Download Last year, China’s urban population overtook rural inhabitants for the first time in history.
Massive rural-urban migration has fed rapid urbanisation.
Many rural migrants live on city outskirts in so-called ‘urban villages’ – unplanned, crowded suburbs that house countless workers.
The people are described as “semi-urbanised”, and they don’t enjoy the same social welfare as residents born in the city.
Asia Calling’s Lam Li visited one urban-village - dubbed the “Nanny Village” – on the outskirts of Beijing.
Welcome to Dong Xin Dian village, locally known as the Nanny Village.
Many of its female residents work as domestic helpers in nearby Shunyi District bungalows, packed with Chinese jet setters and foreign professionals.
25-year old Xiao Li gives me a tour of the village – there’s one main road, lined with shops and street vendors. Many mud paths branch off it, leading to low-rise blocks.
“This is the typical building style here, three-storey blocks, converted from single-storey farm houses. Now they’re partitioned into many small rooms, not bigger than 20 square metres each. Every room has two to four occupants. There are very few original Beijing villagers here; they built these rooms to rent out to migrant workers like us.”
90 percent of the residents here are migrant workers from China’s countryside.
And last year, for the first time ever the size of China’s urban population surpassed the number of rural inhabitants.
One third of the country’s farmers have already moved to cities for better job opportunities.
After a day’s work washing other people’s clothes and child-care, 47-year old nanny Jin Jie is cooking her family meal.
Her makeshift kitchen is in a common corridor shared by other tenants.
Today’s dinner is braised fish head, ready for when her husband returns from a construction site, and her daughter finishes her shift at a mall.
Jin Jie came to Beijing from Anhui province. In the past few years, she has moved house four times.
“Once houses are demolished or relocated for development, places with convenient public transportation and cheap rent is hard to find again. In recent years, three out of five urban villages in this area have been demolished. Dong Xin Dian is one of the last surviving ones. But rent has gone up. When I first moved here it was 47 US dollars, then 55, and now more than 60 US dollars, that’s three hikes in less than two years.”
Jin says the landlords who built these properties for rent are looking forward to relocation.
“In our previous place, the landlord kept expanding the property, he built structures in every little space left, and squeezed in as many rooms as possible. When it’s time for demolition and relocation, official compensation is calculated based on the built-up area, and landlords get a payout and relocation housing. Now more structures are coming up in Dong Xin Dian too, and buildings are encroaching on the surrounding roads, which used to be wider.”
But unlike landlords, migrant tenants like Jin are not entitled to compensation.
It’s not only rising rents these nannies have to face.
32-year old Zhang Min from Sichuan is doing her family laundry at night, after returning from a long day’s work at two different households.
She works 6 days a week, and earns 440 US dollars a month.
“Others say, if you work you should be entitled to insurance and other pension coverage. But I have none of these things, because I’m not attached to any company, I work for individual homes.”
Zhang misses her son who remains in her hometown, where school and the cost of living are cheaper.
“My son is eight years old. If I bring him to Beijing, I won’t have any money left. He was here for the summer holiday last year, and our spending rose sharply. By the time we sent him home, we had to borrow money from friends to tide us over.”
Beijing’s a city of 20 million people, and nearly 40% are migrants.
Many of the unskilled workers are described as “semi-urbanized” people.
Du Yang is a researcher at the Institute of Population and Labour Economics, under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of China’s top think tanks.
“In statistical term, we count people who have lived in urban areas for more than six months as urbanites. But many rural people who migrate to city, due to the existence of hukou system, they do not enjoy the same social welfare benefits as city-status people.”
Hukou is a residential permit system which dates back to the era of China’s centrally-planned economy.
The system divides people into two categories at birth – rural resident, or urban.
When someone moves to a location out of his category, he loses access to most public services like education, medical care, housing, and pensions.
Du Yang says this needs to change.
“We hope in the future that one’s hukou will have no strong relation to a citizen’s entitlement to welfare. The state should provide a broad, non-discriminatory welfare system. It could be minimal, but must cover as many people as possible.”
Late last year the Chinese government released a notice on population development tasks for government officials to implement.
It says smaller cities can relax hukou so that so-called “qualified” rural people can get city status.
But larger cities still need to keep population growth down to what’s described as a “reasonable” level.
It also targets improved living conditions for migrant workers, and encourages local governments to build low-cost housing for “qualified” candidates.
But it doesn’t say what it takes to be “qualified”.
Jin Jie’s family gathers around the television after dinner. She’s been working in Beijing for 11 years.
But according to her official hukou registration, she’s a farmer living in a rural area.
“People like me will never stand a chance to change my hukou, unless I have money to buy a property here.”
That’s a dream – she can’t even cope with the city’s rising rent.