Revealing Tendencies: Chinese Urbanization & the Floating Population

December 7, 2015

Essay by Florence Twu.


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Demolished area near Gulou Dajie subway station, Beijing, Fall 2009. © Florence Twu.

“Shenzhen may seem prosperous, but it’s a desperate place.”
—Anonymous Chinese migrant factory worker1

“Friends, we were born into the world poor through no fault of our own. But to die poor is a sin.”
—Diary entry of female Chinese factory worker2

They are known as liudong renkou, the floating population in China, an estimated 250 million migrant workers who have moved from their countryside homes in search of better opportunities in the city. The sheer volume of people migrating to urban areas as labor has allowed China to develop at the unprecedented pace and scale as it has for the past three decades.3 While the image China projects to the world is one of pure progress—all glittering skylines and modern shopping malls—an inconvenient reality is that the invisible hands whose labor have made China’s developmental miracle possible live on the margins of urban society as “second class citizens,” hidden from public view in underexamined housing formations. By moving from their locations of birth, rural-to-urban migrants have relinquished their rights to state-provided public services including subsidized housing under China’s geographically based household registration system referred to as hukou. As a result, they have little choice but to make their lives in the all-too-often difficult environments of factory dormitories, condemned neighborhoods, and makeshift migrant housing settlements.

Just as their contributions to the Chinese economic miracle are unrecognized officially, the spaces these invisible hands inhabit have been similarly neglected and hidden from sight. Factory dormitories are perhaps the most widely known living quarters, due to the high global profile of Apple products manufactured through Foxconn Technology Group and the infamous dormitory suicides that briefly dominated headlines in 2010. Rather than directly address the regimented working and living conditions that likely contributed to the suicides, Foxconn chose to outsource their dormitories to push the responsibility—and any additional blame—to another subcontractor in order to continue their business operations as usual.4 Demonstrating particular cunning in the service of profitable returns, the Foxconn case illustrates some of the nefarious tactics of global business to maximize return on what has been viewed as an inexhaustible supply of replaceable labor.

The phenomena of factory dormitories located a short walk from a manufacturing facility is hardly novel. Industry has always sought to capitalize on a proximate and captive labor market—the docile and already-trained farmers’ daughters brought in to replace child labor in the Lowell Mills, the planned worker community of George Pullman, and single-industry cities such as Detroit are all examples. Those that persist in our historical consciousness have typically been connected to some utopian or moralizing mission. One is hard-pressed to find such overt idealism in factory owners even if the practice of market capitalism in China was supposed to be guided by the ideals of Chinese socialism.

What does stand out is the relentless drive of China’s general growth-above-all approach. As a result, dormitory construction is driven by efficiency and cost, creating a monotonous built landscape of the generic, banal, and easily overlooked.

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Shoe Factory Dormitory in Guangzhou, China, 2008. © Daniel Cronin.

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Shoe Factory Dormitory in Guangzhou, China, 2008. © Daniel Cronin.

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Kitchen in Guangzhou, China, 2008. © Daniel Cronin.

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Kitchen in Guangzhou, China, 2008. © Daniel Cronin.

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Dormitory in Guangzhou, China, 2008. © Daniel Cronin.

Out with the Old, in with the Laborers

Elsewhere in the country, migrant workers have taken shelter in undesirable old housing stock representing a previous way of life that is quickly disappearing. Rent in traditional apartments is too expensive and because of the hukou system, rural migrants lack the urban residence permits that would give them access to lower-cost social housing. Dilapidated and disposable housing stock—sometimes already slated for demolition—becomes one of the remaining refuges for migrant workers.

The old city center of Beijing is made up of a network of alleyways known as hutong that link together a network of low-lying grey-brick courtyard homes known as siheyuan. This basic urban fabric was established in the thirteenth century and remained largely unchanged through the Communist transition in 1949. When Beijing’s population rose in the 50s and 60s, inhabitants spilled into the open courtyards, infilling the spaces with makeshift shelters to accommodate more people. The city also grew, but outward, in the form of four-to-five story Soviet-style housing compounds.

The onset of hutong demolitions in Beijing coincided with the opening of international markets in the early 90s when real-estate profits through redevelopment became realizable. The lead-up to the 2008 Olympics further accelerated a citywide demolition project of unprecedented proportions. Opinions on the destruction of the hutong were mixed, however. While intellectuals decried the policy’s historical and cultural erasure, many original hutong residents themselves were not opposed to relocating to higher quality living conditions as long as compensation and notice were adequate.5 For those who lived through the Mao era, government housing complexes are seen as an ideal.6 As a result, many hutong neighborhoods fell into disrepair, paralyzed by an uncertain future.

With the government eager to see the neighborhoods demolished to make way for commercial development and previous inhabitants ready to move into better accommodations, the hutong have provided inexpensive housing option for incoming migrants to the city. Areas slated for demolition are marked with the character for chai, to tear down, but signs of life persist throughout condemned neighborhoods. As migrant families make do with what shelter they can find, they have attracted targeted demolition and relocation efforts by the government in order to “improve the population structure” and attract “more civilized” residents through the redevelopment of heavily migrant-populated districts such as Chaoyang.7 As of 2010, an estimated two-thirds of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished.8 Yet the evictions and demolitions do not provide solutions, only pushing migrants into other informal urban living arrangements that have arisen to accommodate the human tide.

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Demolished area near Gulou Dajie subway station, Beijing, Fall 2009. © Florence Twu.

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Demolished area near Gulou Dajie subway station, Beijing, Fall 2009. © Florence Twu.

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Demolished area near Gulou Dajie subway station, Beijing, Fall 2009. © Florence Twu.

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Demolished area near Gulou Dajie subway station, Beijing, Fall 2009. © Florence Twu.

“Villages within Cities”

Present in all major Chinese cities is the phenomena of “villages within cities” or “urban villages,” rural farming villages that once existed on urban outskirts now enveloped whole by rapid urbanization and home to numerous migrant workers. These rural islands are a product of China’s dual land-ownership policies where urban land is publicly owned by the state and rural land collectively owned by the villagers’ themselves. Local governments chose to convert more easily obtained rural cropland for urban development while leaving residential rural areas untouched. Stripped of the croplands that were their previous source of income, villagers turned to renting extra rooms to incoming rural migrants. To address the need for affordable housing and generate additional revenue, an entire informal housing market has developed as villagers further subdivided rental properties and began building larger, unregulated structures up to four or five stories tall.

In cities such as Shanghai and Fuzhou, converted shipping container serve as ad hoc homes for construction workers building the most decadent of luxury high-rises. Ironically lurking in the shadows of high-rise job sites or conveniently concealed a sufficient bus ride away, these makeshift structures have become self-sustaining communities that function at a scale and manner more familiar to the environments the migrants left behind.

While tolerated for decades, these migrant enclaves have increasingly come under attack as local governments reframe their urbanization efforts. One Shanghai community was established by an entrepreneurial recycling industry worker with access to shipping containers. After four years of existence, the village was shut down in days when the circulation of images on the Internet embarrassed local officials. As a whole, however, these informal housing markets have helped to keep the cost of labor down, on the order of multiple decades worth of annual revenues in large cities such as Shenzhen.9

Moving Underground

Nowhere is the dual nature of Chinese society more evident than in the teeming underground labyrinth of basement units and air raid shelters that house migrant workers in Beijing. Again a consequence of sharply increasing rents and the lack of affordable housing options, a literal subterranean city three-stories below street-level has developed as a physical counter-narrative to the progressive skyline above. Annette Kim, professor at the University of Southern California, has worked with a team of Chinese researchers to map the types of rentals available under Beijing, finding the median size to be 9.75 square meters (about 105 square feet)—just under the 10 square meter minimum required by Beijing’s local codes. In comparison, the average worker dormitory accommodation is only 6.2 square meters (about 67 square feet).10

Unflatteringly referred to as the “rat tribe” both in the Chinese press and among legal urbanites, the underground denizens are too poor to afford aboveground private housing. The epithet joins a colorful lexicon built around unconventional living conditions: “cupboard tribe” for those living in shipping containers, “well tribe” for a group that found shelter in unused wells near a five-star hotel, and “ant tribe” for the intelligent but powerless class of university-educated youth settling for low-income jobs, bonding together in urban colonies for support.11

Subterranean living is perilous and uncomfortable. Heavy rains in 2012 claimed 79 lives and forced thousands of underground occupants into the streets above.12 There is also the ever-present risk of cooking fires breaking out. The difficult living conditions are tolerated as temporary by some, but others decorate their tiny rooms as homes, dreaming of the day they can afford to live above ground.

Changing Conditions

Uninhabitable dormitory conditions, insecure housing amid urban ruins, a belowground shadow city—all are expressions of the suppressed internal contradictions that have fueled China’s miraculous economic growth. The country’s hybrid of capitalist and communist impulses has resulted in novel forms of social and spatial segregation as it has benefited from the influx of a vulnerable, itinerant labor force. By keeping blue-collar workers out of sight from both locals and tourists alike, Chinese cities were able to maintain a certain facade of progress—a fiction that is quickly dissipating with a changing economy and increasingly dramatic instances of environmental decline.

Two factors that have overwhelmed affordable housing options and driven migrants to less desirable forms of urban shelter—the sheer volume of migrants and the underlying hukou system—are beginning to show signs of change, however. Exhausted workers who have not attained their goals of amassing savings and upward mobility are returning to inland cities in a mirror image “tide of return.” Simultaneously, the hukou system also shows signs of loosening, allowing migrants access to social services in hopes of increasing consumer consumption and urban growth.13 Whether economic and urban growth can occur while simultaneously improving living standards has yet to be seen.

1 Howard W. French, “Chinese Success Story Chokes on Its Own Growth,” New York Times, December 19, 2006,
2 Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009), 64.
3 Francesco Sisci and Lu Xiang, “China’s Achilles’ Heel: The ‘Floating Population,’” May 17, 2003,
4 David Barboza, “After Suicides, Foxconn Will Outsource Its Worker Dorms,” New York Times, June 25, 2010,
5 Andrew Jacobs, “Bulldozers Meet Historic Quarters in Beijing, to Mixed Reaction,” New York Times, July 20, 2010,
6 Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Lost in the New Beijing: The Old Neighborhood,” New York Times, July 27, 2008,
7 Human Rights Watch, “China: Beijing Relocations Put Migrants at Risk,” Human Rights Watch, accessed January 17, 2016,
8 Jacobs, “Bulldozers Meet Historic Quarters in Beijing, to Mixed Reaction.”
9 Lucy Hornby and Jane Lee, “China’s Urbanization Drive Leaves Migrant Workers out in the Cold,” Reuters, March 31, 2013,
10 Andrew Good, “The City of the Future Could Lie below Your Feet,” USC News,
November 20, 2014,
11 Yan Dan, “‘Rat Tribe’ Lives in Shadows of China’s Cities,” Epoch Times, July 24, 2014,
12 Youqin Huang and Chengdong Yi, “Invisible Migrant Enclaves in Chinese Cities: Underground Living in Beijing, China,” Urban Studies 52, no. 15 (2015): 2948–73.
13 “China to Ease Restrictions on Living in Cities for Millions,” Guardian, December 12, 2015,; Tania Branigan, “China Reforms Hukou System to Improve Migrant Workers’ Rights,” Guardian, July 31, 2014,