Surrounded by the sleek hi-tech campuses and luxury condominiums of “Beijing’s Silicon Valley”, migrants from the countryside recreate village life, cooking in outdoor communal areas, playing cards and showering in the street.
But their community’s days are numbered.
Demolition crews will soon arrive to flatten its alleys packed with dilapidated, one-room dwellings as part of a city-wide “clean-up” campaign.
For months, the authorities have bricked up and torn down thousands of shops and homes that are deemed to violate Beijing’s zoning laws as the government seeks to give the capital a facelift and limit the population to 23 million people by 2020.
Migrants from China’s relatively undeveloped southwestern region have lived precariously for two decades here in Zhongguancun — which is also the base of hi-tech companies including Lenovo, Baidu, Tencent and Sohu, which help their own employees from other regions obtain legal rights to live in the capital.
‘Village behind factories’
Zhang Zhanrong, a stylish woman in her early thirties, moved to Beijing from a remote village as a teenager to look for work.
She was following in the footsteps of her neighbours, who had sent word home to the rural outskirts of Chongqing that people earn much more in the capital.
They all settled in a plot of land in the northwest of the city, where they built common areas and piled their families into clusters of tiny apartments.
They call their adopted home Houchang Cun, which means “the village behind the factories,” but no one knows why it was named that way because there are no factories nearby.
Zhongguancun has been a national base for the science and information technology industries since the 1980s.
“They don’t want migrants here anymore. We’re just ordinary rural people and we don’t try to understand the government policies,” Zhang told AFP.
“We haven’t found another place yet,” she said stoically, standing with one hand on her hip while making dinner at an outdoor communal gas stove.
She and her husband recently took out a loan to purchase two moving trucks. They employ neighbourhood residents as movers, who earn around 5,000 yuan ($760) a month, while Zhang and her husband together make over 15,000 yuan.
They earn more than the average income in Beijing’s private sector, but most of it goes toward paying off the loans and saving for their children’s schooling. They pay 1,000 yuan in rent per month for two adjacent rooms.
Meanwhile, the average salary at Chinese internet giant Tencent is 63,000 yuan a month, and rent for a one-bedroom apartment near the Tencent campus costs upwards of 5,000 yuan a month.
China has hundreds of millions of migrants who have moved from the countryside to its towns and cities in recent decades to find work, their labour fuelling the country’s economic boom.
But many remain poorly paid and cannot afford to bring their children — who would have few rights to school places — with them, instead leaving them behind to be looked after by relatives.
Houchang residents told AFP they only heard about their pending evictions from property managers, and were not told why they are being kicked out.
“We do the jobs that many locals don’t want to do, such as sanitation and heavy labour,” said Peng Shuixian, a 30-year-old mother of two who works as a cleaner.
“But it is hard to stay. My kids couldn’t get into school here. Now they’re back in Chongqing with their grandparents,” she said.
Most homes in Houchang do not have running water or toilets. Public facilities are filthy, but some enterprising residents have built showers by placing plastic barrels on wooden stilts and positioning them over gutters.
“Some of us used to make 6,000 yuan a month as Didi (ride-share company) drivers. But the government said migrants can’t drive Didi, so we had to find other work,” said Yang Qiang, a mover who uses his homemade shower to cool off after strenuous jobs.
“We work, we live day by day. Can’t talk about tomorrow,” said a villager who has lived in Beijing the longest, 50-year-old Lin Huiqing.