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Asia

Beijing's underground dwellers kicked out

An estimated one million people are living in basements or in old bomb shelters in Beijing. But now the city government wants to clear out these makeshift homes for security reasons.

Though they are unsafe, basement flats keep people off the streets

Though they are unsafe, basement flats keep people off the streets

A law has been passed that makes it illegal as of February 1 to rent out basements as apartments. And the people living there, mostly migrant workers from rural areas, don’t know where to go.

One such person is named Qi Shulai. She lives in a new, modern building in the east of Beijing. When she gets home from work, she passes the entrance leading to the elevators and goes around the back of the house. From there, the 30-year-old walks down a dark ramp that leads into an underground bicycle storage room. Passing the storage room, she takes two flights of stairs further downward and walks through a dim, damp, narrow passage way that smells of wet clothes. On either side is a row of small doors leading to small windowless rooms which Qi and nearly one hundred others – mostly migrant workers from poor villages – call home.

Qi’s room is around 6 square meters and contains nothing more than a mattress and a few clothes. Nonetheless, she said she is happy to call it home. "We are comfortable here. To be honest, we are all happy to have found a place to stay in Beijing."

Soaring real estate prices

Migrant workers flock from poor rural areas to the capital to try their luck at a better future

Migrant workers flock from poor rural areas to the capital to try their luck at a better future

Qi works as a cleaning lady and earns nearly 100 euros per month, which is a lot more than she earned in her village in northwestern Gansu province. But it is still not enough to afford a room with a window and a toilet in China’s capital due to skyrocketing real estate prices. For her underground room, Qi pays 30 euros in rent each month.

There is a cold water faucet at the end of the passage near the toilets where people can wash up and do laundry. There is no emergency exit and due to fire risk, cooking is not allowed. No matter, according to Qi: "we usually eat instant noodles or in some cheap restaurant. After a long day of work, we are all too tired to cook anyway."

Qi and an estimated one million others live in the basements and bomb shelters of Beijing. They all came to try their luck in the big city and work as cleaners, waiters or street merchants. They are the ones holding up the city of 20 million. And they are good examples of how disparities between rich and poor are growing.

Cramped spaces

A couple from the neighboring province of Hebei rents out the basement rooms in Qi's building. They had used their own money to renovate dirty basements into suitable living quarters and now manage a total of 60 basement rooms.

They even installed security surveillance cameras at the entrance so they can watch over their investment right inside their own basement room. "We have paid for internet and telephone connections down here out of our own pockets. So naturally we want to play it safe and make sure nothing happens – especially that no fires break out. That’s why the tenants are not allowed to own heated blankets and electric kettles."

For many, the riches of China's rapid economic growth are still far out of reach

For many, the riches of China's rapid economic growth are still far out of reach

The authorities have tolerated the underground flat market for years. But now they want to clean up. After a fatal fire that broke out in a residential building in Shanghai last year, the authorities see the underground labyrinths as a number one fire risk. So they have made it illegal to rent out rooms in basements.

Nowhere to go

There is even public discussion about using such laws to keep migrant workers at bay. But with the prices for standard rooms at over 100 euros per month, underground dwellers are worried about their future.

"I don’t know what to do." Qi said if the law is upheld, "then we have no other choice than to return to the country side because we have nowhere else to go in Beijing."

Some underground dwellings have already been cleared out. And people living in basements are just waiting to be kicked out any day. But even the cheapest rooms cost at least 100 euros, says Qi, and that is more than she can earn in a month.

Author: Ruth Kirchner (sb)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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