Migrant workers and travelers depart and arrive at the Beijing West Railway Station. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The sprawl of Beijing spreads westward. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

About a decade ago, for the first time in human history, we became primarily an urban species. The United Nations reported that in 2014 we reached 54 percent urbanization. This astonishing transition, one that keeps growing and accelerating across nearly every continent, has always fascinated me. This is the first of three photographic essays I produced exploring some of the ramifications and consequences of urbanization, for In Sight.

This past May, I visited China’s capital city for the first time. What better place to photograph the planet’s rapid urbanization than in the world’s most populous country? (At least until India surpasses them, in what experts believe will be 2022.) China’s central and eastern cities have been expanding rapidly, fueled by migrant labor from impoverished western and rural towns seeking better jobs and pay.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics puts China’s migrant population at 278 million, a number that would make it one of the most populous countries on earth. The economic challenges of surviving in a city like Beijing are numerous. I photographed migrants living in the basements of Beijing, one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets. Known as “Shuzu,” or “rat tribe,” they skirt the high housing prices by living in the illegal underground dwellings. In an adjacent village that is currently being consumed by Beijing’s sprawl, I met the Zhong family from the impoverished southwestern province of Guizhou. They make a living moving from one job to another as needed. Their latest job is demolishing traditional village homes by hand to make way for soaring apartment blocks. The Zhongs live in one of the homes. It will be the last one they destroy.


Migrant workers wait on the floor of the Beijing West Railway Station. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A hawker holds up a sign advertising the “Home” guesthouse at the Beijing West Railway Station. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A girl prepares food in her basement dwelling. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Clothes dry on hangers in a basement dwelling. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A man carries water to his room in a basement dwelling. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Children play on a stairway. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

People and workers walk outside the cheap hotels and markets that surround the Beijing West Railway Station. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

An employee wearing a lobster hat works at an American themed seafood restaurant. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A member of the Zhong family demolishes a brick home in Baodi, China. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Members of the Zhong family stand in their kitchen in Baodi, China. The Zhongs migrated to the Beijing area from an impoverished area of Guizhou province after hearing that there was work available demolishing homes. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A bedroom in the Zhong’s home. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Rows of demolished homes await removal in Baodi, China. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Migrant workers arrive at the Beijing West Railway Station. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A high rise of apartments soars into the skyline in Beijing. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Flyers advertising housing in a “hutong,” which translates as lane but is used to refer to older neighborhoods, pepper a billboard in Beijing. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A man picks up empty plastic bottles in a housing development in Yanjiao, China. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

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