Beijing’s underground dwellers

Even as China's wealth rises, an estimated 100,000 in the Beijing area live in underground bunkers.

Jason Lee / Reuters / File
A passenger sleeps at a Beijing train station. In the city of about 20 million, many residents can only find affordable housing in a network of underground bunkers.

In a city of about 20 million, it’s no surprise Beijing has more than its fair share of housing challenges. However, a solution that’s become common for many average wage earners is not one you would probably guess they’d consider first… living underground in a 30-square mile network of air defense basements. The bunkers were originally built as shelter to protect citizens in the event of foreign air raids, and the Telegraph estimates that “as many as a million people live in small, windowless rooms that rent for £30 to £50 a month.” For the time being, despite China’s rising wealth, the homes are some of the only affordable housing options available to Beijing’s migrant laborers.

According to the Telegraph:

“In a Beijing suburb, beneath one of the thousands of faceless residential tower blocks that have carpeted the city’s peripheries in a decade-long building frenzy, one of Beijing’s ‘bomb shelter hoteliers’, as they are known, agrees to show us his wares. Passing under a green sign proclaiming ‘Air Defence Basement’, Mr Zhao leads us down two flights of stairs to the network of corridors and rooms that were designed to offer sanctuary in the event of war or disaster.

“‘We have two sizes of room,’ he says, stepping past heaps of clutter belonging to residents, most of whom work in the nearby cloth wholesale market. ‘The small ones [6ft by 9ft] are 300 yuan [£30] the big ones [15ft by 6ft] are 500 yuan.’

“Beijing is estimated to have 30 square miles of tunnels and basements, some constructed after the Sino-Soviet split of 1969, when Mao’s China feared a Soviet missile strike, and many more constructed since to act as more modern emergency refuges. [...] ‘Some 80pc of our tenants are girls working in the wholesale market and the rest are peddlers selling vegetables or running sidewalk snack booths,’ he adds. ‘There are dozens of similar air defence basement projects in residential communities. In this area, they say 100,000 live underground.’”

Time will tell whether or not there is a bubble in China real estate. On the one hand, there are fewer mortgages in China than in the US, and therefore less of that type of home ownership speculation. On the other hand, the article points out that a very basic small apartment, about 860 square feet, now costs over 2,000,000 yuan, while the typical monthly salary is about 4,000 yuan. This means, “the average person would take 50 years to buy such an apartment, assuming they saved every penny they earned.” You can read more details, and arrive at your own conclusion, by visiting the Telegraph’s coverage of the underground world that hints at China’s coming crisis.

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