What you need to know
Beijing appears to be a city without slums. The "Chinese dream" appears to be in reach. But both are illusions propped up by an underclass of workers called the "rat tribe."
By Yu Jie
In the winter of 2017, a fire in a housing block in Beijing’s Daxing District took 19 lives. Cai Qi, who was new to his position as the Communist Party Secretary of Beijing, spared no mercy for the victims. Instead, he took the opportunity to accelerate the city’s demolition campaign, forcefully evicting hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.
A leaked video of Cai’s controversial speech went viral online. “When it comes to the grassroots, we have to use real, bloody measures and tough confrontation, we have to solve this problem,” Cai said of the evictions.
Beijing’s citywide “clean-up” was part of a bigger plan to cap the population at 23 million. The broad-sweeping campaign affected not only old neighborhoods, but also illegal warehouses and distribution centers. Some netizens even compared the photos of the evictions to the Schindler’s List scene in which Nazis evicted Jewish people from their homes.
The government censors its own term ‘low-end population’
The term “low-end population” first surfaced in China’s state media around 2010. While there was no clear definition, People’s Daily referred to the “low-end population” as those who are “hardworking and independent, with dreams of climbing the ladder.”
But as “low-end population” was read as grossly offensive to migrant workers, Chinese internet censors blocked all mentions of term on social media. At the 2017 Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, Chinese filmmaker Ma Li won Best Documentary for her film Inmates, which told the stories of patients at a psychiatric ward in Northeast China. During her acceptance speech, Li said she represented “the low-end population who await to be ‘dealt with.’” As soon as she uttered those words, the screens on China’s live-streaming platforms went black.
Chinese artist Hua Yong was arrested for filming the forced evictions in Beijing, and he had insisted on live-streaming until the minute the police arrived on his doorstep.
The ‘rat tribe’ within the ‘low-end population’
Another term that corresponds to the “low-end population,” which is even more vivid, is “rat tribe” (鼠族). Chinese scholar Lian Si coined the term “ant tribe” to refer to low-income university graduates who live in poverty. And “rat tribe” is on an even lower level: It refers to migrant workers from the poverty-stricken districts with minimal education, some of whom live in basement units, squat in abandoned buildings, or sleep under bridges.
Patrick Saint-Paul, Le Figaro's Beijing correspondent, accidentally discovered that some of the “rat tribe” were living in the basement of his luxury apartment building, a powerful spatial metaphor of class. Saint-Paul suddenly realized that he himself was at the center of this Chinese fantasy, confronting the cruel face of the upstairs-downstairs reality.
He then spent two years with a translator at his side interviewing the migrant workers of Beijing. On several occasions he was “invited to tea” by authorities, the euphemism in China for being brought in for police questioning. His interviews became the basis for his book, The Rat People: A Journey through Beijing’s Forbidden Underground.
In a city with no slums, where do the poor live?
Upon his arrival in Beijing, Saint-Paul observed that the Chinese mega city was orderly, clean, and there was no sight of slums. But this was just a mirage masking the truth.
According to Saint-Paul, around 1 million members of the “rat tribe” live in Beijing’s underground, often hidden in some of the most affluent neighborhoods. These residents provide the capital city’s basic labor output, ranging from construction workers to street sweepers. Underground, there are college graduates who move to Beijing for an internship and parents who seek a better income, leaving their children behind in the rural areas.
In the pursuit of the “Chinese dream,” many of China’s underclass are hoping to change their fortune alongside the country’s economic leap. However, migrant workers who move from small villages to big cities often end up being members of the “rat tribe” before they even get a chance to grow their wings.
Peking University Sociology Professor Lu Huilin said these workers live in humid, filthy underground units without natural light. They’re not only exposed to infectious diseases, but also a heavy psychological burdens.
‘Rat tribe’ members are nationalists, too
In Saint-Paul’s book, he interviewed Wang Xiuqing, who had been living in the underground pipelines for over a decade. Wang knew that it was inappropriate to speak foul of his country in front of a foreigner. “I’m not good at talking about national affairs,” he said.
In such an impoverished home, Wang still hung a portrait of Mao Zedong in the cramped underground space. He worshiped Mao, and said, “During Mao’s time, we were also poor and hungry, but at least we were all in similar situations.”
While he condemns some politicians for being corrupt, he remains confident in President Xi Jinping’s vision and leadership.
“The neighboring countries have invasive, threatening ambitions toward our territories. China is not yet strong enough — it has to become a powerful nation to avoid repeating the tragedies in history,” he says.
Wang’s perspective is can be found all over Chinese television, newspapers and textbooks. It has morphed into part of Chinese people’s subconscious. French sinologist Alain Roux, in his biography of Mao, wrote that the Chairman “believed poverty to be the stimulus of revolution, and that suffering is ‘beautiful poems written on white paper.’” But Roux’s book can’t be published in China, and it’s nearly impossible for Wang and others in the “low-end population” to gain access to books like this.
China’s “low-end population” may not blame the Communist Party or China’s rigged system for their poor living conditions. They may not share the hatred and resentment against the feudal system like the sans-culottes on the eve of the French Revolution. Under the influence of government propaganda, some in China’s “rat tribe” assign more blame to Western countries for China’s problems.
One in a million: former ‘rat tribe’
Artist Zhang Siyong had lived in a basement for seven years. Now Zhang’s paintings are worth several million dollars, he told Saint-Paul that even Steve Jobs was a collector of his works.
Zhang supports Xi’s call for artists to return to the countryside for “re-education.” By experiencing the local life in rural areas, Xi said, the artists would be able to “form a correct view on art.” Yet Zhang thinks, ironically, that countryside rehabilitation is unnecessary for him because he had grown up in the villages.
From the few success stories coming from the rat tribe in Saint-Paul’s book, we can see that only one in a million makes the cut. To be successful in China, one needs not only talent and resilience, but also ambition and cunning, as well as mastering the unspoken rules of society.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang admitted at a recent press conference that 600 million Chinese earn a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan (US$140). This kind of salary is “barely enough to cover monthly rent in a mid-sized Chinese city,” he said.
In other words, over 40 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people are still enmeshed in the so-called “rat tribe” or “low-end population.” The stories that Saint-Paul touched upon in his book were only the tip of the iceberg, with more and more Chinese joining the ranks of rat tribe every year.
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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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