rural people moved in to take advantage of the employment opportunities generated by economic growth and the expansion of heavy industry. The authorities became alarmed at this influx, both because of the cost of providing urban services (food supply, waste disposal) and because of the potential problems of unemployed or semi-employed migrants creating squatter settlements. Additionally, Chinese leaders held a certain anti-urban bias and tended to regard China's cities as unproductive. They accused city residents of living off the countryside and indulging in luxury consumption. Extolling large, smoking factories, they sought to engage the population in the manufacture of utilitarian commodities, like steel or trucks. The authorities demonstrated their bias against commerce and service trades by closing down many shops and markets. Since 1958 they have employed household registration and food rationing systems to control urban growth and general migration . [Source: Library of Congress]

“The pace of urbanization in China from the mid-1950s to 1982 was relatively slow because of both rapid growth of the rural population and tight restrictions on rural-urban migration for most of that period. According to the 1953 and 1982 censuses, the urban population as a percentage of total population increased from 13.3 to 20.6 percent during that period. From 1982 to 1986, however, the urban population increased dramatically to 37 percent of the total population. This large jump resulted from a combination of factors. One was the migration of large numbers of surplus agricultural workers, displaced by the agricultural responsibility system, from rural to urban areas. Another was a 1984 decision to broaden the criteria for classifying an area as a city or town. During 1984 the number of towns meeting the new urban criteria increased more than twofold, and the urban town population doubled. In the mid-1980s demographers expected the proportion of the population living in cities and towns to be around 50 percent by the turn of the century. This urban growth was expected to result primarily from the increase in the number of small- and medium-sized cities and towns rather than from an expansion of existing large cities. [Source: Library of Congress]

Urbanization in the Post- Mao China

In the 1980s the distinction between urban and rural status grew mainly out of the food distribution and rationing system. Rural registrants were assumed to be growing their own staple foods, and there was no provision for state allocation of grain to them. The state monopolized the trade in grain; it collected grain in the countryside as a tax or as compulsory purchase and used it to supply its functionaries and the urban population. Urban status entitled one to purchase an allotment of grain, oil, and various other staple items. These were rationed, and a ration coupon as well as money was necessary to obtain grain legally. Ration coupons were good only in their own localities. The rationing system served several purposes. They included the fair distribution of scarce goods, prevention of private speculation in staple foods, and residence control. In addition, the police in cities kept household registration records and could make unannounced inspections, usually at night, looking for people who did not have legal permission to reside in a city. The controls have not been foolproof and have worked more effectively in times of shortages and strict political control. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In 1987 China was committed to a three-part strategy to control urban growth: strictly limiting the size of big cities (those of 500,000 or more people); developing medium-sized cities (200,000 to 500,000); and encouraging the growth of small cities (100,000 to 200,000). The government also encouraged the development of small market and commune centers that were not then officially designated as urban places, hoping that they eventually would be transformed into towns and small cities. The big and medium-sized cities were viewed as centers of heavy and light industry, and small cities and towns were looked on as possible locations for handicraft and workshop activities, using labor provided mainly from rural overflow. [Ibid]

“Unemployed urban youth were permitted and sometimes advised to set up small restaurants or service establishments. Peasants were permitted to come into cities to sell produce or local products. Municipal authorities seemed to ignore the movement of substantial numbers of rural people into the urban service sector as peddlers, carpenters, and other skilled workers or, occasionally, as domestic workers. In the mid-1980s the Chinese press reported an influx of teenage girls from the country seeking short-term work as housekeepers or nannies. Like other rural migrants, they usually used ties with relatives or fellow villagers resident in the city to find positions. [Ibid]

“Chinese urban dwellers, as a category, receive subsidies on food, housing, and transportation services. In the 1980s such subsidies came to occupy an increasingly large share of the state budget. Even with subsidies, food purchases took the largest share of household budgets. Rents, in contrast, were very low, seldom taking more than 5 percent of household income even with water and electricity charges included. [Ibid]

Urban Migration in the 1970s and 80s

China has restricted internal movement in various ways. Official efforts to limit free migration between villages and cities began as early as 1952 with a series of measures designed to prevent individuals without special permission from moving to cities to take advantage of the generally higher living standards there. The party decreased migration to cities during the 1960s and 1970s for economic and political reasons. In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, large numbers of urban youths were "sent down" to the countryside for political and ideological reasons. Many relocated youths were eventually permitted to return to the cities, and by the mid-1980s most had done so. [Source: Library of Congress]

“The success of the agricultural reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 1980s dramatically increased the food supply in China's cities, making it possible for more people to come in from rural areas and survive without food ration cards. Because of the increased food supply, the authorities temporarily relaxed the enforcement of migration restrictions. This relaxation, however, was short-lived, and in May 1984 new measures strengthened residence regulations and reinstated official control over internal migration. Additionally, in March 1986 a draft revision of the 1957 migration regulations was presented to the Standing Committee of the Sixth National People's Congress calling for stricter population control policies. [Ibid]

“Nonetheless, migration from rural areas to urban centers continued. The problem of too-rapid urbanization was exacerbated by the agricultural responsibility system, which forced a reallocation of labor and left many agricultural workers unemployed. The central government attempted to control movement through the household registration system and promote development of small cities and towns, but within this system many people were still able to migrate primarily for employment or educational purposes. Leaving their place of official registration for days, months, or even years, unemployed agricultural workers found jobs in construction, housekeeping, or commune-run shops or restaurants. This temporary mobility was permitted by authorities because it simultaneously absorbed a large amount of surplus rural labor, improved the economies of rural areas, and satisfied urban requirements for service and other workers. The most significant aspect of the temporary migration, however, was that it was viewed as a possible initial step toward the development of small, rural-oriented urban centers that could bring employment and urban amenities to rural areas. [Ibid]

“Although the temporary migration into the cities was seen as beneficial, controlling it was a serious concern of the central government. An April 1985 survey showed that the "floating" or nonresident population in eight selected areas of Beijing was 662,000, or 12.5 percent of the total population. The survey also showed that people entered or left Beijing 880,000 times a day. In an effort to control this activity, neighborhood committees and work units (danwei) were required to comply with municipal regulations issued in January 1986. These regulations stipulated that communities and work units keep records on visitors, that those staying in Beijing for up to three days must be registered, and that those planning to stay longer must obtain temporary residence permits from local police stations. [Ibid]

Small Chinese City in the 1990s and the Early 2000s

In the 1990s the Yangtze river town of Fuling had a population of around 200,000, which was small by Chinese standards. Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “ Fuling sits at the junction of the Yangtze and the Wu Rivers, and in the mid-1990s it felt sleepy and isolated. There was no highway or rail line, and the Yangtze ferries took seven hours to reach Chongqing, the nearest large city. Foreigners were unheard of—if I ate lunch downtown, I often drew a crowd of 30 spectators. The city had one escalator, one nightclub, and no traffic lights. I didn’t know anybody with a car. There were two cell phones at the college, and everyone could tell you who owned them: the party secretary, the highest Communist Party official on campus, and an art teacher who had taken a pioneering step into private business. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, March 2013 ^^^]

“In those days Fuling Teachers College was only a three-year institution, which placed it near the bottom of Chinese higher education. But my students were grateful for the opportunity. Nearly all of them came from rural homes with little tradition of education; many had illiterate parents. And yet they majored in English—a remarkable step in a country that had been closed for much of the 20th century. Their essays spoke of obscurity and poverty, but there was also a great deal of hope: “My hometown is not famous because there aren’t famous things and products and persons, and there aren’t any famous scenes. My hometown is lacking of persons of ability ... I’ll be a teacher, I’ll try my best to train many persons of ability.” “There is an old saying of China: ‘Dog loves house in spite of being poor; son loves mother in spite of being ugly.’ That [is] our feeling. Today we are working hard, and tomorrow we will do what we can for our country.” ^^^

“My students taught me many things, including what it meant to come from the countryside, where the vast majority of Chinese lived at the beginning of the reform era. Since then an estimated 155 million people have migrated to the cities, and my students wrote movingly about relatives who struggled with this transition. They also taught me about the complexities of poverty in China. My students had little money, but they were optimistic, and they had opportunities; it was impossible to think of such people as poor. And Fuling itself was hard to define. The Three Gorges Dam could never have happened in a truly poor country—Beijing reports that the total investment was $33 billion, although some unofficial estimates are significantly higher. But memories of recent poverty helped make the dam acceptable to locals, and I understood why they desired progress at all costs. My apartment was often without electricity for hours, and over-reliance on coal resulted in horrible pollution. ^^^

“In early 2001, the city’s first highway had been completed, rendering the Yangtze ferries obsolete. Two more new highways would follow, along with three train lines. Because of the Three Gorges project, large amounts of central government money flowed into Fuling, along with migrants from low-lying river towns that were being demolished. (All told, more than 1.4 million people were resettled.) In the span of a decade Fuling’s urban population nearly doubled, and the college was transformed into a four-year institution with a new campus and a new name, Yangtze Normal University. The student body grew from 2,000 to more than 17,000, part of the nation’s massive expansion in higher education. Meanwhile, Americans began to take new interest in China, and River Town became a surprise best seller. I heard that an unofficial translation was commissioned in Fuling, with access limited to Communist Party cadres. But I never learned how the government reacted to the book. ^^^

Urban Mentality and Benefits in China

Describing how the mentality of urban areas, a newspaper editor told the Atlantic Monthly: “In the city the old village ties are left behind. Everyone lives close together. The state is part of everyone’s life. They work at jobs and buy their food and clothing at markets and in stores. There are laws, police, courts, and schools. People in the city lose their fear of outsiders, and take an interest in foreign things.”

“Life in the city depends on cooperation, in sophisticated social networks. Mutual self-interest defines public policy. You can’t get anything done without cooperating with others, so politics in the city becomes the art of compromise and partnership. The highest goal of politics becomes cooperation, community, and keeping peace. By definition, politics in the city becomes nonviolent. The backbone of urban politics isn’t blood, it’s law.”

Urban dwellers receive more benefits and socials services than rural people. Nearly all get health insurance through their companies or the government. Over 60 percent of the elderly people in the big cities receive a pension, compared to six percent in rural areas. City schools are better and have lower fees than rural schools.

Urban Families in China

Urban families differ from their rural counterparts primarily in being composed largely of wage earners who look to their work units for the housing, old-age security, and opportunities for a better life that in the countryside are still the responsibility of the family. With the exception of those employed in the recently revived urban service sector (restaurants, tailoring, or repair shops) who sometimes operate family businesses, urban families do not combine family and enterprise in the manner of peasant families. Urban families usually have multiple wage earners, but children do not bring in extra income or wages as readily as in the countryside. Urban families are generally smaller than their rural counterparts, and, in a reversal of traditional patterns, it is the highest level managers and cadres who have the smallest families. Late marriages and one or two children are characteristic of urban managerial and professional groups. As in the past, elite family forms are being promoted as the model for everyone. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Three-generation families are not uncommon in cities, and a healthy grandparent is probably the ideal solution to the childcare and housework problems of most families. About as many young children are cared for by a grandparent as are enrolled in a workunit nursery or kindergarten, institutions that are far from universal. Decisions on where a newly married couple is to live often depend on the availability of housing. Couples most often establish their own household, frequently move in with the husband's parents, or, much less often, may move in with the wife's parents. Both the state and the society expect children to look after their aged parents. In addition, a retired worker from a state enterprise will have a pension and often a relatively desirable apartment as well. Under these circumstances elderly people are assets to a family. Those urban families employing unregistered maids from the countryside are most likely those without healthy grandparents. [Ibid]

The government provides more generous social services to urban areas than to the countryside in part because it fears urban social unrest, which can become organized, spread and gain momentum and present a real threat to the government. By contrast rural unrest tends to be fragmented, scattered and easier to contain once its gets started.

Urban Kids Out of Touch with Nature

Children in China's urban jungle have few chances to interact with nature.Liu Xinyan wrote in The Guardian: “China's rapid economic development has changed much of the country's appearance. Childhoods of climbing trees, picking dates and grapes, catching fish, shrimp and tadpoles (or cicadas and crickets), making whistles from willow twigs, and spending all day outside until you were deeply tanned are gone. What have today's children, growing up with TVs and computers, lost? [Source: Liu Xinyan for ChinaDialogue, part of the Guardian Environment Network The Guardian, January 11, 2012]

City kids in China became cave-dwellers in an urban jungle long ago. Children lose the ability to experience nature. They can talk at length about whales or cheetahs, but not describe a flower at their feet. Parents know that if their youngsters eat too much processed food, they will not have a balanced diet; yet they are less likely to know that too much processed information will also hamper children's development.

In Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, the phrase "nature deficit disorder" is used to describe the broken connection between children and nature. And in a rapidly modernising and urbanising China, this phenomenon is spreading quickly.

Even an ant can cause both children and adults to panic, says Wu Yue, children's nature tutor at the Lovingnature Education and Consulting Centre. The ants, worms and lizards we often caught and played with as kids have become terrifying beasts. Similarly, an experiment once found that Japanese university students preferred to play in a concrete gully, believing that two tree-lined mountain rivers nearby were dangerous. Long-term separation from the natural environment causes estrangement, fear and the loss of the ability to appreciate nature's beauty.

See Children

Urban Growth in China

20080225-linong a shangahi hutong.jpg
Shanghai neighborhood
China is arguably experiencing the most rapid period of urbanization in the history of mankind. Around 300 million people are expected to migrate to the cities between 2005 and 2020. Already hundreds of millions have moved to the cities, the majority as migrant workers (See separate section). Between 1980 and 2005 the percentage of Chinese living in cities doubled. to more than 40 percent. An equivalent migration took place in the United States in the 19th century but it took place over a period that was twice as long---50 years---and involved a few million people rather than hundreds of millions of them.

The amount of living space per person in Shanghai has grown from 8 to 16 square meters between 1990 and 2008. This means that not only are the cities growing at an amazing pace in term of numbers these numbers are also growing in terms of the space per person needed.

Even so with this massive urbanization, China has relatively small percentage its population living in urban areas for an industrialized country. The low figure is due in part to past government policies which discouraged migration to cities. The majority of the new urban residents in the cities are migrant workers rather than permanent residents because permanent residents need a residency permit and these are hard to get.

If China reaches a point it has the same percentage of urbanites as the United States (80 percent) then more a 1 billion people would be living in its cities.

The Dutch architect Neville Mars told The New Yorker, “In China, bigness has become the only tool to keep pace with the fast developments. The European model of urbanization is outdated, and China proves that...The Chinese appear to be in control, but it’s really moving too fast for anyone.”

Ningpo is a city 100 miles south of Shanghai that experienced an extraordinary spurt of growth of 14 percent a year over the past decade. Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker, “It seemed to me every inch of greater Ningpo was under construction or reconstruction simultaneously. My extremely new hotel had been built in the rear yard of a merely very new hotel, a few feet away. The roads were modern but heavily divoted, as if it were understood that they would all be torn up again soon anyway. The growth rate that Ningpo had sustained...quickly became exhausting just to look at it.”

Hutongs in Beijing

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19th century Beijing
Hutongs are the mazelike, old neighborhoods in Beijing made up of traditional quadrangle courtyard homes lined up along on narrow streets and alleys and often built in accordance with the principals of feng shui. In the pre-Mao-era, many residences were occupied by single extended family units and had spacious open air courtyards. But after Communists came to power the houses were divided and occupied by several families and the courtyards were filled with shanties. In many cases a house occupied by one family was occupies six or seven. The term "hutong" is derived from the Mongolian term for a passageway between yurts (tents). It refers to both the traditional winding lanes and the traditional old city neighborhoods.

Hutongs are comprised mostly of alleys with no names that often twist and turn with no apparent rhyme or reason. They are fun to get lost in but near impossible to find anything in. The houses lie mostly behind gray brick walls and are unified into neighborhoods by public toilets and entranceways that people share. Heating is often provided by smoky coal fires that occasionally asphyxiate house occupants. Public toilets and showers are sometimes hundreds of meters away from where individuals live.

During the day old men sell vegetables; children study on desks outside their homes; small time cobblers and fruit vendors go about their business; and beauty parlors and massage parlors welcome customers into old collapsing courtyard homes. In the evening many residents gather in the alleys to eat dinner or play. Even in the middle of winter friends gather to chat in the streets and street vendors make their rounds.

Many of the alleys are too narrow for cars and the commercial buildings are too small for anything larger than family-owned shops. Next to small parks or standing alone are exercise stations with bars and pendulums and hoops and things like that, where older people like to gather and hang out and occasionally do a couple of exercises. In the morning residents scamper with their chamber pots to the public toilets. Vendors arrive mid morning with their three-wheeled carts, each crying the product or service the are selling: toilet paper, coal, recycling or knife-sharpening

Hutong History

Hutong refers to both the traditional winding lanes and traditional old city neighborhoods. The term hutong, according to one source, is derived from the Mongolian term for a passageway between yurts (tents). According to another source it is derived from the Mongolian word hottoh (“water well”). In any case the word came into being in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when China was absorbed into the Mongol Empire. Most of Beijing remaining hutongs date to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

The hutongs districts remained largely untouched in the the early years of Communist rule in the 1950s. At that time the wealthy hutong neighborhoods were mostly in northern Beijing and the poorer ones were in south of the Forbidden City. Starting in the 1960s as Beijing’s population grew housing shortages developed and several families began squeezing into courtyard houses meant for one family. Short of space the courtyards were filled with kitchens and sheds. Once open spaces became warrens of rooms, in the process of transforming many hutongs in slums that were avoided by middle class Chinese who lived in government housing..

Hutongs and Development

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Torn down neighborhood
In recent years many hutongs have been torn down to make way for concrete high-rises and commercial buildings. According to journalist and heritage expert Wang Jun, Beijing had 7,000 hutongsin 1949 and 3,000 in the 1980s. Since the late 1990s they have vanished at a rate of around 600 a year. According to one estimate only 350 hutongs were left in Beijing in 2010 and that number is expected to shrink to 25 in the not too distant future. Even protected hutongs are being bulldozed. The government claims that the hutongs are overcrowded, dangerous and unsanitary. Some houses are more than 100 meters away from the nearest toilet. Others lack plumbing and have no way to put out fires that could result in dozens of deaths. Some hutongs were removed to make way for 2008 Olympic development.

Few hutong residents see their neighborhoods as historic districts. Many are not disinclined to move as long as they receive adequate compensation that allows them to find another affordable place to live. In some cases the old courtyard houses have been divided so many times that people in them are living in rooms the size of closets with neighbors so close they can almost reach out and touch them. Many hutong residents have been moved to apartment complexes and new homes that look ugly but have all the modern conveniences. In many ways the people who lament the loss of the hutongs the most are Western tourists, old timers who were comfortable in the hutongs and residents who did not receive adequate compensation.

Members of the intelligentsia---particularly the advocate Hua Xinmi and the journalist Wang Jun---have taken up the hutong development issue and attracted Western attention. Sensitive to foreign criticism with the Olympics Games approaching, the government drafted a conservation plan and designated 25 protected historic zones in the city center. In recent years the demolition of the hutongs has slowed as result of efforts by preservationists and developers tapping into the gentrification market.

Some of the last remaining courtyard yard houses have bought up by gentrification developers who install modern toilets and other amenities and selling the houses to upper class Chinese or wealthy foreign investors. Some developers and buyers have spent millions remodeling their houses and installing things like saunas, exercise rooms, modern kitchens and underground garages. But as this is taking place the neighborhoods are losing their identity and character and the fabric of everyday life that hold them together. With single rich families occupying the houses, people no longer spill into the streets

A good book on hutong life is Last Days of Old Beijing: Life on the Vanished Backstreets of a City Transformed by Micheal Meyer (Walker and Co., 2008). Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ;China Highlights China Highlights ; Travel China Guide ; Hutong Photography )

Life in Shanghai’s Lilongs

left Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Jin Qijing pretends not to notice the rat scurrying across the pipe in her room. Dinner is on the table---a sweet and fatty braised-pork dish, hongshaorou, that is a Shanghainese favorite---and the elegant 91-year-old with a sweeping, gray coiffure doesn't want to spoil the family meal. Nobody needs to remind Jin that conditions in her traditional Shanghai neighborhood, or lilong, have deteriorated since she moved here as a teenager in 1937. Back then her lilong---one of thousands in Shanghai that set modified Chinese courtyard houses on tight European-style lanes---lived up to its name: Baoxing Cun, or "treasure and prosperity village." One family lived in each house, often with a coterie of servants and rickshaw pullers. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]

Today eight families cram into Jin's two-story home, one per room. There is no plumbing. Jin's kitchen is an electric stove erected on a rickety, makeshift balcony. Nonetheless, when Jin's grandson invited her and her husband to move into a modern apartment complex in the suburbs, she refused. "Where else," Jin asks, "could I find this sense of community?"

Baoxing Cun's densely packed alleyways still evoke the communal feeling that made lilong the cradle of Shanghainese culture. In the morning, on her way back from the open-air market, Jin passes the shop selling shengjian bao, sweet, pork-filled breakfast buns. She chats with a neighbor hanging laundry on one of the poles that festoon the lane, while a man, still in pajamas, waters his plants. "I'm back!" Jin yells, as she climbs the unlit stairs to her second-floor room. Neighbors' heads pop out of their rooms to greet her.

In the afternoon Jin and her oldest friends gather on wooden stools in the alleyway---a daily ritual they have followed for decades. With indoor space at a premium, life in the lilong spills outside, turning the lanes into public living rooms. As the women chat in Shanghainese dialect, neighbors stop by to listen, laugh, and interject: a man in an ill-fitting gray suit, a vendor walking his bicycle, an officious woman with a badge from the neighborhood-watch committee reminding Jin to show enthusiasm for Expo 2010.

Urban Poor in China

Housing, water, sanitation, power and jobs are all in short supply in China's cities. Many of the urban poor are from the countryside. The informal economy is key to a lifestyle described as “informal survivalism.” Developing the informal economy is seen as key to providing jobs and services.

Since the Deng reforms took hold, an underclass has emerged, made up mainly of unemployed workers and elderly people with minimal pensions and little support from relatives. Government assistance for the poor includes welfare payments for destitute city dwellers.

Chinese cities have relatively small numbers of homeless people who live under bridges, in abandoned buildings and in bus depots. But that doesn’t mean that the helplessly poor don’t exist. In Beijing, children have been hired by organized crime groups to work as beggars at designated spots. In Shanghai, there was a story about one hungry migrant from Hubei who pretended he had SARS so he could get a free meal.

On his experiences exploring Shanghai’s oldest neighborhoods, Howard French wrote: “Even in China’s richest city, huge numbers of people eke out a very modest existence. To be sure, these are very often migrants from provinces like Anhui or Jiangsu, or even further afield. But more than most Chinese would suspect---particularly the proud, newly affluent generations of Shanghai people who look at my photographs and sniff wai di ren, or outsiders---a great many of the denizens of the city’s dilapidated but character-rich old quarters are natives.” [Source: Howard W. French, New York Times, August 28, 2009]

Dangers in a Chinese Cities

He Na wrote in the China Daily, “From sinkholes, to flooding caused by antiquated and underdeveloped drainage systems, to falling glass curtain walls: China's cities have become dangerous places to live, residents say. Four people were killed and nine injured by sinkholes across the country” in September last month. Nine such incidents occurred in Harbin alone over a period of 20 days. A Beijing woman died from burns to 99 percent of her body when she fell through a sidewalk into scalding water on April 8. [Source: He Na, China Daily, October 7, 2012 \=\]

“Outdated drainage systems have been a massive contributing factor to urban residents' woes this year, not least in Beijing, where 79 died in flooding caused by a storm on a single day in July 2012. One man was killed when his car was trapped beneath an overpass on the Second Ring Road. The road was inundated despite a giant pump running at full speed to clear the floodwater. The death toll prompted a mix of shock and anger among citizens, who demanded an explanation from authorities. Although the city's heaviest rainfall in six decades was the direct cause, many people found it hard to understand how a modern metropolis could be turned into a lake in a day. "Beijing revealed its true self after just one rainstorm," said Sun Xin, 22, a web designer for an IT company in the capital's Zhongguancun area. "If this can happen here, I can't imagine what would have happened if the storm had struck another city." \=\

Beijing's drainage system consists of 5,100 km of pipeline, roughly the equivalent to the distance between the capital and Bangkok. Nearly 1,200 km is at least 30 years old, with some of it dating back six decades. This is typical for most cities, experts say. "As well as (drainage), the surface collapse is more related to poor urban planning and management, both before and after construction," Shan Qingqing, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, was quoted as saying by the online edition of People's Daily. \=\

“Li Xiaoxi, deputy director of Beijing Normal University's academic committee, agreed and added in the same report: "City construction not only needs to focus on the 'face' (above ground), but also the underground. Urban planning and emergency measures all need to be improved. "In the meantime," he said, "it also needs to be made clear who is responsible (in the event of an accident)."\=\

“Li Dongsheng, who moved to Beijing from Hunan province six months ago to look after his newborn grandson, sees danger everywhere. "The capital has such strong winds, so you have to pay attention to the advertising billboardings, too," the 56-year-old said. "Also, escalators," he went on, referring to a spate of fatal accidents last year. "We use the stairs now, because I worry about the escalator reversing direction." And it does not stop there. "On crosswalks, you have to watch carefully, as drivers go through red lights and may hit you," he warned. "Even at home, I now worry that our elevator may suddenly lose control, after reading reports about that happening in recent weeks". \=\

Underground Pipes and Killer Sinkholes in Harbin

He Na wrote in the China Daily, “Xu Dajiang has learned to tread lightly on his daily walk to work. He says he has reason to be cautious. In mid-August, a giant hole opened up in the middle of Liaoyang Street, a road he regularly travels in Harbin, swallowing four people. An elderly lady and an 8-year-old girl were killed on the spot. "It could happen to anybody," said the 30-year-old food-quality inspector. "Now I pay special attention when I see that a road is being repaired. My wife refused to leave the house for two weeks, fearing she would suddenly disappear into the earth. She still takes detours to avoid the places that had the cave-ins," he added. [Source: He Na, China Daily, October 7, 2012 /=/]

The collapse in August devastated Harbin, a city in Heilongjiang province famous for its exotic Russian-style buildings and winter festivals. Police say they are still investigating the fatal cave-in on Liaoyang Street. Experts and the public, however, are already pointing fingers at poor urban planning and shoddy underground construction, and many people have taken to the Internet to vent their fears and anger. "Unbelievable. People just vanished on the street," wrote a blogger on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like website, on Sept 25. "I'll go to Harbin for a business trip tomorrow. I hope there are no cave-ins." Another posted, "Please hold your friends' hands firmly (in the street) because it's a case of 'now you see them, now you don't'." /=/

“Zhao Shuang, who lives near Liaoyang Street, told China Daily the road has frequently been dug up and repaired over the past five years, either to lay or repair cables and gas pipes. "Why can't they do all of these things at once?" he asked. "It's extremely inconvenient for us residents." In a recent essay, Lei Haiying, director of the Geological Environment Institute in Beijing, said the frequent cave-ins indicate metropolises are witnessing a surface stability crisis. In every square kilometer, a city will have an average of 25 km of utility pipelines for water, sewage, gas, cable television and telecommunications, he wrote, adding that construction and maintenance is more often than not covered by a range of agencies. /=/

“Although many cities have established early warning and emergency response systems, Lei said they are not very professional. Instead of investigating accidents after they occur and repairing the damage, at huge cost, the goal should be to eliminate the hidden danger, he added. "Various pipes of different functions are buried underground, running either parallel or intersecting each other," said Li Hongchang, an associate professor at Beijing Jiao Tong University's School of Economics and Management. "What often happens is one pipe has a problem and then affects others around it, making accidents harder to investigate and repair."”

Glass Falling from Tall Buildings in China

He Na wrote in the China Daily, “Liu Ting, who runs a fast food restaurant franchise in Shenzhen, said she is forever warning her husband to be wary when walking next to tall buildings during business trips. "These glass walls are like time bombs," said the 31-year-old, who is expecting a baby in November. "I was almost hit by glass as it crashed down from Baifu Mansion” in 2011. “I was terrified. "I bought a lottery ticket that night," she said, referring to the Chinese saying that if someone survives a tragedy they will enjoy good luck for the rest of their life. "Now, whenever I read or hear about a similar event, I get the same terrible feeling." [Source: He Na, China Daily, October 7, 2012 /=/]

“As Chinese cities have started to resemble their glitzy Western counterparts, with modern designs and skyscrapers wrapped in glass, aesthetic beauty has brought with it this hidden danger. In recent years, poorly fitted or maintained design features have damaged property and injured a number of people, including a 19-year-old woman in Hangzhou whose leg was virtually severed below the knee by a shard of glass that plummeted from the 21st floor of an office tower. Glass curtain walls began appearing in China in the 1980s. They generally have a design life of 25 years, although the bolts and adhesives only last 10 to 15 years. /=/

"Just like people need physical checkups, glass curtain walls need to be checked, maintained or replaced regularly to maximize their service life," said Yu Hui, a professor of architecture at Dalian University of Technology. "It's common sense, but no one wants to do it because of the high costs involved. "So far, we have no clear guidelines on who should be responsible for maintenance of these walls, so when accidents happen, victims often find it hard to claim compensation," he said. Lu Jinlong, an assistant chief engineer at the Shanghai Research Institute of Building Sciences, suggested authorities do more to avoid accidents, such as building or increasing green areas around buildings to act as buffer zones. Most important, he added, China's technical code for glass curtain walls, introduced in 1996, urgently needs to be updated. /=/

Image Sources: 1) Sholder pole, apartment side and Shanghai neighborhood, Louis Perrochon http://www.perrochon.com/photo/china/ ; 2) Yangtze town, Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/; 3) Shanghai suburb, New York Times ; 4) Plastic trees, Pico Poco blog; 5) Destruction of neighborhoods, Mongabay.com 7) Broadtown, Atlantic Monthly

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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