Many of the urban poor are from the countryside. For them housing, water, sanitation, power and decent-paying jobs are all in short supply. 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]

Migrant Workers in China

Perhaps the worst urban poverty in China is that experienced by low-level migrant workers. Some construction workers move around from job to job and live in squatter camps or on the sidewalks. Officially, they are supposed to have residency-status cards, which can sometimes be obtained by bribing officials, but most can't afford to do that ad live illegally without cards.

Long-term migrants often settle into ethnic ghettos that have been described as "Chinatowns in China." Those that work on construction sites often live in cramped dormitories that in some cases have two or three men sleeping together on bunks in 10-meter-long rooms crammed with 40 men.

Many of the migrant workers in Langzhou, a gritty industrial city in Gansu Province, are unmarried men with no families. Describing a group of them looking for work, Joshua Kublantzick, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Dressed in torn jeans and dirty shirts and carrying thermoses of tea, they push towards the exterior fence, jostling for the attention of a site manager who hands out short-term jobs...Finding no work they trade tea for large bottles of beer, which the gulp down. Many of them soon stumble in circles.”

Migrants can stay in basement rooms for as little as $42 a month. Some share beds with workers who work different shifts and sleep at different hours. Others sleep in “starlight hotels” in public parks when they have nowhere else to go. For those who are desperate chairs at Internet cafes can be had for $2 a night. In Beijing they are seen sprawled on the sidewalk eating their lunch, often a tin bowl of sheep-gut soup that they can bought for 14 cents from a vendor.

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Poverty in China Wikipedia ; Social Issues in China peopledaily.com ; Wikipedia article on Social Issues in China Wikipedia ; Suicide in China Guardian story guardian.co.uk ; China Daily article chinadaily.com ; Center for Disease Control cdc.gov

Poverty in China in the 2000s

Housing for Urban Poor in China

China offers modern affordable housing to poor urban hukou holders. Hukou are residency permits. Migrants have ones that tie them to their home villages in rural areas. According to the China Economic Review: “The program is the centerpiece of China's effort to integrate rural workers into urban economies, where it's hoped they will earn and spend more money, and eventually drive China's economic growth. The government has earmarked US$19.2 billion for affordable housing this year alone, an increase of 14.3 percent on similar programs last year. By 2020, it also plans to renovate urban slums that currently house about 100 million people...The government has remained quiet on the fates of those left out of the sweeping reforms because they lack the resources to get the required papers. Moving such a crowd into stable urban housing during the next six years is an ambitious plan. But that still leaves more than 150 million migrants to fend for themselves in the big cities and no solid timeframe for assisting them. [Source: China Economic Review, May 19, 2014 \^/]

“The affordable housing program is facing a debilitating bottleneck in supply. Starved of funding, local governments have few avenues to fund urbanization initiatives. With the central government passing the buck of urbanization reform to local governments, they in turn have passed some of the responsibility for building affordable housing to property developers who can ill afford to do so at present, says Youqin Huang, a professor at CUNY Albany. \^/

“Property developers are often required to designate 5 percent of new residential properties as affordable housing. However, these projects routinely fall short of covering the costs of development, leaving companies at a loss. At the same time, the same firms are in the midst of a liquidity crisis. Housing prices are slowing and property investment is declining — even nose-diving in some regions. Developers often skimp on the low-income projects, rendering them “low-quality and vacant,” Huang said.” \^/

Beijing’s Underground Apartments

In December 2014, NPR reported: “In Beijing, even the tiniest apartment can cost a fortune — after all, with more than 21 million residents, space is limited and demand is high. But it is possible to find more affordable housing. You’ll just have to join an estimated 1 million of the city’s residents and look underground. Below the city’s bustling streets, bomb shelters and storage basements are turned into illegal — but affordable — apartments. [Source: NPR, December 7, 2014 ^|^]

Annette Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California who researches urbanization, spent last year in China’s capital city studying the underground housing market. “Part of why there’s so much underground space is because it’s the official building code to continue to build bomb shelters and basements,” Kim says. “That’s a lot of new, underground space that’s increasing in supply all the time. They’re everywhere.”

But “there’s a stigma to living in basements and bomb shelters, as Kim found when she interviewed residents above ground about their neighbors directly below. “They weren’t sure who was down there,” Kim says. “There is actually very little contact between above ground and below ground, and so there’s this fear of security.” ^|^

“In reality, she says, the underground residents are mostly young migrants who moved from the countryside looking for work in Beijing. “They’re all the service people in the city,” she says. “They’re your waitresses, store clerks, interior designers, tech workers, who just can’t afford a place in the city.” Kim says there’s a range of units, from the dark and dingy to the neatly decorated.

Life in Beijing’s Underground

USC’s Annette Kim told NPR the “apartments go one to three stories below ground. Residents have communal bathrooms and shared kitchens. The tiny, windowless rooms have just enough space to fit a bed.“It’s tight,” Kim says. “But I also lived in Beijing for a year, and the city, in general, is tight.” With an average rent of $70 per month, she says, this is an affordable option for city-dwellers. But living underground is illegal, Kim says, since housing laws changed in 2010. [Source: NPR, December 7, 2014 ^|^]

Beijing-based photographer Chi Yin Sim has documented life under the city in a collection called China’s “Rat Tribe.“ The first basement-dweller she met was a young woman, a pedicurist at a salon, who lived with her boyfriend. The couple lived two floors below a posh Beijing apartment complex. Sim’s photos show just how tiny these units really are. The couple sits on their bed, surrounded by clothes, boxes and a giant teddy bear. There’s hardly any room to move around. “The air is not so good, ventilation is not so good,” Sim says. “And the main complaint that people have is not that they can’t see the sun: It’s that it’s very humid in the summer. So everything that they put out in their rooms gets a bit moldy, because it’s just very damp and dank underground.” ^|^

“Sim says residents adapt to the close quarters. “At dinnertime you can hear people cooking, you can hear people chit-chatting in the next room, you can hear people watching television,” she says. “It’s really not so bad. I mean, you’re spending almost all your day at work anyway. And you’re coming back, and all you need is a clean and safe place to sleep in.” ^|^

“Kim says life underground “is especially hard for the older residents, some of whom have been down there for years. “They’re hoping that their next generation, their children, will be able to live above ground,” Kim says. “It’s this sense of longing and deferring a dream. And so it makes me wonder how long this dream can be deferred.” But despite the laws against living underground, and the discomfort and shame associated with it, Kim says it’s still a very active market. For hundreds of thousands of people, it’s the only viable option for living in, or under, Beijing.” ^|^

Homeless in Beijing

Hundreds of homeless people can be found in Beijing south of Tiananmen Square in Qianmen, where mazelike neighborhoods are being bulldozed and grand shopping promenades erected. Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times, most of them are — migrants from the countryside, whose chances of escaping their predicament have dimmed with the faltering economy. Many of the migrants are elderly or disabled people who came here after their relatives left their villages in search of jobs along the coast. Others are petitioning for redress for a host of alleged wrongs, including the seizure of land for development. [Source: Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, March 3, 2009]

“The police and official city management squads conduct regular sweeps to chase the vagrants out. They crack down especially hard in periods like this week, when annual parliamentary sessions are getting under way at the Great Hall of the People...But after each raid, people creep back into pedestrian tunnels and covered walkways to sleep.

One of the homeless is Zhang Xianping, a 26-year-old man paralyzed from the waist down. “The young man said his brother and sister, who cared for him, had left their home in the mountainsof Guizhou for work in factories far away. Despondent, he traveled to Tiananmen Square, planning to catch a glimpse of it before he planned committed suicide. Then he met another homless man who coaxed him not to kill himself. Now he sells books and wind-up toys on the streets.

China’s Homeless Find Shelter at McDonald’s

Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: “He woke to the cry of the morning janitor. “Put your shoes on!” she said. “Put your shoes on!” She rattled a chair. “This isn’t your house! Sit up!” Ding Xinfeng’s eyes blinked open. Dawn had yet to break, but inside a 24-hour McDonald’s restaurant in central Beijing, more than a dozen homeless people had begun their daily routines. Mr. Ding lifted his head, revealing a mess of food stains and decorative slogans on the table in front of him. “Wake up every morning with the thought that something wonderful is about to happen, ” one read. Mr. Ding could not read the English, but he said he liked the warmth of this table, in this corner, in the peace of McDonald’s, the place he had called home for several years. [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, December 31, 2015]

“Every night across East Asia, in major cities like Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo, an invisible class of people — shut out of shelter systems, scorned by their families, down on their luck — turn to a beacon of Americana for a warm, dry place to sleep.By day, the McDonald’s restaurants host birthday parties and book clubs. By night, when the floors have been mopped a final time and the pop music turned down, they become sanctuaries for the downtrodden, who pounce on half-eaten hamburgers and stale French fries, and stake out prized sleeping spots in padded booths. Often called McRefugees, they vanish at sunrise, some combing their hair with plastic forks before slinking outside into the masses.

“While other restaurants might kick them out, McDonald’s generally embraces wanderers like Mr. Ding, who have flocked to the chain as it has rolled out more 24-hour locations in Asia. More than half of the 2, 200 McDonald’s restaurants in mainland China are now open 24 hours a day. McDonald’s has spent decades cultivating an image of community here, building bright, stylish restaurants and adjusting menus to local tastes. In addition to the standard burgers and fries, the Beijing outlets serve taro pies and soy milk with fried bread. Many restaurants have become neighborhood institutions, symbols of status and cleanliness, popular spots for study groups, business meetings and leisurely chats.

“McDonald’s welcomes everyone to visit our restaurants anytime, ” said Regina Hui, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s in China. How welcoming is up to each franchise owner, the company says. “We are definitely a welcoming place, but I wouldn’t call it a policy, ” Becca Hary, a spokeswoman at the company’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., wrote in an email.

Homeless Chinese That Call McDonald’s Home

Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: “On an austere November morning, as the wind howled outside, Mr. Ding’s McDonald’s began to fill up with schoolchildren, yam sellers, retirees armed with chess pieces and red-eyed street patrolmen. He began to circle, making his pitch for donations. “My family has begged for food since the Ming dynasty, ” he said. “I’m the 19th generation. There will be no beggars in China after I’m dead.” [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, December 31, 2015]

“A man offered a newspaper. A woman gave 50 cents. A young girl extended a French fry. “Mr. Ding returned to his seat, opened the newspaper, and began studying the lottery numbers, searching for patterns.

In addition to the daily quest for food and the requisite but demeaning panhandling, the nighttime residents of McDonald’s struggle with perceptions that they are lazy and dishonest. Restaurant staff members sometimes frown at their behavior. “They can find jobs. They’re just too lazy to look, ” said a Beijing McDonald’s employee, Mrs. Chen, who asked to be identified only by her family name because she was not authorized to speak with the news media. “They’re driving away customers because they smell so bad.”

“Zhang Wei, 56, a vegetable seller who had lost her teeth, said she longed for a normal life but was ostracized by her family.“How nice it would be to be able to cook and eat at your own home, ” she said. “You could have your own dumplings and buns and sleep in your own bed. If you don’t have money, you can barely sleep.”

“Mr. Ding had a reputation at McDonald’s as a gadfly. He had a habit of offering loud, indelicate social commentary, telling government workers they were corrupt and men in suits they were greedy. He does work, however. Most days, he leaves McDonald’s around 8 a.m. to comb trash cans and bins in back alleys for scraps of copper and steel, which he sells to a friend for 80 cents apiece. He returns by suppertime, waiting for customers to abandon their leftover fries and smoothies. “This is my work, this is my way of living, ” he said. “I have no way out.” “He joked about selling his eyeballs, or moving to America, where he had heard they treat the homeless better. And he continued to study the lottery, jotting down long strings of numbers. He calculated his odds at 1 in 10 million. “No matter, he said. “I came into the world naked, and I leave naked, ” he said. “There’s nothing I can take with me when I die.”

World-Class Chinese Gymnast Reduced to Begging — Twice

As of 2021, former champion gymnast Zhang Shangwu sang and performed in a parking lot for money AFP reported: “A decade ago the plight of former champion gymnast Zhang Shangwu shocked China and made world headlines when he was discovered begging in Beijing, prompting one of the country's richest men to give him a job. That should have heralded a turnaround for the troubled Zhang, who had been imprisoned for theft after injury ended his gymnastics career. But after another stint in jail, Zhang is again making a living on the streets, doing handstands and singing for a live online audience in a carpark in his home city of Baoding. [Source: AFP, April 14, 2021, 2:12 PM

“It marks a second fall for the former Olympic hopeful, whose predicament cast a spotlight on the fate of Chinese athletes when he was spotted begging and street-performing in Beijing in 2011. Athletes in China, a leading Olympic power, are often reared in special schools from a young age and can struggle to adjust to normal life once their careers are over.

Zhang appeared destined for the Olympics after he won two gold medals at the 2001 Universiade. But a year later a tendon injury brought his promising career to an end. With little education, he took jobs as a waiter and a care worker, but injuries hampered his ability to work and he turned to theft, spending nearly five years in jail before being released in April 2011.

“Zhang's luck changed dramatically in July that year when he was recognised performing stunts and begging on the street. He was inundated with job offers and took up a post as a fitness instructor at the company of Chen Guangbiao, a wealthy recycling magnate and philanthropist. "In China, there are many athletes who have experienced the same thing as me, so I'm one of the lucky ones as the media and society uncovered my plight," Zhang, then 27, told AFP, at the time.

“But in March last year, Zhang said on Chinese social media that he had again been released from prison after serving jail time for theft. Zhang no longer talks to media — "it has been reported so many times, don't ask me again", he said — but on a recent evening in Baoding, he did handstands and chatted to an online audience of a few hundred people.

“Decked out in a Chinese national team top, he saluted and bowed to a non-existent crowd. Online viewers send him real or virtual gifts, which can be turned into cash. On another occasion, he rigged up a microphone and small speaker and sang for about 40 minutes, before his mobile phone ran out of data.

Brother Sharp, China’s Homeless Internet Phenomena

Cheng Guorong, a homeless man in the city of Ningbo in eastern Zhejiang province, became an Internet phenomena and for a while called the “coolest man in China”. Kent Ewing wrote in the Asian Times, “His rugged good looks, captured in photographs by Ningbo residents enthralled by the possibilities of his life story, prompted comparisons to film stars such as Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ken Watanabe. He was called the “Beggar Prince” and the “Handsome Vagabond”, but the name that eventually stuck and transformed him into a mythical cyber hero was “Brother Sharp”. [Source: Kent Ewing, Asia Times, May 8, 2010]

“Brother Sharp, who appears to be in his mid thirties, became widely admired for his penetrating gaze and the “beggar chic” style of layered clothing he wore - blue cotton pullover, black leather jacket and black overcoat, all of these rather soiled items apparently picked up off the streets of Ningbo. And, the ever-present cigarette in his mouth or between his fingers only further enhanced his image as a rebel without a cause.”

“China's most popular shopping portal, taobao.com, introduced a Brother Sharp fashion line, with a jacket inspired by the tramp's motley wardrobe priced at nearly 9,000 yuan (US$1,318). The mainstream media picked up his story, and speculation about his background became rife. Was he a university graduate who had given up on socialism with Chinese characteristics? Was he a jilted lover? Perhaps both? The stories multiplied.

“As it turns out, however, Cheng is nothing like the Brother Sharp depicted on blogs and in Internet chat rooms; he is a schizophrenic who had been separated from his family with no idea of how to get back home. After his wife died in a car accident 11 years ago, Cheng left his home in the city of Shangrao in Jiangxi province, which borders Zhejiang, to become a migrant worker. At some point, his family lost track of him. Now, thanks to his unwanted fame, they are reunited.

Help for Homeless in China

Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times. “The national government, in fact, has made provisions to help the homeless. In 2003, the government abolished a network of abuse-ridden camps where vagrants could be legally detained and replaced them with relief stations that provided short-term room and board and tickets home to those who requested them. The authorities, however, were given leeway to force vagrants with no capacity or with limited capacity for civil conduct into the shelters. But many homeless people avoid the relief stations, saying they believe the main goal is to ship them home. In a survey of the stations in the capital completed in 2006, Li Yingsheng, a sociologist at Renmin University in Beijing, found that 20 percent of the migrants said they were there involuntarily.” Before the Olympics in 2008, many homeless in Beijing were taken to shelter 30 miles from the city. Some taken there said they were not released until several weeks after the Olympics were over. [Source: Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, March 3, 2009]

Zhang Shihe. a 55-year-old blogger who works as a marketing expert and calls himself Laohu Miao, or Tiger Temple, set up a website to help Beijing’s homeless. Ansfield wrote in the New York Times, “Zhang began his campaign for the homeless in late 2007, after he peeked behind a wall screening a demolished block of homes and found 32 squatters. The group, mostly men, lived in knee-high sleeping compartments, assembled from the rubble, that they called the Stars Hotel. Zhang befriended them and began cranking out multimedia posts about the group, which he named the drifter tribe.

“When the authorities demolished the Stars Hotel in the winte of 2008r, Zhang drew from his modest $600-a-month salary to buy the vagrants quilts and coats. As this winter approached, he decided to try for a longer-term fix. He enlisted help from 10 Web-savvy volunteers and began soliciting donations on his blog...A few donors offered jobs; others sent clothing, bedding, furniture, even items for peddling. Cash donations have topped $4,000, enough to rent a row of rooms with stone floors in a building that resembles an army barracks. But Zhang keeps his residents focused on the goal of sustainability. Instead of encouraging the hawkers to leave the streets, for instance, the volunteers are buying them carts so they can sell more goods. He has tried to tone down his criticisms of the treatment of the homeless in his blog to avoid further confrontations. The Communist Party really doesn’t like it when the things it’s not doing, other people are doing well, he said.

Image Sources: Bucklin archives; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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