Class Dismissed: How Class Divides are Changing Beijing

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8:04 PM HKT, Mon October 2, 2017 4 mins read

My apartment complex just installed a new security system. Now to get into or out of the complex, you need to swipe a key fob over an electronic pad on the gate. To enter our building you need to swipe another key fob over an electronic pad by the door. Then to go up or down the elevators in our building, you need to — you guessed it –swipe your key fob over yet one more electronic lock. To travel the 100 meters from the gate of our complex to my apartment requires swiping two separate key fobs over three different locks. That’s not including, of course, the key which opens my apartment door.

The new system has divided my neighbors.

A bit of backstory: we live in a reasonably upscale apartment complex just on the northeast corner of the Second Ring Road. (I can see the Death Star/Entry-Exit Administration building from my porch.) The complex was built in the turn-of-the-millennium Beijing building boom. To buy an apartment here will set you back about 8-9 million RMB. We pay about 9,500 RMB (~ $1,400) in monthly rent for a two bedroom/two bathroom, 900-square-foot, high-floor unit. There’s a large courtyard between the buildings, with a children’s playground and a couple of nice gardens.

The neighborhood around it is transitioning… slowly. There are a lot of danwei xiaoqu (old-school housing estates) and a few gritty hutongs, holdouts in Beijing’s sweeping plan to turn the city into a Green Zone for the 1%.* There are also a fair number of economic migrants who live in the area around our complex. Therein lies the problem, at least as far as my neighbors are concerned.

For as long as we have lived here — or at least as long as we’ve had our own apartment complex WeChat group — the residents of our peaceful little slice of heaven have complained about non-residents infiltrating our courtyard. Some of the complaints raise not unjustified safety concerns over folks wandering the halls of buildings, knocking on doors or posting advertisements everywhere, but just as many grumbled about being forced to share our courtyard, its play areas and gardens, with the people who live outside the complex. The general sentiment has been that owners in our compound paid good money to live here, and it’s not fair that some people (read: “poor folk”) are freeloading by bringing their kids and dogs over to use our space.

At the same time, many of the same people routinely throw a hissy fit on our WeChat group because the new security system prevents deliverymen from accessing the higher floors, thus forcing residents to trundle down to the gate (or at least the lobby of their building) to pick up their deliveries.

Both the US and China have long prided themselves on their “classless” societies, albeit a self-identity derived from different ends of the ideological spectrum

The issue is one of class. While there are signs that income inequality in China may actually be improving, among the world’s ten largest economies only Brazil has a Gini coefficient larger than China. It is as uncomfortable a topic for most folks here as it is for many people in the United States. Both countries have long prided themselves on their “classless” societies, albeit a self-identity derived from different ends of the ideological spectrum. Everybody I talk to in China is “老百姓” (“just folks”) whether they drive a three-wheeled scooter or a BMW. But China, like the United States, is increasingly divided among the have-nots, the haves, and the have-a-lots.

In China, class can also be something very personal. Many of the haves grew up as have-nots. Their boats have risen along with the waters of economic growth and general prosperity, but also through hard work and sometimes a bit of luck. (It helps to have been born with an urban hukou, preferably in one of China’s four major municipalities.) The urban elite often proclaims personal narratives and identities — not entirely without reason — as self-made individuals. But this has also created a kind of “Prosperity Gospel with Chinese Characteristics.” Good fortune happens to good people. If you do not have good fortune, then something must be wrong with you. After all, the system works for me: I’m the one standing on the inside of the gate with a couple of key fobs in my hand.

In China, class can also be something very personal: many of the haves grew up as have-not’s

This same inequality allows for the army of delivery drivers, working long hours for relatively low wages, to keep up with the conspicuous consumption of the new middle class. As a friend asked me last week: When was the last time you saw somebody in possession of a Beijing hukou lift anything heavier than their mobile phone?

Last week, the Beijing municipal government announced a “red line” for population. By 2020, the population of the city will be capped at 23 million. The sticky wicket here is that the current population figures are based on the number of official residents, or holders of residence certificates. That number is about 21.7 million but doesn’t include the “floating population” of semi-legal residents and migrant workers. They don’t have residence certificates and, like undocumented workers around the world, are undercounted when the census takers come around.

Estimates vary, but the actual population of the city may already be north of the 23-million-people red line. This means that instead of simply slowing in-migration, the new policy may require the government to take coercive measures to move folks already here out of the city. We’ve seen one aspect of this policy in the closure of many low-end businesses throughout Beijing’s neighborhoods, exactly the kinds of businesses owned, operated, and staffed by economic migrants from other parts of the country.

It is possible that some of Beijing’s haves will cheer this policy as a raising of the drawbridge. Fear of being swamped by the rural masses has long been at the core of class anxiety in urban China.

But a city is more than just the upper middle class.

Fear of being swamped by the rural masses has long been at the core of class anxiety in urban China

Earlier this month there was much excitement in our compound when the municipal government cleared out the street-side wet market, which used to make it difficult for drivers to reach the entrance to our underground parking garage.

Just the other day, our compound WeChat group fielded the plaintive query: “Where do people now go for dumpling wraps?” There used to be three such stalls right in the neighborhood around our compound. Now those stalls are gone. Along with the vegetable sellers and my jianbing guy. When Beijing becomes simply a safe haven for the upwardly mobile classes, what will be lost?

*Credit to Brendan O’Kane for this turn of phrase.

Cover photo: A towering apartment block in Beijing (via Century Realty)

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