These heartbreaking photos show what it’s like being a migrant in China

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.

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