“Better safe than sorry” has been the motto of preparedness advocates for centuries, and despite the hysteria and paranoia that typically follows this kind of advocacy, it’s usually never a bad thing to think ahead. Even if the catastrophe you fear never comes to pass, you may actually wind up saving a life in the process.
That’s exactly what’s happened in Beijing over the last fifty years, for during the days of the Cold War communist leaders invested in one particular project that’s come to aid their people in the present. After seeing the strange city that lies below the streets of Beijing, you’ll wonder what kind of secrets may be hiding just beneath your feet…
During the height of the Cold War, the world’s preeminent communist powers – the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union – were also at odds over differing political ideologies. With a willingness on both sides to escalate their conflict to war, the threat of nuclear catastrophe loomed larger than ever.
Tensions between the two nations soon reached a breaking point, and in 1969 the Chinese government was forced to take drastic measures in order to protect the country. At the behest of Chairman Mao Zedong, the people of China began work on a massive underground tunnel system.
Over 300,000 men, women, and children were put to work on the project, constructing 10,000 bomb shelters connected by nearly 20 miles of tunnel. Ancient structures and cultural landmarks were toppled for the sake of Mao’s vision, with nearly all of China’s resources being poured into the endeavor.
By the end of the decade, 75 of China’s largest cities had been outfitted with enormous underground bunkers. With the shelters capable of housing roughly 60% of each city’s population, the survival of the Chinese people amidst the imminent nuclear war was all but guaranteed.
But the bombs never fell, and Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 quelled the fears of annihilation at the hands of the Russians. With new leader Deng Xiaoping ushering in a “golden age” of socialism in China, it appeared that Mao’s massive undertaking had all been for naught.
Being the economic mind that he was, however, Deng refused to let such a significant – and costly – project simply crumble into obscurity beneath the streets of China. Through the Office of Civil Defense, the country began an initiative to commercialize the abandoned bunkers.
Sim Chi Yin
Over the next two decades, laborers transformed Mao’s defunct tunnel system into a network of underground cities, the largest of which formed beneath the sprawling Chinese capital of Beijing. Complete with supermarkets, schools, clinics, and even karate dojos, this project represented another leap forward for China’s expanding economy.
But even after these spaces were repurposed, the Chinese government continued to push forward with their subterranean efforts by mandating that all new buildings have underground defense shelters that could double as a source of income. And so, in addition to stores and clinics, these bunkers became homes.
Today, over 1 million people live below the streets of Beijing, clustered in small communities that range from a few dozen to over a hundred individuals strong. Residents of this underground city are known as the shuzu, or, more commonly, “the rat tribe”.
Scott Sherrill-Mix / Flickr
This peculiar society is mostly made up of young migrants from the countryside who arrived in search of affordable housing in Beijing. And with an average rent of 400 yuan a month – roughly $58 – for one of these rooms, they’re sure getting what they’re paying for.
Each windowless room is typically between 40 to 100 square feet, just big enough to fit a small bed and a dresser or two. Some aren’t so lucky, as there are those that can only afford to stay in rooms that are shared by up to a dozen other people.
Singapore Home Decor
As far as amenities go, a single communal bathroom serves as a dumping point for personal bedpans, and at 50 cents a pop, one can help themselves to a lukewarm, five-minute shower. But despite the poor living conditions, some residents see their situation as motivation.
“Many of my colleagues live above ground, but I think it’s too comfortable,” said Wei Kun, an insurance salesman who shares his 300-square-foot apartment with nine other men. “This place forces me to work harder.”
But even so, a tremendous amount of stigma still surrounds those that call themselves members of “the rat tribe.” Some individuals won’t even tell their families where they’re living out of fear of judgment.
“When my father came to visit me he cried when he saw where I lived,” aspiring actor Zhang Xi recalled. “He said, ‘Son, this won’t do.'” Unfortunately, the Chinese government’s stance on the issue has only grown increasingly mixed as the years have gone on…
Though city officials have expressed concern over the safety risks involved with underground living, most have chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice. With overcrowding becoming a growing problem in Beijing, there’s really no other place for these individuals to go.
“We never allowed residential use of air-raid shelters,” said Xu Jinbao, office director of the Beijing Municipal Civil Defense Office. “But as time went by Beijing became so populous that people started to cram in underground.”
Despite the hardship and controversy surrounding “the rat tribe,” it appears that they’re making the most of the situation while keeping their eyes set on what lies ahead. For these individuals, life underground is not a product of hard times, but rather a calculated sacrifice for the future.
“I found a lot of people still hope one day to buy a house, or at least to live above ground,” sociologist Li Junfu observed while studying underground housing at the Beijing University of Technology. “They have a positive spirit.”
Check out the video below to learn more about “the rat tribe” and their remarkable lives beneath the streets of Beijing.