China's Slums: When Will the Poor Get a Break?

By Qin Hui
Published: 2011-04-08

Observer, page 43, Issue 513
April 4, 2011
Translated by Ruoji Tang
Original article:

Recently, there have been reports of a "demolition of slums" in Hainan's Sanya and residents are said not to have been compensated. In Shenzhen Nanshan district's forced

demolition of a shantytown known as the "the farm" also left "more than 200 residents without compensation."

Reading the papers, one has the impression that China's is focused on improving "public services" for "disadvantaged groups," expanding social security and ensuring public happiness.

However, the fact is that in China, groups that in other countries would be considered the "most disadvantaged," or the most in need of protection, are not only still being neglected in some areas, they are also having the makeshift homes they have built with their own hands knocked down in the name of development.

Another recent demolition controversy occurred in in Cambodia, and has come to be known as the Boueng Kak Lake (万谷湖) eviction.

The lakeside property had a number of "illegal structures" that had to be knocked down before development could begin. The Cambodian government offered 8,500 US dollars (57,000 Chinese yuan) or relocation to a nearby suburb in compensation to each household effected.

But residents were unhappy with the amount offered and many could not adjust to living in their new neighborhood. They saw the incident as an unprecedented outrage and demanded better compensation, on their terms.

Sympathetic journalists pointed their fingers at the a Chinese development company that was involved in the project, accusing them of bullying the residents and of "colonialism."

Managers at the Erdos Hong Jun Property Development Co. must have felt that the accusations were a little unfair. The Cambodian government controls the land and was in charge of offering compensation.

The company felt it was simply there to work on the project.

Besides, look at what happened in Shenzhen; the residents received nothing at all. Cambodia is much poorer than Shenzhen and the government still offered compensation payments.

Developed countries aside, even developing countries treat their poorest better than we do.

It is regrettable that a country cannot protect its weak, but at the very least, the government should at least refrain from bullying them.

In India, migrant workers build their houses in the slums, but as long as they have some proof of residence, they won't be forcibly relocated. If businesses need to move you for development, then they will approach you and negotiate compensation.

Taiwan is another example. Their "urban renewal projects" (similar to our renewal and development projects), ran into problems with slums, or what they referred to as "illegal structures."

In addition to pressure to move, residents have to be given adequate compensation in a timely manner. To address the problem of illegal squatting, Taiwan has

built "renewed housing" for relocated residents.

I've gone to see some of these housing projects and although the standard of housing is lower than low-cost public housing, it's not by much.

Recently, much of the "renewed housing" has undergone renovation. I found it unbelievable that this kind of compensation was even being offered to those who had inhabited what were seen as illegal dwellings, but the residents themselves argued that the compensation it was not enough.

They protested under the banner of "fighting the government bulldozer" and agitated for better policies, and in general, society has been sympathetic to their cause. 

What are "Illegal Structures"?

Only one precedent comes to mind for what we do to our poor, and that is how the white imperialists in South Africa under apartheid treated the black population.

The excuse for bulldozing poor neighborhoods is their illegality.

It's true that cities must have construction regulations and that no government in the world is willing to have buildings be built anywhere at all.

"Illegal structures" is often legitimate claim.

The way the apartheid government in South Africa treated its black population was unjustifiable, but that said, laws can still reasonably regulate the expansion of slums. 

We don't expect shanty towns to crop up in New York's Times Square or London's Trafalgar Square.

For the sake of city planning and public good, construction must be regulated. But regulations must also respect human rights. On this point, the author has three suggestions:

First, regulations cannot benefit one party at the expense of all others. An issue that touches upon basic human rights must be done legally and according to

protocol. Laws concerning expropriation must also consult all parties involved, including the victims and the so-called "floating population." Looking out for the interests

of the registered urban population is not enough.

Next, the "regulations" must respect common decency and common sense. In the past, migrant workers were supposed to work in urban areas but leave their families in rural

areas. This is not unlike the approach South African government took to dealing with its black labor population.

A South African theorist said that if they didn't have this policy, shanty towns would have appeared.

The Chinese government uses the same excuse. But a "floating population" cannot be permanently sustained. Residence in the city is inevitable. If we do not provide

housing, and they cannot afford market prices, and simple, makeshift houses are "illegal," then what are they supposed to do?

Finally, "regulations" must be long term, they should not flip-flop or be constantly altered. In recent years, commentators have pointed out that the shantytowns in

Shenzhen have already been there for over 20 years. It was a mistake not deal with it then, but is it fair that the residents have to pay the price now? 

For big cities, not only is it difficult to register as a resident, even a "temporary resident" permit is hard to obtain.

Factory dormitories are strictly speaking "legal."
But if you want to start a family, building a house is not permitted; even renting in the area requires an interview and has strict limitations. Conditions have improved in

many places, barriers have been removed in order to lessen housing "discrimination" and this is good, but the "threshold" for legal housing is still too high.

But lowering the "threshold" is the key.

According to a 2004 survey, only 53.3% of Shanghai's migrant workers lived in dormitories. Less than half were able to afford commerical rents, but half of the number who could afford rents were unable to receive temporary residence permits as the condition of the houses they rented were not up to the official standard.

This creates a huge "illegal resident" population. As I've said before, in theory, they can all be driven out for living in substandard housing, but none of them will receive help for that reason.

In reality, most of them will not be bullied into moving. For the government, the situation is very straight forward: as long as the structures are dispersed, remote, do not affect the overall image of the city, and generates some income for the city (after all, they are using the city's resources and living on city land), and they work the jobs that city residents don't want to do - they can stay.

When the city needs the land for development, they pull the "illegal structures" card.

The government gets the land, and there are no messy compensation problems to deal with.

Every country in the world has some form of protection for the rights of the most vulnerable people in society.

This is not a coincidence: humans are a reasoning animal.

If living in the city is impossible, then people will leave.

People that stay are not criminals, and should not be treated that way.

Additionally, workers choose to stay in the city for a reason.

Some people say that the poor are "squatters" who are violating the "property rights" - they go on to argue that "capitalist countries" don't seem to be as good as us as enforcing the protection of property rights.

But the reality is that these “capitalist countries” are not so different from us. The areas surrounding cities are not all prairies and soulless deserts.

Land is either privately owned or publically owned. But there is a reason why the poor there can "squat" on unused land without being driven off.

Either property owners are willing to make the sacrifice, or the owners are benefitting from their presence, or (in the case of public land) they are permitted to stay because of government policy that reflects a sense of social responsibility.

This is true abroad and it's true here. According to reports, most of the households in the shantytown in Sanya had been there for over 10 years.

Shenzhen's "Zijin Farm" (紫金农场) first emerged in the 80s. Shenzhen calls the residents "outsiders," but a generation has already passed since they moved in. Can they really "go home" and farm? If you force them out with bulldozers, where will they go?

The New Urban Poor

The cause of China's new poor is the same as the cause in Cambodia or in Taiwan. It is urbanization, industrialization, and the great wave of rural migrants these processes cause to flood into cities.

But other countries do not have a "hukou system" or do not use the term "rural migrant workers."

But if Mr. Yao Yang (姚洋) knew about the plight of "floating population" in South Africa, he probably would not have suggested that we use the same term to describe China's large numbers of internal migrants.
In truth, according to most countries, they are nothing more than the urban poor.

In the era of urbanization and industrialization, "investment migrants" (投资移民) are few and far between.

The majority of migrants are poor.

Additionally, registered urban residents are very unlikely to end up living in a shanty town. These places are overwhelmingly formed by new migrants.

It has always been this way, from the beginning of industrialization until now.

Today, China's "floating population" exceeds 100 million, though some say the number is now closer to 200 million.

It is nearly impossible to expect them to "go home," and the terms "rural migrant worker," "floating population" or "outside workers" are becoming increasingly unsuitable.

I think they should be permitted to become urban residents, and I argue that we should refer to them as the new urban poor to distinguish them from those who have up until now been viewed as the "urban poor."

Some say, calling them "poor" leads to discrimination, or create barriers to their social mobility.

I am not sure how to begin to respond to this. How many years have we spent talking about "helping the poor," and "escaping poverty?" That there is no rich with out poor?
Recognizing an urban poor population creates pressure to act.

A few years ago, greater leniency toward slums invited a lot of debate.

We call them lots of names for "slums" (贫民窟): the "shanty towns" (棚户区) of the existing urban poor, the "urban villages" (城中村) of the "rural people" and the "illegal structures" (违章建筑) of the "floating population"

This last, politically correct term, lets the government bulldoze these homes down without remorse and without providing any compensation. What greater form of discrimination is there?

But when we refer to slums as "shanty towns" (棚户区) it in effect puts pressure on the government to act to improve them.

If we call them "urban villages" (城中村), they are still going to be knocked down, but the government feels obligated to provide compensation.

Qin Hui is an economic historian at Tsinghua University, and a prominent public intellectual.

Links and Sources
Save Boeungkak Campaign Website
Guardian: Cambodians evicted in 'land grab' (image)
Sydney Morning Herald: Profile of Qin Hui