"Village in the city" area in Ningbo

“Are there slums in China?”

I’m active on the Q&A social media site Quora, where I often take on questions on urban planning and economics, transportation, technology and China. From time to time I will share answers here.

Answer by Don Johnson:

Yes, but not nearly as many as in other large developing countries.

Huge areas of informally built housing on the edges of cities that aren’t served by utilities or public services, like you see in India, Brazil and Africa, basically don’t exist in China. However, there areas in many Chinese cities called “城中村,” meaning villages in the city, which are slums: very crowded, very poor infrastructure (single water taps serving hundreds of people, no sewage treatment,) few or no parks, open spaces, schools or hospitals. They are almost completely populated by migrant workers.

These places are former villages that have been swallowed up by expanding cities. The former villagers usually live elsewhere in the city and are now landlords, renting out their old houses to migrant workers who need a very cheap place to stay. One big difference between these areas and typical developing world slums is that most people that live in them are employed, and don’t consider themselves permanent residents. They also don’t have the culture that slum areas in other countries have despite their poverty – more like temporary very cheap worker housing.

Many Chinese cities have made it a priority to demolish “villages in the city” and rebuild the areas with better quality. The problem is that this eliminates badly needed low-cost housing for migrant workers; replacement housing usually is more expensive, even if affordable housing is included.

Former village area in Ningbo

View Answer on Quora

2 thoughts on ““Are there slums in China?””

  1. Interesting answer. I live in Beijing and I have never really thought about it. I saw a documentary about migrant workers awhile ago but they did’t seem to highlight this aspect of their life in the cities. I guess is it easy to be removed from it, even while living in China.

  2. For middle class people, foreigners and Chinese alike, these places can be almost invisible – they are usually out of the way and hard to get to, and there is no reason to go. But they do exist, in every city I’m aware of. Bejing also famously has “ant cities,” similar areas where a lot of recent university graduates live in low-cost shared apartments while they’re trying to get entry-level jobs and save some money.

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