Beijing: What Lies Beneath?

The discourse around China is chiefly economic: China is second largest economy in the world, it is home to some of the wealthiest men and women on the planet, Jack Ma’s $25 billion IPO of Alibaba…I know, you’ve heard it all before. However, what doesn’t get much airtime on the world stage is what lies beneath the surface, literally speaking. One such example is, ‘the rats tribe’.

With an expanding population of over 20 million Beijing is the third largest city in the world. When it comes to housing, the combination of over demand and under supply leads to rising costs of accommodation. This expensive blend is what greets enterprising migrants from nearby towns and countryside villages who arrive in Beijing with the hope of finding a well-paid job. All too often these migrants find themselves living, sleeping and eating in windowless 10 square meter underground holes. A default choice for Beijinger’s grappling with rising living costs.


Recently, USC associate professor Annette Kim decided to conduct a study on Beijing’s underground residents, analysing the phenomenon which houses a community locally known as ‘the rats tribe’.

It all started around 1950 when the housing policy instituted by the government required all contractors to build new constructions with huge basements that could serve as bomb shelters. At that time, China feared invasion and was prepared to do anything to defend the newly born Popular Republic.

In August 2010, Beijing instituted a three-year plan to evacuate tenants from these underground dwellings. Some evictions took place, but Kim’s study reports that many advertisements (online and offline) still promote units, as many landlords seek compensation from the government for occupying rights purchased when underground housing was sanctioned.

An Italian newspaper correspondent, Guido Santevecchi, was able to visit one of these houses this month, with the excuse of looking for a place where he could leave some suitcases. He was taken to a complex called Ding Fu Xhuang (ironically translated as “the village of eternal happiness”) reporting that after 34 steps underground he found himself in warren of small rooms inhabited by over one hundred families with an average salary of 3500 Yuen.


An independent study suggests that underground complexes such as these are being occupied by over a million people in Beijing, although official numbers put the total population at 281,000.

Guido Santevecchi’s report goes on to say that he was offered a space for 450 Yuen per month, with no deposit required (extra for internet and electricity). He was also briefed on the living rules: no electric blankets, no water kettles, no pressure cookers and communal bathrooms.

As Annette Kim’s study explains the Chinese state provides four types of affordable housing projects, particularly for public employees with lower incomes, some also target college graduates and skilled workers in specific fields. However, Beijing hukou, or household registration permit, is a prerequisite for all four types of affordable housing. This permit allows citizens to receive specific services in the area where they reside but there are restrictions that apply to receiving services in other locations, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the underground apartments business is thriving.

You can read Annette Kim’s full report here.

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