A million people thrive in China's secret underground city

Explore the hidden life of Beijing's "Rat Tribe" living beneath the streets in a 78 sq km underground city.

  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Beneath the bustling streets of Beijing lies a secret underground city. Spanning an area of 78 square kilometers, this hidden metropolis is home to the "rat tribe," a million people who cannot afford above-ground housing.

The capital city of Beijing, China, grapples with overcrowding, limited living spaces, and skyrocketing housing prices. As a result, nearly a million people have sought refuge in an underground city, unbeknownst to many. These individuals choose to reside in the cramped tunnels, remnants of a Cold War-era project (1969-1979) that enlisted over 300,000 workers.

Their hope is to save enough money to eventually get an apartment with natural light. CNN reported that despite the derogatory moniker "rat tribe" and the deplorable living conditions some endure, the underground city offers an array of amenities, including sports facilities, restaurants, hairdressers, cinemas, theaters, and other attractions that make it an intriguing destination for tourists.

Dubbed Dìxià Chéng, this underground city lies beneath Beijing's vibrant streets, roughly 10 to 18 meters deep. Housing a million low-income residents who cannot afford above-ground accommodations, the three-story tunnels were originally constructed as bomb shelters during the Cold War and connected all the central government buildings in the city. It is estimated that there are around 90 entrances to this city, many of which remain undiscovered by those unfamiliar with their locations.

Most of the current residents, totaling around a million, are migrant workers and aspiring young people seeking opportunities in China's capital city. While living spaces are small, crowded, and devoid of natural light, the rents are merely one-third of those found above ground.

Some residents have called this complex home for decades, while others temporarily relocate, staying until they have accumulated enough funds to secure a regular apartment in the bustling metropolis.

From a legal standpoint, nuclear shelters and residential areas are technically illegal due to a 2010 ruling by Beijing authorities. These officials cited safety hazards that negligent homeowners failed to address. However, despite the evacuation of some residents, the majority have been allowed to remain, facing an uncertain future.

What is the history of China's secret underground city?

The construction of these tunnels commenced in 1969 during a period of heightened tensions and fear of a large-scale conflict between China and the Soviet Union. Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party instructed citizens to dig tunnels, store food, and prepare for war.

Armed with shovels and bamboo baskets, people tirelessly dug by hand, sacrificing centuries-old walls, towers, and gates, including the historic city gates, to provide construction materials. Over the course of a decade, approximately 300,000 civilians undertook this extraordinary endeavor, resulting in the creation of an impressive city with 10,000 atomic bunkers, warehouses, factories, and essential amenities such as restaurants, theaters, and sports facilities — everything a city would need to withstand a nuclear war. The secret city continued expanding until 1979.

Reports indicate that the government estimated the complex could accommodate the entire population of Beijing, which stood at around six million at the time. While the tunnels were never utilized for their intended purpose, local communities later renovated them into budget-friendly hotels and other businesses.

During the 1980s, various sections were transferred to neighborhood authorities, who transformed the bunkers into offices and shops. However, the majority of Beijing's underground remains privately owned, with several entrances discreetly nestled within ordinary shops and apartment blocks above ground.