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The Rat People

A Journey through Beijing's Forbidden Underground

by (author) Patrick Saint-Paul

translated by David Homel

Arsenal Pulp Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2020
Social History, China, Social Classes, Poverty & Homelessness
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2020
    List Price

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A shocking exploration of Beijing's notorious underground where over 1 million residents live: a sobering reminder of the human cost of capitalism.

In a relatively short amount of time, China has become the second largest economy in the world and is soon poised to overtake the US. In 1978, when China introduced its economic reforms, its GDP was $214 billion USD; in 2019, it is estimated to increase to $14 trillion USD. But the country's rapid growth was achieved on the backs and shoulders of its workforce, many of whom were peasant farmers turned into the mingong, urban migrant workers, celebrated by Mao and credited with helping China achieve its economic miracle. Now, a million of them and their descendants live underground in Beijing amid inhuman conditions, where there is no light or water and little sanitation.

Author Patrick Saint-Paul spent two years living among the "rat people" (shuzu) of Beijing, in a network of deep tunnels and 20,000 former bomb shelters built during the Cold War. The mingong come to Beijing from all parts of the country, in search of jobs and a better life, but they are unable to afford their own homes on their meager salaries. For them, China's dream of prosperity for all is a bitter fallacy.

In The Rat People, Saint-Paul brings the individual stories of the shuzu to life, creating a shocking cautionary tale about the lengths to which people will go in search of a better life, and the human cost paid in service to the modern economy.

About the authors

Patrick Saint-Paul has been a correspondent in China for the French newspaper Le Figaro since 2013. Over his career he has also covered assignments in Sierra Leone (which won him the Jean Marin Prize for War Correspondents in 2000), Liberia, Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Germany, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Rat People is his first book.

Patrick Saint-Paul's profile page

David Homel was born in Chicago in 1952 and left that city in 1970 for Paris, living in Europe the next few years on odd jobs and odder couches. He has published eight novels, from Electrical Storms in 1988 to The Teardown, which won the Paragraph Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2019. He has also written young adult fiction with Marie-Louise Gay, directed documentary films, worked in TV production, been a literary translator, journalist, and creative writing teacher. He has translated four books for Linda Leith Publishing: Bitter Roase (2015), (2016), Nan Goldin: The Warrior Medusa (2017) and Taximan (2018). Lunging into the Underbrush is his first book of non-fiction. He lives in Montreal.

David Homel's profile page

Editorial Reviews

Dogged, passionate investigative journalism, fueled by outrage and empathy for the millions who dwell beneath the streets of Beijing, The Rat People literally casts light onto a vast dark space in twenty-first century urban Chinese experience. Patrick Saint-Paul gives voice to those otherwise silenced, and dignity to distressed lives. -Charles Foran, author of Sketches in Winter: A Beijing Postscript

An astonishing expose of China's literal underbelly. Who knew Beijing's glittering towers lie above an Orwellian Airbnb, tomb-like catacombs home to millions of migrant workers and despairing university graduates? Even as China becomes the world's largest economy, popular unrest looms. Investigative journalism in the tradition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. -Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues

Other titles by David Homel