The astronomical costs and development in urban Beijing before and during the 2008 Summer Olympics made property values skyrocket so quickly that an estimated “hundreds of thousands” of Chinese live in bomb shelters, abandoned parking lots, and other underground areas of the city.
Vice magazine visited the groups in Beijing, often called “ant” or “rat” tribes because of the hours of labor they work and their lives underground. They found a ravaging and severely unhealthy economic situation below the already dismal lifestyles that the communist country’s economy has yielded millions. The “ant” tribe tends to be composed of young professionals who are forced to take unskilled labor jobs because of the closing job market. They can only afford to live in these tight spaces. The “rat” tribe is far less wealthy and typically composed of migrant unskilled workers. They occupy former bomb shelters and other underground lairs in a much less orderly way as they toil dawn-to-dusk trying to make ends meet.
The “ants,” who are described in the report as “highly-educated working poor,” pay rent to the owners of these underground areas, owners who have established a system of living spaces where up to six people could be paying rent to live in the same room. The rooms are makeshift creations in places like parking lots that were never meant for permanent dwelling, particularly of so many people at once.
The rent for living in a small room in one of these colonies is inexpensive enough for a young professional working in private industry to afford, as the largest salaries in China are reserved for high-ranking members of the government or employees working for the government. While they are above ground, though impoverished, they are sometimes in suburban areas further away from work or school. Private industry pays 70% less than government work but constitutes a great number of the white collar jobs in urban areas. This is especially important in a smog-filled city where young workers find themselves with no health care aid and are forced to take unskilled or low-skill jobs after receiving liberal arts or professional degrees. “Even minor symptoms will cost you a lot of money,” says one of the dwellers in Vice‘s documentary, noting that he does not see the possibility of ever saving money to move out of the space he currently rents, especially if he gets even mildly sick.
Those living in air-raid shelters face a host of different problems even more dangerous than those who find spaces slightly higher underground. These shelters were never meant for dwelling, so they lack a number of amenities, including fire escape paths, kitchens, and bathrooms. They cook by lighting a fire on the floor and make amends to fix other living situations, but with no windows or means of ventilation, most create dangerous fire hazards and pollute the already smoggy Beijing air.
Many of these migrant workers came to China during the building boom of 2008. Since the nation needed to build a host of sports amenities and dwellings for athletes and tourists, workers were needed, and the new buildings and creation of an entirely new social sphere in areas where sports facilities were built made the prices of real estate skyrocket. Those who live underground often live stories below giant, brand-new skyscrapers. The Olympics helped exacerbate and emphasize the already-existing wealth inequality in China.
Below is Vice’s video report on the harrowing state of semi-legal dilapidated settlements in and outside of Beijing (The report is in Japanese, but English closed captioning is available.):