5:00AM Saturday May 19, 2007
Beijing is clearing neighbourhoods to fulfil its Olympic dream. Photo / Reuters
BEIJING: Threatened with eviction but desperate not to leave, the residents of a derelict corner of China's capital cling to their crumbling homes like haggard castaways on a surging tide.
By day, the heart of the Guandong Dian neighbourhood teems with poor migrant workers buying cheap food and slurping hand-pulled noodles at stalls.
By night, prostitutes whisper at passers-by from doorways.
Its reeking alleyways and grey-brick huts lie in the shadows of luxury apartments and shimmering office blocks at the fringe of Beijing's brand new central business district.
But not for long. "By the end of this year, all of this will be gone," said snack vendor Wang Jinglong.
"People like me who rent and own stalls will have to find another place."
Guandong Dian, soon to be cleared to make way for an office block and a wider road, is one of dozens of crumbling shanty-towns pockmarking Beijing that have been earmarked for demolition before the Olympic Games in 2008.
Branding them "illegal urban villages", town planners demolished 55 of them in 2006 and started clearing another 25 as part of the city's "beautification" work.
Authorities are spending US$40 billion ($54.9 billion) to upgrade Beijing's creaky public transport system, build event venues and shift heavy industrial polluters far from city limits in line with a pledge to the International Olympic Committee to unclog congested roads and reduce air pollution for the games.
In a city of glittering skyscrapers, the shanty towns are inconvenient reminders of grinding poverty in China's heartland.
"There are at least 1000 of us here," said Wang, who once farmed a small plot in his home province of Henan, but now ekes out a living selling slices of "thousand-layer cake" from a hand-wheeled cart in Xiangjun Nanli. "Most of us are from outside of Beijing, from all over the country."
Wang is one of about four million migrant workers who live in Beijing but are not counted in its official population of 15 million.
Tens of thousands more arrive every year to wait at tables, work on construction sites or in the homes of the nouveau riche.
The dire poverty in China's heartland has created a drama played between Government officials determined to rid the city of its urban underclass and migrant workers equally determined not to leave.
For the poor people of Guandong Dian, the drama involves an obstacle course to basic rights including housing and health care.
Every day after waking up in an unheated room with a leaky roof, Wang wheels his cart past foul-smelling drains that quickly overflow when it rains.
Wang makes about 800 yuan ($137) a month from selling snacks. He can't afford to see a doctor if he gets sick and doesn't receive health care subsidies. He also hasn't seen his five-year-old daughter, whom he left in Henan with his mother, in over a year.
"Sure, it's tough here but I can make more than twice as much as I can at home," Wang said, adding he does not know where he will go. "But I won't be leaving the city."