About 64 percent of Chinese now live in urban areas (compared to 81 percent in the U.S.), Only 11 percent of China's population inhabited urban areas in 1950. In 2010, more than half the population still lived in rural areas. According to the 2020 census in China, The number of people living in urban areas — cities and towns — was 901.99 million, accounting for 63.89 percent of the total population, while 509.79 million people (36.11 percent) lived in rural areas. Compared to 2010, the urban population grew 236.42 million and the rural population decreased by 164.36 million. The proportion of urban population rose by 14.2 percent. [Source: Ryan Woo and Raju Gopalakrishnan, Reuters, May 11, 2021]

According to the CIA World Factbook: In 2021 the urban population was 62.5 percent of total population and rate of urbanization was 1.78 percent annual rate of change (2020-25 est.) The data does not include Hong Kong and Macau. Major urban areas — population 27.796 million Shanghai, 20.897 million BEIJING (capital), 16.382 million Chongqing, 13.794 million Tianjin, 13.635 million Guangzhou, 12.592 million Shenzhen (2021). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2021]

According to China’s 2020 census and the National Bureau of Statistics of China: The share of urban population went up by 14.21 percentage points. With the in-depth development of China’s new industrialization, informatization and agricultural modernization, and the implementation of the policy to help people who have relocated from rural to urban areas to gain permanent urban residency, China’s new urbanization has been advanced steadily and the urbanization construction has scored historical achievements over the past ten years. [Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, May 11, 2021]

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.

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; 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 Travel China Guide Chinatown Connectionchinatownconnection.com ; China Dailychinadaily.com

Urban Growth in China

China is arguably experiencing the most rapid period of urbanization in the history of mankind. Between 1983 and 2013, China's urban population soared from from less than 200 million to more than 700 million a dramatic shift that has sometimes triggered violent clashes over land use, as well as water shortages, pollution and other problems. Around 300 million people migrated to the cities between 2005 and 2020. The majority of the new arrivals have been migrant workers (See separate articles on them). 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.

Reuters reported: China's leaders are pushing for a larger number of the country's population to live in cities to boost economic output and reignite growth. But authorities also face the challenge of regulating one of the largest migrations in human history, with steep financial and political costs to facilitate the 25 million people a year who are expected to move to cities. Resettling China's rural workers into city life could cost around 650 billion yuan ($107 billion) a year, a Chinese think tank estimated, the equivalent of 5.5 percent of fiscal revenue in 2012. The leadership is also struggling to balance goals such as encouraging the migration of millions of former farmers into cities, while avoiding the slums and unemployment problems that have occurred in other countries experiencing similar migration. China also needs to drive through social welfare reforms to remove obstacles for urbanization. Millions of migrant workers in China's big cities lack access to education, health and other services tied to the country's strict household registration, or hukou, system. [Source: Reuters, December 26, 2013]

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 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 for more than a 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.”

A lot of urbanization and development is taking place in coastal areas. A 2012 study by Texas A&M University and Yale University shows the amount of developed land in low-elevation coastal areas in China is skyrocketing. In 2000, 13,500 square kilometers (5,200 square miles) of low-elevation coastal land had been built up. By 2030, that is set to nearly quintuple to 63,600 square kilometers (24,500 square m), an area nearly as large as the Netherlands and Belgium combined. [Source: David Fogarty and Clare Baldwin, Reuters, July 22, 2012]

China's City Dwellers Surpass the Rural Population in 2011

Torn down neighborhood
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.

Major Cities in China

Beijing and Shanghai are the most important cities in China. Other important cities include Tianjin, a northern port and industrial center not far from Beijing; Guangzhou, the main southern port city; and Shenzhen, a major business and industrial hub near Hong Kong . Among the other major cities are Shenyang, Chongqing, Chengdu, Nanjing, and Wuhan. Less important but still important are Dalian, Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Xian.

The largest cities in mainland China by population of urban area:
1) Shanghai — 26,917,322 in 2020; 20,217,748 in 2010
2) Beijing — 20,381,745 in 2020; 16,704,306 in 2010
3) Chongqing — 15,773,658 in 2020; 6,263,790 in 2010
4) Tianjin — 13,552,359 in 2020; 9,583,277 in 2010
5) Guangzhou in Guangdong — 13,238,590 in 2020; 10,641,408 in 2010
6) Shenzhen in Guangdong — 12,313,714 in 2020; 10,358,381 in 2010
7) Chengdu in Sichuan — 9,104,865 in 2020; 7,791,692 in 2010
8) Nanjing in Jiangsu — 9,314,685 in 2020; 5,827,888 in 2010
9) Wuhan in Hubei — 8,346,205 in 2020; 7,541,527 in 2010
10) Xi'an in Shaanxi — 7,948,032 in 2020; 5,403,052 in 2010
11) Hangzhou in Zhejiang — 7,603,271 in 2020; 5,849,537 in 2010
12) Dongguan in Guangdong — 7,402,305 in 2020; 7,271,322 in 2010
13) Foshan in Guangdong — 7,313,711 in 2020; 6,771,895 in 2010
14) Shenyang in Liaoning — 7,191,333 in 2020; 5,718,232 in 2010
15) Harbin in Heilongjiang — 6,360,991 in 2020; 4,596,313 in 2010
16) Qingdao in Shandong — 5,597,028 in 2020; 4,556,077 in 2010
17) Dalian in Liaoning — 5,587,814 in 2020; 3,902,467 in 2010
18) Jinan in Shandong — 5,330,573 in 2020; 3,641,562 in 2010
19) Zhengzhou in Henan — 5,286,549 in 2020; 3,677,032 in 2010
20) Changsha in Hunan — 4,555,788 in 2020; 3,193,354 in 2010 [Source: Wikipedia]
[Source: Wikipedia]

As of 2005, the largest urban centers were Shanghai, 12,665,000; Beijing, 10,849,000; Tianjin, 9,346,000; Wuhan, 6,003,000; Chongqing, 4,975,000; Shenyang, 4,916,000; Guangzhou, 3,881,000; Chengdu, 3,478,000; Xi'an, 3,256,000; Changchun, 3,092,000; Harbin, 2,898,000; Dalian, 2,709,000; Jinan, 2,654,000; Hangzhou, 1,955,000; and Qingdao, 1,452,000. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Urbanization in Maoist China

20080225-linong a shangahi hutong.jpg
Shanghai neighborhood
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 Deng Era

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hutongs of Beijing

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

Migration from Shanghai to the Suburbs

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Following the crowd has never been Zhang Xin's way. Born in a Shanghai lilong during the Cultural Revolution, the 42-year-old conceptual artist likes to jolt audiences with images of Chinese intellectuals as birds trapped in a cage — and biting critiques of her own hometown. "We suffer from the psychology of colonialism," she says. "We act proud that we were worthy of being colonized." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]

It took some of her friends by surprise, then, that Zhang joined the stampede into the suburbs. Several million Shanghainese have moved out of the city's core in the past 15 years, catapulted by the destruction of the lilong and the long-suppressed dream of having a space of their own. Zhang's family lives in a three-bedroom apartment amid a cluster of high-rises with manicured lawns and a playground for her seven-year-old daughter, Jiazhen. But the American-style, gated compound lacks the vibrant street life of Zhang's childhood lilong.

New construction and suburban migration have eased Shanghai's congestion, more than tripling the living space per capita in 30 years. Yet the transition is tearing the fabric of Shanghainese culture. Neighbors in suburbia rarely know each other well, despite community-building efforts such as sports leagues and children's playgroups. At this stage the strongest bond among new suburbanites may be their status as property owners — a link that brought residents together last year to fight the proposed extension of a high-speed railway.

For Zhang, the allure of the suburbs soon waned. This year the artist and her family will move back downtown. The ostensible reason is to enroll Jiazhen in a top school, but Zhang also wants to give her daughter a deeper sense of identity. "All of my best memories come from the sounds I heard as a six-year-old waking up in the lilong," she says. "The chattering on the street, the vendors selling shrimp — real life."

Beijing’s Isolated Suburbs

Reporting from Yanjiao, about 40 kilometers outside Beijing, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: Every morning at 5:30, Liu Desheng joins a dozen retirees waiting for the express bus to central Beijing from this small city in Hebei Province. They stand at the front of the line but never board, instead waiting as bus after bus pulls up, each picking up 50 people from the ever-lengthening line behind the retirees.Around 6:30, their adult children arrive. The line, now snaking down the street, has become an hourlong wait. People cut in, and a shoving match breaks out. But the retirees have saved their children this ordeal. When the next bus pulls up, the young adults take their parents’ places at the head of the line and board first, settling into coveted seats for a 25-mile ride that can take up to three hours. “There’s not much I can contribute to the family anymore, ” Mr. Liu, 62, said as his son waved goodbye from a bus window. “He is exhausted every day, so if I can help him get a bit more rest, I’ll do it.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, July 19, 2015]

“Encouraged by Hebei Province’s relatively open residency policies and inexpensive housing, people are flocking to suburbs like this one. Yanjiao has grown tenfold, to as many as 700,000 inhabitants, in a decade. On a bright summer morning, it is easy to see Yanjiao’s better side. Even though the cookie-cutter, 25-story housing blocks stretch dully into the horizon, shopping is plentiful, some streets are tree-lined and the air is much cleaner than in Beijing.

But it remains a bedroom community for Beijing — a swath of apartment towers and restaurants with few services. It has no bus terminals, no cinemas and only two very small parks. “Even by the cheek-by-jowl standards of Chinese public spaces, Yanjiao’s main park is hopelessly crowded. On a recent Sunday afternoon, in-line skaters bumped into each other at a strolling speed, kite lines crossed in the air and older men politely jostled each other as they practiced calligraphy with water brushes on the sidewalk. “The streets flood in the rain because there is no good drainage, ” said Xia Zhiyan, a 42-year-old employee of a printing company. “They just built more and more apartments without the most basic facilities.”

“More worrying for many Yanjiao residents is the dearth of hospitals and schools.“The services are bad, ” said Zheng Linyun, who works in a sales company in Beijing and commutes about five hours a day. His 6-year-old son just started elementary school and has more than 65 children in his class. “All we see are more and more people coming here.”

“The lack of services reflects deeper challenges. With no property taxes, Chinese cities rely on public land sales for tax revenues. Municipalities are not allowed to keep other locally raised taxes, for fear that local leaders will misuse the proceeds. So a bedroom community like Yanjiao has no way to pay for new schools, roads or enough bus service so that retirees do not have to stand in line on behalf of their children. Changing this would require restructuring how taxes are collected and distributed, an overhaul that is not on the table. Even though the supercity will consolidate affluent Beijing with tax-starved towns like Yanjiao, they will not share revenue.

“Infrastructure has also lagged. Until recently, high-speed rail failed to connect many vital cities around Beijing, while many roads did not link up. Planning reports say the area has 18 “beheaded” highways — major arteries built in one of the three districts but not linked to others. One highway ends at a bridge over the mostly dried-out river dividing Yanjiao from Beijing, and has remained unfinished for years. Many believe that the transportation woes will sort themselves out, given enough time and money. A subway and better light rail are planned to open in three to five years, and a new bridge over the Chaobai River to Beijing is under construction.

Suburban Residents in the Beijing Area

Steven Lee Myers and Keith Bradsher wrote in New York Times: “In Wayaocun, Mr. Wu and his wife paid for the construction and lease of a wood-framed house in 2009, not long after the village created a new enclave of vacation homes. It was called Russian Style Scenic Park. The developer that built the cottages was a company on China’s northern border that imported timber from Siberia. Mr. Wu envisioned it as a place where he and his wife and parents could escape the city on weekends. “I prefer a more natural environment, ” he said in an interview outside the village, a quiet place where the roads are lined with morning glories and weeping willows but which is now surrounded by police checkpoints as demolition work continues. [Source: Steven Lee Myers and Keith Bradsher, New York Times, August 7, 2020]

“The village, in the Changping District of Beijing, designated the developments as tourism and cultural projects, sidestepping zoning restrictions against purely residential construction on what was classified as agricultural land. The village government ultimately allowed the construction of more than 1,000 homes. The projects brought money and jobs to the village, which also built the roads and utilities to the communities.

“Mr. Wu, who with his wife owns and operates a company supplying kitchen equipment for Beijing’s hotels and restaurants, paid 660,000 renminbi in cash, just under $100,000 then, for a 49-year lease; China allows the leasing of land but not its sale. “I had the psychology of a gambler, ” Mr. Wu said, “but I thought the system would change.” The contract was signed by a village official and the developer, Manzhouli Aiyingsi Timber Limited, so it had the appearance of government approval. Mr. Wu and his wife later spent another $40,000 on improvements and have since spent most weekends there.

Losing a Suburban Home in the Beijing Area

Steven Lee Myers and Keith Bradsher wrote in New York Times: “The first sign that something was amiss came in 2010, when the developer’s corporate registration was dissolved. A year later, residents were told a court declared the developments illegal, but officials reassured them that their homes were safe. Then, in 2013, Wayaocun’s party secretary, Xing Ruyi, and its elected village chief, Xing Quanpu, were convicted on charges that they had allowed construction on agricultural land without going through the process of rezoning it. They were sentenced to 51 months and 42 months in prison, and fined. Still, no one moved against the homes, leading their occupants to believe the community would be somehow protected. Then, in June, notices appeared on the village’s gates and homes, citing the court order from nine years earlier. [Source: Steven Lee Myers and Keith Bradsher, New York Times, August 7, 2020]

“On June 29, scores of residents gathered to protest, including Mr. Wu, and clashed with police officers in riot gear who fired tear gas and pepper spray, according to a video that circulated, briefly, online. A number of people were arrested, residents said. “We are all ordinary people, ” a woman shouts repeatedly in the video, “why do you bother?” A similar video showed a confrontation in yet another village facing demolitions in the same district, Yanshou. Both have since been censored inside China’s Great Firewall.

“Mr. Wu’s village remains cordoned off as the demolition work continues. The twisted wreckage of homes can be viewed while hiking among apricot and walnut trees on stone-walled terraces in the hills nearby. Gray trucks line up outside the village’s ornate red and blue gate: They are driven by scrap dealers hoping to collect doors, windows, boards or anything else salvageable or at least recyclable. It is not clear how many developments like these might be targeted. An article in People’s Daily in 2013, around the time of the cases against Wayaocun’s leadership, cited 108 similar projects around Beijing that included thousands of homes.

Urban Poor in China

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.

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.

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. 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]

Dongxiaokou, an Urban Village of Migrants in Northern Beijing

Carlo Inverardi-Ferri wrote in Made in China: Dongxiaokou, an urban village in the northern outskirt of Beijing, infamously known in the press as the ‘waste village’ (feipincun). Until urban redevelopment projects accelerated its demolition in recent years, this informal settlement had been one of the biggest in the metropolis. Situated between the Fifth and Sixth ring road, around ten kilometres from the city centre, it hosted a massive population of migrant workers, who had made this place their home and used it as a base to enter the Chinese capital’s labour market. [Source: Carlo Inverardi-Ferri, Chinoiserie, September 28, 2017; Made in China, Issue 2, 2017]

“The story of Dongxiaokou highlights, in particular, the tension between land used as a common resource by migrant workers and land utilised as a way to produce economic profits for real estate development. In the early 2000s, the village rented most of its land to migrant workers coming from outside the municipality of Beijing. Its proximity to the city centre made it a convenient place to settle down and find work opportunities in the metropolis. When the first migrants arrived, local cadres welcomed them and accommodated the newcomers in uncultivated fields, which were rented out as a way to drive new revenues into the village.

“Wealthy migrants rented big plots of land that they then divided and sublet to less well-off migrants, who in turn established their dwellings and economic activities in Dongxiaokou. Very quickly the village population grew from little less than two thousand people into an agglomeration, according to some sources, of almost thirty thousand inhabitants. Interestingly, Dongxiaokou quickly became a local hub for waste recycling activities growing in scale and scope. As one of my informants claimed in a personal communication, in few years Dongxiaokou was transformed into ‘one of the biggest scrap distribution centres (feipin jisandi) in the entire country.’

Image Sources: 1) Shoulder pole, apartment side and Shanghai neighborhood, Louis Perrochon; 2) Yangtze town, 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.

Last updated October 2021

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