Beneath the city of Beijing is a subterranean network of bunkers that was built during the reign of chairman Mao Zedong who feared attack from the Soviet Union. After Mao died and Deng Xiaoping came to power, these defensive measures were abandoned, leaving the complex of caves empty and unused until a few enterprising businessmen took it upon themselves to turn the bunkers into hostels.
In the 1990s, the Chinese government took over the management of the bunkers and began renting out rooms to the poor. Today, the twenty thousand bunkers are now inhabited by one million Chinese migrants who have moved into China’s second largest city, hoping to fulfill their dreams but unable to afford the rising costs of living above ground. These subterranean migrants have been labeled the Rat Tribe.
The “basement rooms” are small and often inhabited by more than one tenant who share the community bathrooms and small kitchen facilities. The use of bed pans and hot plates is also very common.
Although the living conditions endured by the Rat Tribe seem like something straight out of a science fiction novel, it is very real. And while it’s a disappointing testament to the inequities inherent in one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world, these subterranean caves do offer the poor an opportunity to live their lives off the streets and sheltered from the elements.
For some, the rent is as low as 300 yuan a month (48 US dollars), which offers them a chance to save what little money they earn. Most of the Rat Tribe live in these rooms out of necessity, but surely some of the Chinese youth have found the squalor of the underground shelters a refuge from rural life and from family influence. For them, it must feel like a liberating first step into adulthood.
In 2012, it was proposed that the subterranean bunkers be shut down and the Rat Tribe returned either to the streets or back to the country-side from which many of them came, but so far the shelters remain inhabited.