The Tenement Nightmares Of Beijing's Migrant Masses

You're gonna need a bigger room...
You're gonna need a bigger room...
Shen Nienzu, Chen Zhe and Wang Xuewei

BEIJING - Mengyun seems satisfied with her new bedroom, even if it's less than seven square meters and originally served as a kitchen. “This is the biggest room I've ever had in the four years I've lived in Beijing,” she says. “And it costs me only 950 RMB ($155) per month.”

Peng, the head tenant who sublets the room to Mengyun, notes the rising prices of rentals. Any bedroom with a window is always more than 1,000 RMB. “A kitchen usually has three walls and a window, so many people would rush to grab it,” he notes.

Mengyun is part of the ongoing massive migration to China's cities, whose many difficulties include finding a decent place to live. Beijing authorities have attempted to institute new laws to deal with the housing needs of some seven million migrants, who are increasingly forced to live in tiny spaces, typically partitioned pieces of shared apartments and rooms.

Mengyun, who arrived in the capital after graduating from a college in her native Henan Province in 2009, currently earns 2,500 RMB ($408) monthly as a clerk at a wine importer, but is always uncertain about having decent shelter.

A new citywide directive explicitly specifies minimum per capita living space and forbids kitchens, bathrooms, balconies and basement storage areas from being rented out as bedrooms, so Mengyun is very anxious that she may be obliged to move for the fifth time.

Eviction without warning

Mengyun's last move was also related to Beijing's group rental housing rectification campaign in Baihuan Residential District.

Next to the Shuanjing station, which is just one stop away from Beijing's central business district, Baihuan Residential District is the first choice of home for many white-collar workers. It was also the optimal solution for Mengyun, who had just been forced to move out of a basement a year earlier because of a new regulation.

Through a black-market intermediary, she rented a room of five square meters without a window for 650 RMB ($106). The 120 square meters apartment was divided into 13 tiny spaces separated with thin clapboard partitions — squeezed inside were exactly 23 people.

“Whether for brushing your teeth or taking a shower, you had to get in line,” Mengyun recalls. “In the night, you hear absolutely every movement in the next room.” Three sides of her bed were close against the clapboard, and after putting in one small wardrobe and a desk, there was no space for a chair.

Then in March 2012, just after she'd paid the second season's rent, Beijing launched a crackdown on Baihuan district's group-renting.

“At that time, just the Baihuan residential district alone accounted for more than half of the Jingsong District's cases of public disorder,” says Ma Xiaoyong, media director of Jingsong district's neighborhood office. “I remember a place that set the record. Ninety square meters of space stacked with 26 bunk beds and 52 people.”

Mengyun ignored the information about the crackdown thinking it was just another propaganda stunt, until the relevant departments started cutting off the electricity and dismantling the clapboard apartments.

All of a sudden the hawkers for group rentals who had been standing at every street corner disappeared from Baihuan.

According to Jingsong district's neighborhood office, this action cleaned more than 400 group rental apartments.

But after just a month, group renting resurfaced, except “the space separated with clapboards went up a bit and so did the rent,” says Mengyun, who lost her deposit but got back two months of the prepaid rental in the last crackdown. “Although the rental has gone up, Baihuan is still relatively cheap. Besides, my salary has increased, otherwise I can't even afford to live in a kitchen.”

Investment rackets

A fruit of the “affordable housing” plan, the Baihuan Residential District was built in 2000 with an average surface of 120 square meters per unit. “Thanks to the relatively generous surface area, most of these apartments were bought by non-locals as investments,” Ma Xiaoyong tells the Economic Observer. “Many owners didn't even take a look at the house before handing it on to the intermediaries. One of the major reasons why there are so many clapboard rooms is because these apartments are big.”

Head tenants such as Peng are called House worms — people who originally rented the apartment then separated them into densely reallocated rooms to sublet. A head tenant can rent an entire apartment for around 7,000-8,000 RMB ($1,141 to $1,305). He or she can then separate the surface into multiple tiny rooms or stack it with bunk beds to sublet for a total rental of around 15,000-20,000 RMB ($2450 to 3$,260), according to Xiaoyong.

I also visited a flat with two bedrooms and two living rooms. The two bedrooms had three bunk beds each while the whole house, less than 110 square meters, has 13 bunk beds and 26 persons, with only one bathroom and toilet. The average per bed price is 550 RMB ($90).

“We generally don't like this group bed renting, which has a high turnover of tenants and is difficult to manage, but it has a certain market due to low prices,” says one intermediary.

Mengyun's current home is in an apartment originally designed as two rooms with a living room. Now it's separated into six units, occupied by 13 people. Because she lives in the kitchen, all the other sub-tenants end up cooking in the tiny walkway of the flat. The half-meter-wide corridor is scattered with piles of plates and kitchenware. “When it's dinner time, all the smells mix together. The clothes hanging in the hallway naturally smell of the oil,” Mengyun says.

Still, she counts herself lucky to have her kitchen-bedroom. “It's at least got water and a window.” As to whether the gas pipe in the room presents a potential risk, she says, “You pay for what you can afford. If the worst occurs, that's also just back luck.”

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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