At Beijing's Edge, Development Raises a City of A Different Color

By Katie Hayes
Lee Ke moved from Jilian Provence in the north East of China to Xin Men Tang Chun, to live with his older sister. "I wanted to find a future and a better life," says Lee, adding that he first left home when he was 18 and now hopes to find a job as a hairstylist in Beijing.
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Xin Men Tang Chun, or “New Door Front Village,” is a dusty slum on Beijing’s western fringe that is now home to hundreds of migrant laborers.

Situated just outside the fifth and final road that rings the city center, it ocupies a stretch of dirt roads lined by dilapidated, socialist-era blockhouses. Clothes hang from lines strung across the narrow alleyways, while along the main road, women sit outside storefronts with their children. There is a continuous flow of men in work uniforms walking by. And everyday, thousands of migrant laborers commute from slums like this one into Beijing.

“Everyone helps each other out,” says Liu Xiaome, 33, who lives in New Door Front Village and cleans homes in Beijing for 10 yuan, or about $1.50, per hour. “The main way is through exchanging information like which construction site needs workers or which families need maids,” she says.

These migrants are answering the call for cheap labor in Beijing’s booming construction and service economies. The same forces of urban development that have fueled Beijing’s recent growth have also spawned this transient town.

Like Liu, many migrants come to Beijing in search of economic opportunity. Traditional small-scale farming, an occupation practiced by nearly 800 million peasants, has become less attractive now that a typical city worker earns roughly three times the annual income of a laborer in the countryside.

For others, the reasons for moving to the city are grim. In some areas, factories have leaked polluting runoff into local water sources, making fishing impossible and farming less viable. Another reason, notes anthropologist David Harvey of the City College of New York, is that in the past decade some 70 million farmers - a population roughly the size of France - have had their land confiscated by corrupt government officials. These officials appropriate land that is located near cities so as to sell it to real estate developers. The degradation and expropriation of land has inspired protests and sometimes violent unrest in the countryside.

Whatever the reason for migration, the central government is now hard-pressed to control an unwieldy flow of people. Some 200 million Chinese are said to constitute a "floating population" that move around the country in search of work.

Many are streaming to Beijing, a city whose population has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008, from eight million people to about 15 million today. Between three and five million people living in the capital, almost one third of the city, are thought to be transient or migrant workers.

Beijing’s relentless construction has been the major draw for these migrants. New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff observes that infrastructure that developed over a century or more in Western countries has been built in Beijing in just a few decades. “The sheer number of projects under construction and the corresponding investment in civic infrastructure — entire networks of new subway systems, freeways and canals; gargantuan new airports and public parks — can give the impression that anything is possible in this new world,” notes Ouroussof. This headlong modernization has been sped up in anticipation of Beijing playing host to the 2008 Summer Olympics this August. Migrant workers, with yellow hard hats and thick regional accents, are ubiquitous in the capital.

Two blocks south of Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing, construction workers crowd into the narrow street of a traditional neighborhood called a hutong.

These neighborhoods, originally designed by the Mongols six centuries ago, consist of small one-story houses with Chinese-style roofs and stone patios. In the run-up to the Olympics, many of these low-income living quarters have been torn down. This particular hutong, in the epicenter of one of the city’s prime tourist areas, is being preserved and remodeled. Around the neighborhood, migrant workers swing picks, throw wood and shovel sand from one side of the street to another.

“In my village there remains just old people, our wives and children,” says Jia Yinzhong, a 38-year-old construction worker from Hebei, the province that encompasses Beijing. He is working for a private company contracted by the government to remodel this neighborhood. Construction workers here earn about 90 yuan, roughly $13, per day.

“Now, just farming is not enough,” Jia continues. He notes that of the original 800 inhabitants of his village, which is called Xiao Long Hua, nearly all the men have left for the city.

“There is no concept of retirement," says Jia. "I will keep working until I can’t work anymore. If I can keep a job in the same company, then maybe I can get a pension, but it’s hard to say. The only way would be if the company offered me a formal contract - but this is very rare."

Last January, the central government enacted the New Labor Law, one aim of which is to limit short-term and informal labor practices. Despite the new law, problems persist. Last March, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that government officials helped millions of migrant workers recover defaulted wages indicating that migrants frequently perform work for which they are never paid.

While some homes are being completely rebuilt, elsewhere the remodeling is more superficial. Residents in Beijing tell of government requests for them to repaint a front door, or fix an outside lamp prior to the Olympics. In this hutong, a layer of thin gray bricks are plastered over decaying brick homes so as to grant the old homes a shiny veneer.

This beautification campaign has not extended to the trash-lined streets of New Door Front Village on the city’s edge that hundreds of migrant workers return to every day. Life here, "is relatively very simple,” says the maid, Liu Xiaome. “It means everyday [I] leave my home, leave my neighborhood, go make money, go home, cook dinner, then maybe watch some TV, like the news, and then go to sleep."

“It’s not too stressful and it’s not too hard,” adds Liu. “For me, Beijing is not a city, it’s just another workplace.”

Most residents in New Door Front Village live here without government permission. Although Beijing attempts to limit migration to the city, fake work papers are easy to come by. Graffiti painted onto walls lists phone numbers one may call to buy forged documents, and in some downtown areas they’re sold openly on the street. Migrants also slip under the radar by living with relatives or renting a room here, which runs from about 300 to 800 yuan, or roughly $43 to $115, per month.

Most workers stay for a short time, from a few months to a couple of years, before moving on to follow a better job offer.

According to Liu, although some petty theft may occur, serious crime is rarely a problem here, which sets this neighborhood apart from outlying slums in other developing countries. There are no bars on the windows here. Residents mull about and old men play cards on the street.

One added stress is that migration often splits families apart. Many migrant parents make the journey alone because public schooling for migrant children is provided only on a limited basis by private or government-sponsored charities.

“When I was 12, I started boarding school,” says Liu Wei, now 17, as she stands near the dirt road that leads into the migrant village. She is here from Sichuan province to see her parents, both of whom sell insurance for retail appliances in Beijing. “I miss my parents very much but every year [I] come to Beijing to visit,” she says. She will remain in New Door Front Village until the government rebuilds her school, which was one of many that collapsed in the May 12 earthquake.

With her parents drawn far away for work, Wei is one of China’s “left behind children,” or liushou ertong, a hot-button issue in national politics. According to government statistics, there are now about 23 million "left behind children." Hong Kong television producer Lee Yuksan, in her award-winning 2007 film, “Children Left Behind,” refers to this group as "economic orphans." The film documents cases of depression among migrant workers’ children.

“Migrant workers’ children become a certain group in their home town,” says Hou Zhiming, director of the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Centre, a Beijing-based NGO that provides services to migrant workers. “Sometimes [these children] even come to the city to look for their parents,” she says. As an example of the hardship that befalls migrants' children, Hou points to the recent tragedy of a 12-year-old boy in Anhui province who hanged himself after his parents left him for work in the city.

Beyond the strain of family separation, though, there are at least a few signs that life may be getting better for migrant workers. For example, Meng Hongze, 32, left his farm in Shanxi province two years ago, and now runs a small restaurant on the edge of New Door Front Village. Meng says his business has picked up this year and people are spending more money than they used to at his restaurant. Meng is also able to send more money back to his home province, and he says that life there has also improved.

“There’s now a bus from the city to my town, and the government now pays for most of my daughter’s tuition,” says Meng, whose daughter is in fourth grade at a boarding school in Shanxi province.

While the demand for work remains high in Beijing, labor migration is by no means just one way, but an ebb and flow of workers who are still tied to the seasons. In June, for example, many workers will return home to help harvest wheat, particularly on the North China Plain in the central and eastern part of the country, including farm land just outside of Beijing. “This is the busiest month for farmers,” says Meng. “They will go home for the harvest time and then later return.”

The increasing flow of migrants seeking their fortunes in China's booming capital is not likely to abate anytime soon, only adding to the governments' challenge of managing a massive and spontaneous influx of people. One task will be to house this growing population, many of whom already live in temporary tents located directly on construction sites, or in slum villages.