1077 Life beneath the streets

The Rat People: A Journey through Beijing’s Forbidden Underground
by Patrick Saint-Paul, translated by David Homel

Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
$19.95 / 9781551528038

Reviewed by May Q Wong


In The Rat People: A Journey through Beijing’s Forbidden Underground, veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Saint-Paul exposes how Beijing’s, and indeed China’s, explosive growth has been built on the backs of its poorest citizens. From his research and interviews with sociologists, economists, historians, political scientists, and China watchers, Patrick Saint-Paul has delved into the physical, social, and psychological impacts for the individuals, and amassed some staggering statistics (some of which I have included here).

But this book is not just about how the corrupted elite of China is yet again exploiting its peasants, but a reminder of China’s President Xi Jinping’s ultimate intentions of becoming “…the world’s most powerful nation by 2050 (p. 9),” economically and militarily. This book is a wake-up call; if China treats its own citizens this way, imagine how ruthless its relations could be against its rivals.

Like its weather, sauna-like in summer and frigid in winter, Beijing is a city of harsh contrasts. The city has built some of the world’s most modern high rises, but they sit on top of underbellies of multi-storied labyrinthine corridors leading down to airless, dank, foul-smelling cells where, unbelievably, thousands of people live. Disdained by the citizens who live above ground, these residents, most of whom are migrant workers (mingong), have been given the nickname of shuzu, or “rat tribe.”

Beijing has outstripped New York for the highest number of billionaires…, and [a]ccording to Bloomberg, China is expected to turn out millionaires three times as fast as the US…. [yet at the other end of the spectrum] in 2014, some 200 million Chinese lived below the poverty line, on less than US$1.25 a day (pp. 168-170).

French journalist Patrick Saint-Paul at the former winter palace of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, Tibet

Patrick Saint-Paul lived and worked in Beijing for le Figaro newspaper with his wife and two teenaged children. The lives of the shuzu also contrasted sharply with the lives of his family members, who shopped and watched the latest movies at the huge indoor malls offering international designer fashions; consumed imported European food and wines; received high level education close to home; and partied in chic but affordable (to ex-pats teens and the Chinese elite) nightclubs. His fourteen-year-old son was impressed with the number of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bentleys that paraded, and recklessly raced, the streets – higher in number than in Germany where they used to live! Meanwhile, the Chinese shop assistants, food servers, facility caretakers, and other service workers were not even allowed to window shop, nor could they afford the price of admission to see their own cultural treasures such as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall.

The underground warrens were built during the Cold War era, when China and the Soviet Union were vying for power. In 1969, as the conflict escalated, Mao Zedong ordered the construction of a vast underground network to serve as bomb shelters in Beijing. Hundreds of thousands built some 20,000 shelters, creating an underground city linked to schools, hospitals, factories, stores, restaurants, theatres, and even a skating rink above ground.

Under Deng Xiaoping, when the country opened up its borders to increasing international trade and a growing market economy, the underground spaces were commercialized:

…some 800 lodgings were created in the entrails of the city, along with hospitals, supermarkets, and movie houses. In 1996, the government adopted a law decreeing that every new building in the megacity had to include underground space for people. A veritable city on several lower levels began to sprout in these spaces (pp. 17-18).

I am reminded of the extensive underground complex in my hometown of Montreal, connecting downtown shopping malls, office buildings, metro and train stations, hotels, department stores, theatres, and churches. It is also a multi-storied labyrinth, but it is clean, bright, spacious, and in many places, a showcase for art. It is a convenient and comfortable way to avoid above-ground traffic during cold, snowy winters and in hot, humid summers. But the tunnels in China are a far cry from those in Montreal.

Many of the original Beijing shelters have deteriorated, and over the years, many of the most dangerous areas have been closed, notes Saint-Paul: “[T]he city estimates that 6,000 subterranean lodgings are still rented to this day (p.18).” The actual number is probably much higher because of the economic realities of supply and demand and the inequities between city and country dwellers.

Patrick Saint-Paul with one of the tunnel inhabitants in Beijing

Peasants living in the countryside may be able to enjoy breathing fresher air, as yet unpolluted from industry and cars in huge urban centres, but most still live at the subsistence level. Their small plots of land do not produce enough food to eat or supplement their income. After working at local, low paying factory jobs, minimum pensions in the countryside are set at 55 yuan (US$8), whereas those in the city are 2,000 yuan (US$285) a month (p. 62).

Jobs are more available in the cities, with relatively higher pay. Over the past three decades, “[s]ome 270 million peasants [have] moved to the cities. It is estimated that some 8 million peasants leave the countryside every year in search of work (p.19),” notes Saint-Paul. “To make sure growth stays vigorous, by 2025, Beijing intends to push 250 million peasants into the cities, creating the greatest human migration in history (p. 12).” This means that the competition for jobs, even menial jobs, is high, and will continue to be so.

The average monthly salary for a mingong is about 3,000 yuan (US$425), but in Beijing, “the most expensive city in…China…the purchase price for a property [is]…31,465 yuan (nearly US$4,500) per square meter (around ten square feet), an amount no mingong could afford” (p. 18).

But even above-ground rental space is too expensive. An expat Canadian might be able to afford US $370 (2,510 yuan) a month for her own bedroom, sharing an apartment in Beijing with three others, but that amount would not leave a mingong with enough to buy food and other essentials, or save for the future.

Entry-level monthly rent for an underground room starts at 300 yuan (US$40) (p. 38), but the typical living conditions, even for more expensive rooms are crude and frankly disgusting. Patrick Saint-Paul even found several dormitories under his own apartment buildings, which are located in an upscale, expat neighbourhood. He later spent an overnight there. This is how he described what he experienced on his first visit:

A sickly-sweet odour grows sharper as we near the bathroom. A single facility for both sexes, with no lighting and one entrance, separated by a small partition, with two sinks for the entire group. On the women’s side, four individual stalls. On the men’s, four urinals and three squat toilets send up a powerful smell. No shower, no hot water. Each of the seventy people who rent space here make do with a plastic basin, and the water from a faucet in the bathroom. After a half an hour down there, Douyou [the Chinese translator] feels the same thing I do: a powerful desire to get to the surface and breathe some fresh air. Outside, even at a pollution level that would cause urban centres in Western cities to be closed, the air feels almost clear compared to the atmosphere underground (pp. 50-51).

As expected, rats and cockroaches thrive in these warrens. Lu Huitin, a professor of sociology explained the consequences for humans:

But unlike rats, it is very bad for human health to live in those conditions. They develop skin diseases and suffer psychological problems. Depression is common among the rat tribe. And accidents happen frequently: fire, floods, asphyxiation [sic], which cause many deaths every year in these underground dwellings (p. 15).

Yet the “…seven million mingong, out of 21 million inhabitants, [who have contributed significantly] to the exuberant growth of the capital city (p.15),” are considered second class citizens. With no residency permit (hukou), the mingong cannot access any of the benefits of the city’s social safety net such as healthcare, schools for their children, or other basic rights.

The journalist had to elude ever-present state security agents in order to find individuals brave enough to be interviewed by him. He encountered cleaners working at an upscale mall, construction workers, retired people, university graduates, restaurant and bar workers, and even a few rare shuzu who had emerged successfully.

Patrick Saint-Paul

Saint-Paul tells the story of a retired couple from the countryside who work as caretakers in his apartment building, earning a monthly income of 3,000 yuan (US$425). Zheng Yuanchao, 62, after being demobbed from the People’s Liberation Army, worked in a factory in Wuhan building barges until retiring in 2013. He collects a monthly pension of 1,800 yuan (US$250). His wife Liu Shuzen, 63, used to grow vegetables and sold them at the market in their home village, and has no pension. Their two grown, bachelor sons, aged 26 and 27, are both financially independent.

Instead of enjoying their retirement, however, the parents moved to Beijing to make money to pay for their sons’ dowries! This is a consequence of China’s “one child policy” intended to curb high birthrates, with parents preferring sons to carry on the family name [they might have had to pay a fine for having the second son]. Now women are scarce, and can demand more for their dowries.

In [my village] you have to buy an apartment for the bride and give her 200,000 yuan (US$28,500),” Zheng complains. “In China, you don’t marry a woman, you buy her” (p. 55).

The couple has saved up some money, but may never meet their goal of 400,000 yuan, as they have no job security. They fear management might replace them with younger workers to avoid paying their medical costs should they become ill.

At the other end of the age spectrum, university graduates fare no better. It is estimated that 150,000 underemployed graduates live underground in Beijing (p. 111). The irony for students is that their dedication to succeed at university seems wasted in the job market. The failure rates in Chinese universities are so low that there is fierce competition for every possible position.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, only three percent of young graduates find a job that offers a salary of more than 5,000 yuan (US$715). For seventy percent of those lucky enough to find work, the salary will top off at 2,000 yuan (US$285) a month – as much as a migrant worker makes (p. 111).

Tianmin, a twenty-two-year-old engineering graduate, had to settle for a job as an IT technician in Beijing because it paid three times higher than a job that would have used his qualifications in his home town.

Mingong must also sacrifice having a family life and watching their children grow. Most of them have had to leave their families behind in their home villages; children to be taken care of by a single parent, aging grandparents, or even left to fend for themselves, with money sent from their absent parents. Family visits might take place once or twice a year for short holidays if the mingong can get the time off and can afford it.

Not only are the conditions in the underground shelters not conducive to raising children, but mingong children do not have access to schooling in the city. Theoretically, children are legally required to have nine years of free schooling. But in Beijing, administrative roadblocks and the shortage of schools have resulted in an estimated 140,000 children being excluded from public education in the capital (p. 84).

Saint-Paul dedicates a chapter on the liushou ertong, or children who have been left behind. Studies by the All-China Women’s Federation have estimated that “[t]he liushou ertong have come to represent some 37.7 percent of the rural population and 22 percent of all children in the country…. in 2019 the number of abandoned children stands between 65 million and 66 million… (pp. 85-86).” The tragedy is that while their parents may send them money, no one else cares for their mental, physical, or emotional health, resulting in high rates of school drop-outs, delinquency, and suicide.

The fates of the liushou ertong contrast drastically with children of the rich and middle-class in the city, whose parents spend fortunes on their children’s education. The kids attend private schools during the day, spend evenings and weekends doing homework and receiving math, science, and/or chess tutorials and participating in tournaments to test their knowledge. They learn English with hopes of getting into prestigious universities abroad; not just to get superior educations but to make appropriate connections, or guangxi.

Guangxi refers to the all-important development of personal relationships or networks, required for success in every walk of life. In its most positive sense, it is about people lending a helping hand. Crudely, it can be boiled down to a bribe, represented by the red envelope. With the appropriate amount, guanxi can make anything possible, encouraging corruption at all levels of society and government.

It is this widespread corruption that has enabled the unprecedented growth of the country. “[The rat people] are on the front lines of China’s ideological bankruptcy, which keeps them down in a country with outrageous inequalities, even as it proclaims the virtues of Communist egalitarianism (p. 16).” But is the growth sustainable? The growth rate was slowed considerably by the 2015 stock market crash, and was further impacted by a trade war with United States under the previous Republican president. The global pandemic has added another complication.

So why haven’t workers protested against these appalling conditions, exposed the corruption on social media, gone on strike, or revolted? Patrick Saint-Paul explains it this way:

To increase the regime’s life span, the People’s Republic forged its own path: a mix of economic liberalism and political authoritarianism. The concentration of power, the elimination of political rivals under the guise of fighting corruption, the stifling of dissident voices, and the use of cutting-edge technologies for social control are the tools of this new absolutism. And it’s all cemented together by the rebirth of ideology, a combination of crypto-Maoism and Confucian tradition (p. 11).

In the end, it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not China’s continued growth can continue; how long the regime can last in its present state of despotism, and; whether the shuzu will rise up in rebellion.


May Q Wong. Photo by M. Guan

May Q Wong researches and chronicles the extraordinary in ordinary people. A graduate of McGill University, she holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Victoria and retired from the BC Public Service in 2004. Her first book, A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada (Brindle & Glass, 2012), concerns a Chinese couple separated for half of their 50 year marriage, and the impact of Canada’s discriminatory laws on their family. City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria’s Multicultural Past (TouchWood, 2018) (reviewed by Tom Koppel) concerns the diverse range of immigrants and their contributions to Victoria. In addition to reading, writing, and speaking to groups about her books, May creates useful and beautiful things with knitting and sewing needles – the latest being hand-beaded face masks. Editor’s note: May Wong has also reviewed books by Ian Greene and Peter McCormick, Beverley McLachlinGraeme TaylorDukesang WongHenry YuMei-Li Lee, Catherine Clement, and John Price & Ningping Yu for The Ormsby Review.


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3 comments on “1077 Life beneath the streets

  1. Thanks for this great review. It does a good job (I suspect) of reflecting the book’s reporting on the harsh complexities of the New China of Chairman Xi. But this polarised corporate 21st century China with its extreme inequalities of wealth and power: is it our new foe or the new future?

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