Western perception of China focuses largely on issues like economic growth and government reform. But for the average Chinese citizen--and many born in China are illegal citizens of their own country--life trudges on, far from the gleaming skyscrapers in the city centers. Last week, I had a rare day off and decided on a whim to take my camera and the subway to a neighborhood I had never seen. Shenyang is a massive city--its "official" population of around eight million is almost certainly wrong, if not purposefully fictional. In his phenomenal book, Heaven Cracks: Earth Shakes, China historian James Palmer points out that local governments are given incentives for meeting statistical goals in different categories. Therefore, it is in the best interest of ballooning cities like Shenyang not to report numbers of migrant workers. Even entire neighborhoods could easily be removed from data with a little so-called "guanxi"--bribery. The neighborhood I visited was located at the Li Ming Guang Chang subway station the last on the line, but only three stops from the most popular shopping street in the city, and the former Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty. The streets were not the wide here, they were narrow, but uncrowded. There was a small downtown with a hideous, yellow building that had a large glass face in the middle, making visible apartments fallen into a sort of domestic anarchy. I walked out of the main street and into a courtyard of communist block. Unlike the unending, seven-story concrete buildings that make up my admittedly hideous (and quite poor) neighborhood, these were old brick affairs, probably from the fifties, and beautiful in a way. The windows were smashed and the brick was crumbling, and walking through several courtyards I had the sense of moving through a world that would not be there for too many more years. I also felt a sense of regret for the older people who had spent their entire lives at the reins of Mao's disastrous vision, and later, as the generation too old to adapt to Deng's reforms. The story I really want to tell you begins after I left the quiet courtyards. It begins after I passed the smokestacks and the two cracking skyscrapers. It begins after I crossed the canal with no water. It begins the second I passed a man selling coal on the side of the street. The air was filthy. I took a turn down a street that was almost an alley, but several buses whipped past. Motorbikes emerged from what was beginning to look like a neighborhood. Then, as I came out of the bend, the neighborhood—or a small part of it—became visible. It looked like a warzone. Hills of brick rubble, shanty homes half buried. The smell of coal was inescapable. A dog came out of an alley and opened a door with his nose. Along the walls that still stood were the usual faded communist slogans that Chinese people have long been accustomed to. A school bell rang—I don’t know where, I couldn’t see a school—but suddenly Children in their jumpsuit uniforms were running past me, turning down alleys and climbing through the rubble to their homes. I am sure that I was the only one who noted the irony of the painted, happy communists, or the optimistic red slogans a friend later helped me to translate. After perhaps thirty minutes, I emerged from the slum. As I studied my options for getting home, I discovered I had only been walking one edge of the area, and that it was really much larger than the simple two miles I had traversed. I found a new path along the artificial river and took that. At last at this part there was water. I passed a stray dog with tragic eyes, looking up helplessly as I passed. Behind a wall, an abandoned factory loomed. And I looked down in the river, and right on the bank, lay a dead pig. This is my story of Shenyang, the probable mega-city, in November 2013. Bitterly cold, bitterly unreported, and hardly special. I later discovered that the slum neighborhood had been a village once. Even an official map of Shenyang notes many villages incorporated into the city. But none, I’m sure, note this utter crime. China’s official statistics claim that practically no one in the country lives below the international poverty line. But three stops from the most famous street in the most famous city in northeastern China, there’s a dead pig in a river and children who climb over the rubble of their former homes just to get to wherever their families are sleeping that night. If that doesn’t qualify as poverty, I don’t know what does.
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