Hidden Poverty - The Well People Of Beijing

Dubbed the new 'cave dwellers' of Beijing, these people were recently found living in the city's underground water system. Society's lowest rung raises hard questions about modern China.

Hard times are usually hidden in modern China's big cities
Hard times are usually hidden in modern China's big cities
Zheng Ge and Zhang Jin

BEIJING — At a conference in Beijing, I once met a Cornell University professor who told me that he always likes to hire a taxi to explore the hidden corners of whatever city he is visiting. He said he was surprised to find that in all the Chinese cities he’d been to — unlike Bangalore, Mumbai, Calcutta, or even in New York or Chicago — he’s seen no “glaring slums.”

I tried to explain to this professor why slums don’t exist in China. It’s because of the housing allocation by employers, the household registration system and the so-called urban management system of China’s planned economy. But I somehow couldn’t quite convince the professor.

China’s urban areas are growing faster than anyplace in the world. During the 1980s, the population increase in Chinese cities was equivalent to what 19th century European cities experienced.

So how does China keep its first and second-tier cities so shiny and glamorous, and keep the extremely poor out of public sight?

The so-called “cavemen” who recently have been found living in Beijing’s wells offer one painfully clear answer. Around upscale residential areas and four-star hotels there are homeless people living among the city’s wells, giving them access to warmth from the nearby heating pipes.

China’s state ownership of city land and its supporting urban planning and management system help prevent widespread cases of unauthorized and chaotic construction. At the same time, an array of poverty relief measures, from subsistence allowances to low-cost housing, are all linked with household registration or resident permit.

But there are many migrants who have left their rural domicile to work in the cities without being able to find affordable housing. And urban management agents responsible for keeping the city clean and orderly kick out people who take refuge under bridges, in parks or other public places, day or night. All this makes the bottom of a thermal well an “optimal choice” for some of these homeless people.

Slum as solution

Beijing’s modern “cavemen” offer an important perspective about the dark side of urbanization. Although the Chinese government is built on Marxism — a critical theory — a crucial dimension of it has long been neglected in China. Economic development, the GDP and urbanization, which have evolved into complex concepts in the West, are instead pursued in China without reflection.

Only if this fact is addressed squarely can a solution be found. As a matter of fact, the slum itself can be considered a sort of solution. It is the manifestation of a liberal government’s limits of power and responsibility. The existence of slums illustrates how a government can leave part of a city’s space to the poor, to create some sort of shelter for themselves, unsightly as it may be.

Once these underground residents were discovered, Beijing authorities promptly sent people out to seal the wells with concrete. One can assume in good faith that this was done to prevent safety hazards and to protect the city’s heating equipment. And yet, if there is no appropriate follow up to provide relief to the underground residents who have been ejected from the only home they know this action can also seem quite abrupt and heartless.

A neat-freak government that is paternalistic and intolerant of the appearance of slums should naturally take more responsibility to provide shelter for the homeless that doesn't affect city infrastructure.

Last winter in Guizhou Province, five street children sheltering from the cold in a rubbish bin died of suffocation. Similarly the heating pipe wells are potential security risks. From the government point of view, it is obviously wiser to take preventive measures. But sealing the wells cannot solve the problem, and may even block another path to survival in the face of extreme poverty.

The next step is the hardest: how to find sustainable decent housing for China’s most vulnerable people. The hidden homeless are caused by various government policies such as household registration, one-child family planning, and urban management.

Wang Xiuqing, a father of three, washes taxis in Beijing by day, and lives and sleeps in the well near his work to save money for his children and for paying the fines of having more than one child. His wife and children live somewhere else.

The one-dimensional economic development that has made a small part of the Chinese population get very rich fast has left a heavy toll in terms of social justice and the environment.

In another epoch it was said that “the portals of the rich reek of flesh and wine, while frozen bodies by the roadside lie.” It’s time for the Chinese government to focus on the dignity of all people, on social justice and protection of human rights.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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