Urban Poverty and Urban Slums in China

Between 1978 and 2004 the urban population of China grew from eighteen percent to forty-one percent of the total population, commonly said to be 1.3 billion.1 Given the annual increments in this massive urbanization process, it is not hard to estimate conservatively that China’s urban population is now close to forty-five percent of the total number of people in the country.

By 2010, probably close to one half of the national population will be urban dwellers. That’s 600-700 million urbanites of one sort or another, the most massive single urbanization in the history of the world.

The Floating Population
One of the compounding factors in getting a true figure is the phenomenon commonly referred to as the “floating population”—rural migrants who temporarily move to urban areas, most often living in ghettos filled with people who come from the same province. The proportion of returnees varies: one study says between two and fifteen percent of migrants return to their rural communities2; another suggests the number is closer to thirty-three percent.3

In China, there have been two classes of urban dwellers: those
who have the official city residential permit and the more
recent arrivals who do not.

Thus in Beijing, for example, one finds the so-called Zhejiang village (the name of a coastal province south of Shanghai) with its tens of thousands of densely-packed people of living in conditions of squalor and a total lack of physical and social infrastructures. Michael Dutton4 describes the police action reflecting the Beijing government’s desire to suppress the “floaters” or mangliu of Zhejiang village, which (along with many other such “villages”) are generally considered to be a “blight” on the urban landscape of the national capital.

In China, there have been two classes of urban dwellers: those who have the official city residential permit (the notorious hukou) and the more recent arrivals who do not. These latter people are part of China’s floating population. People’s Daily reported in July 2005 that “China's floating population has increased from seventy million in 1993 to 140 million in 2003, exceeding ten percent of the total population and accounting for about thirty percent of rural labor force.”

The Hukou System
According to Hong Kong’s Department for International Development (DFID), the hukou system in China was designed to prevent the free movement of people from rural to urban places and to protect industrial development in the cities in the planned economy. By attaching different welfare entitlements (subsidies) to urban and rural hukou, the system divided the people into two societies separated by an invisible wall.

However, as the market economy has deepened, particularly as rural migrants have become an indispensable part of the urban economy, the need for the traditional hukou system is being challenged. The recent relaxation of the hukou system began in 2001. At that point, the government fully recognized the importance of urbanization for overall development and began to develop its new strategy for its tenth 5-year-plan. The hukou system has been further relaxed and the importance of the hukou permit for migrants is now much diminished. In Shanghai and many other big cities in China, a “green card” system, in which there is no basic difference between the local residents and the green cardholders, is emerging. (Click here for full report).

It is doubtful that more than a small portion of these were even counted in China’s most recent census in 2000. Migrants do not have any of the entitlements—such as subsidized food and housing (even with the growing trend to purchase private housing, interest rates are subsidized and therefore very low), schools, and healthcare—of the official residents of the city. The migrants come to the city because there is no work for them in the regions from which they come, and the jobs they do manage to get are usually comparatively low-paid and often temporary (e.g., domestic and construction workers, menial factory jobs, illegal sidewalk vending of goods or services).

About one-fifth of the entrants in the urban labor force
in China come from rural areas.

According to the DFID report, about one-fifth of the entrants in the urban labor force come from rural areas. In spite of their economic fragility, most of these workers manage to send or take a large portion of their meagre wages back to their rural families. A recent report estimated that the approximately 100 million rural residents who work away from their villages sent or carried home a total of 370 billion CNY (about thirty-five billion USD) in 2003, an increase of 8.5% from the previous year. Estimates of the amount sent/brought back by migrant workers range from between three and four thousand CNY.5

Chinese-style Slums?
This is the context through which we, as Christians, must see the development of urban “slums” in China. Recently in Beijing, a deputy minister of construction admitted that many “villages” within cities had become “Chinese-style slums.” They are indeed distinctive. In spite of the rapid influx of rural labor into the cities (by official estimates, an average of 8.4 million people a year between 2001 and 2005, bringing the total to around 120 million), they have not spawned huge shantytowns. Instead, scattered villages within cities are often behind walls built to hide their squalor, and old state-owned apartment buildings have filled the gap. In fact, the traditional notion of what a slum is appears difficult to find in modern China.

Instead, we have the phenomenon of migrant, disenfranchised, and underprivileged people grouped in villages in each major city.

Urban Villages
The eventual goal of Beijing's onslaught is still unclear. A government survey in 2002 found 332 villages with a total population of more than 800,000 migrants in the eight urban districts of the city proper—nearly one-third of the total migrant population of Beijing. Urban villages6 are a unique phenomenon that is part of China’s urbanization process.

The villages appear on both the outskirts and the downtown segments of major cities. They are surrounded by skyscrapers, transportation infrastructures, and other modern urban constructions. Urban villages are commonly inhabited by the poor and transient, and as such they are associated with squalor, overcrowding, and social problems, and are considered by some as no better than Chinese slums. However, they are also among the liveliest areas in some cities and are notable for affording economic opportunity to newcomers to the city.


1. National Bureau of Statistics. 2004. China Statistical Yearbook 2004. Beijing: China Statistics Press. 32.

2. Bai, Nansheng and Yupeng He. 2003. “Returning to the Countryside Versus Continuing to Work in the Cities: A Study on Rural Urban Migrants and Their Return to the Countryside of China.” Social Sciences in China. Winter, 151.

3. Zhao, Yaohui. 2002. “Causes and Consequences of Return Migration: Recent Evidence from China.” Journal of Comparative Economics 30: 376-394.

4. Dutton, Michael. 1998. Street Life in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 147-159.

5. Bai and He in http://www.dfid.gov.uk/countries/asia/China/urban-poverty-study-english.pdf.

6. Chinese: Ì´ü_Ì_åüå_Ì_坉Û÷; pinyin: Chéng ZhÌÉång CÌÉåÇn; literally: “village in city”

Peter Foggin is retired professor of cultural geography (Université de Montréal) and continues to pursue his international development and research interests, particularly in China. He is adjunct professor of geography both at the University of Ottawa and at Lanzhou University in northwestern China.