CHONGQING, China—A damp rat lumbered into the darkness beneath a bed that rents for 24 cents a night.
Cobwebs and wires dangled overhead. The air was tangy with sweat and pepper oil. Burrowing three stories underground, the basement boarding house is a world away from the skyscrapers above. But the men who crowd it have come to a city they hope will change their lives.
These migrants are part of an epic human tide that is redrawing the map of China, just as migration transformed the American heartland. Job-seekers from the countryside have made a national test case for urbanization out of Chongqing, often compared to the 19th Century Chicago that Mark Twain found always to be “contriving and achieving new impossibilities.”
The 21st Century heirs to America’s meatpacking migrants are laborers such as Jiang Taiping, a brawny father of two who returns, each day, to the boarding house after sunset.
“Home,” he whispered and put down the bamboo shoulder-pole that earns him $12 a day as a human delivery truck.
The march to China’s cities is part of a global sea change. Sometime next year, the U.N. predicts, the planet will pass a major milestone, when the world’s population becomes more urban than rural for the first time in the history of the species.
Leading that change is China’s 1.3 billion people, whose village exodus has the potential to alter the nation as dramatically as its free-market revolution. And the impact on the rest of world spans everything from how fast diseases spread to the price of seafood.
For China, the magnetism of its cities reaches well beyond the desperate. It is as close as today’s Chinese citizens come to a national religion—the rare idea that speaks to both an impoverished farmer like Jiang and a restaurateur who has parlayed a rural storefront into a national chain with 17,000 employees.
“These will be five-star hotel rooms. Every room will have a private garden,” announced Yan Qi, marching through a new luxury restaurant-and-hotel complex she is building in a lush district of Chongqing. She was trailed by a staffer in an ivory uniform, carrying the boss’ Fendi purse. When the Land Rover keys went missing, he broke into a sprint to retrieve them.
A half-century ago, Mao Tse-tung mobilized the countryside to his peasant revolution. Today, the instinct that drew Jiang from his farm and Yan into business inspires hundreds of millions of other rural Chinese. They are united less by their income levels than by a daily, unending quest for something better: a nicer car, a bigger meal, a finer education, a higher status.
“That sofa cost 90,000 Yuan ($11,938),” volunteered Zhang Tianbao, a farmer’s son who now runs the lobby at Chongqing Mansion, an upscale entry in Yan’s Tao Ran Ju restaurant empire.
“That clock is from Hong Kong,” he continued. “It cost 130,000 Yuan ($17,244). That wall is all marble.”
He paused to pick up the restaurant’s enormous menu, a totem to the city’s expanding appetites. “This is the largest menu in Chongqing,” he said gravely. “It weighs 6.5 kilograms (14 pounds.).”
Even among China’s infant mega-cities, Chongqing sizzles with ambition. As recently as a decade ago, it was still best known, perhaps, by its World War II-era title, Chungking, the base where U.S. Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell coordinated U.S. and Chinese troops against Japanese forces. Until recently, the only highlight of downtown was an eight-story monument to the city’s liberation from the Japanese.
Today, a crescent of new skyscrapers fills the horizon, including a copy of New York City’s Chrysler Building. The fast-moving Yangtze and Jialing rivers are flush with barges and cruise ships. Eight bridges, eight highways and eight rail lines have been built in just the past five years. City development chiefs boast that they are spending $1 billion a month on new ports, airport terminals, skyscrapers and government offices. And they plan to sustain that pace for a decade.
Chongqing is already, technically, one of the world’s largest cities, with 31 million people and territory the size of Maine, though that boundary encompasses a vast rural area. Even so, the city proper is ballooning. It is on pace to absorb 5 million new arrivals in the next decade, the equivalent of every resident of Washington, D.C., picking up and moving here—every year.
To put it another way, author James Kynge calculated that Chongqing’s urban population is growing at eight times the speed of the late 19th Century expansion of Chicago, when it was considered the world’s fastest-growing city.
It’s easy to see why: City residents in Chongqing can expect to earn an average of $1,470 a year, nearly four times the amount in nearby rural areas, and the gap is widening.
The rising standard of living comes at an unmistakable price.
“This is called `Clear Water Stream,’” said local environmentalist Wu Dengming, standing on a bridge over a murky, sluggish gulley in northwest Chongqing.
Indeed, this model city is buckling under its own waste. Water-treatment plants are overwhelmed, sending tens of thousands of tons of raw sludge into rivers everyday. Chongqing is sunless most days, blanketed in smog that stands out even by modern China’s standards.
A new network of pipes is designed to upgrade treatment capacity by year end, Wu said, which should restore places such as Clear Water Stream. Chongqing also has introduced natural-gas taxis and buses, along with stricter energy-efficient building codes. But global environment experts are paying particular attention to the Chinese heartland as a measure of how breakneck urbanization will affect the country and beyond.
“As the Chinese countryside goes, so goes the planet,” said Rob Watson, chief executive of the design firm American SinoTech, who has advised Chongqing authorities on energy efficiency. “When you move a Chinese peasant into an urban area, they end up consuming three times the resources as when they were in the village. And as wealth increases, as people get plasma screens and everything else, the ratio will get larger.”
The mounting strain on the land is just one of the new tensions produced by China’s urban rise. The country is more prosperous than at any time in history, but the gap between haves and have-nots has surpassed the U.S. and is approaching the yawning divides associated with Latin America.
That gap highlights the nation’s central contradiction: Mao forged modern China in the name of Marxist-Leninist egalitarianism, but his political heirs have developed an economic system more akin to the Western models he condemned. And as urbanization increases, those left behind fall even further behind.
“Farmers represent 80 percent of the population, but they hold only 15 percent of the assets,” said Wang Kang, a Chongqing-based culture critic. “So, there are two national societies, with different school systems, different medical systems. China’s greatest risk is conflict between these two societies.”
If there is a way station between the two, between the city and village, the present and the past, it might be beneath Chongqing’s throbbing streets, in the squalid boarding house in the Qiansimen district.
The boarders’ world is a cluster of airless rooms, leading one to another and up a tiny staircase no larger than a ship’s ladder. They come from across the countryside for the chance to earn four or five times what they make in the hinterlands. Most nights, all 100 beds are full.
The men trickle home after sunset. Some collapse on their bunks, dull-eyed in the half-light. Others crowd into the only fully lit space, the television room. Card players, stripped to the waist, trade crumpled greasy bills back and forth.
These nomads are known in Chinese as bang bang men, from the Chinese word for pole and the bamboo variety they carry in search of things to haul for a wage. Each of them can remember their heaviest load. For Jiang, the father, it was 300 pounds of pigs’ feet.
They are not teenage workers on their first city trip. These are journeymen-fathers, mostly, and a few grandfathers who slipped through the cracks in China’s history. Too young to retire, they say, but too old to learn new tricks.
Their world is defined, above all, by deprivation. They talk of money the way zealots talk of God.
“I’ll do whatever job makes more money,” said Zhang Xiaoping, an earnest 42-year-old farmer with wispy sideburns and hanks of muscle on his forearms. “I’d like to start a business. But where am I going to get the money for that?”
Their stories are timeless and virtually identical: They work like this so their heirs won’t have to. They crow about their children’s English skills and factory jobs. In most cases, their children remain in the village, while their wives work the fields or find other jobs faraway.
“There is an old saying,” said the boarding house owner, a wiry, nervous 50-year-old who asked not to be identified. “If one person leaves home to find work, the family will escape poverty. If they all leave home, they might be able to make a real living.”
The owner used to run his boarding house in a two-story building nearby. But prices are rising here, and, eventually, the business ended up in a basement because it was cheap and available.
For all its overwhelming bleakness, the migrants’ world also reflects an essential improvement in Chinese life: 30 years of reforms have unmoored Chinese farmers from their villages to a greater degree than ever before.
“Mao banned the bang bang men from working. He never let people move around like this,” said 55-year-old laborer Du Quansheng. “You had to stay in the countryside and plant crops. Now you can move where you need to go.”
By midnight, the card players had drifted off to the bunk rooms and filled it with the low rumble of snores. The lights stayed on through the night, one of the ways the landlord has learned to keep things safe.
By dawn, the men were moving again. The tiny open-air bathroom with the broken mirror was a wordless assembly line, tooth brushers on the left, clothes washers on the right. The atmosphere was quiet and purposeful.
By 7:30 a.m., the boarding house sat all but deserted. Jiang, the father, retrieved his bamboo pole from his bedside. He stepped into the stairwell and began the climb up and out into the light.