Despite piles of garbage and swarms of flies outdoors, and despite the darkness, dampness and shabbiness in the foul-aired room, 60-year-old trash collector Yao Guozhong is not discontent with living in his rented house in Beijing.
"I can earn 500 yuan (62 US dollars) a month by collecting and selling garbage," said Yao, who gave up his barren cropland in east China's Anhui Province and came here in April this year with his wife.
"After paying 150 yuan (18 US dollars) for the monthly rent for the house, my wife and I still have enough money to eat our fill," he said. "It is better living here than living in my home village in Anhui."
Yao's house is situated in Xiju Village in the southwestern part of Beijing, a typical poverty corner in the capital, known as "villages inside cities" in China but labeled "slums" by some sociologists.
Whatever they should be branded, such "villages" are nowadays commonly seen in Chinese cities, even Beijing, the center of politics, economy and culture of China.
According to the Beijing Municipal Committee of City Planning and Management, Beijing now has 346 "villages inside cities," with "villagers" exceeding 1.5 million, including 990,000 from outside Beijing.
The non-native "villagers" come mostly from rural areas, especially poor areas, in almost all parts of the country. They are called "migrant farmer workers" in China and mainly engaged in construction, retailing and wholesaling, and catering in Beijing. The "villagers" also include many scavengers, like Yao.
The committee classifies the "villages inside cities" into two types. In the first sense, they are actually not true villages, as those in the countryside, but refer to the dirty and disordered corners in the cities. Though located in cities, these corners are not developed and urbanized as other parts of the cities.
In the second sense, the "villages inside cities" are indeed villages that are located at the juncture of urban and rural areas, like the one in which Yao lives. Such villages are being turned into a part of the city in the course of urbanization.
Not all Chinese sociologists agree that China now has "slums", as those commonly seen in metropolises in some developed or underdeveloped countries. However, these Chinese neighborhoods have many of the characteristics of slums, and have aroused the public's attention due to a report recently issued by the Beijing Municipal Academy of Social Sciences on poor corners in the eight districts of Beijing.
The report pointed out that the residential area of Dashilan in downtown Beijing has become a typical "slum," citing that most of its residents have a daily expenditure of no more than eight yuan (1 US dollar).
The emergence of the "villages inside cities" and related issues are stinging the growth of Chinese cities and hampering the nation's endeavors to build a "harmonious society," as proposed by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and the central government.
"The 'villages inside cities' are always the areas where city planners have a relatively weaker management," said Li Weidong of the Beijing Municipal Academy of Social Sciences.
He listed a few major problems in these areas, such as the dense, shaky and sometimes illegally-built houses, the filthy and and messy environment, the lack of sanitary facilities, the hidden troubles for possible fires and other issues concerning social security.
"The bad living conditions not only harm the physical and mental health of the residents, but also can easily trigger social conflicts," he said. "That goes against the building of a harmonious society."
"Harmonious society" is now a popular catchword in China, which implies democracy, the rule of law, equity, justice, sincerity, amity and vitality.
Such a society should give full scope to people's talent and creativity, enable all the people to share the social wealth brought by reform and development, and help forge an ever closer relationship between the people and government, Hu Jintao, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and also Chinese President, has said.
Analysts said "slums" are a common social phenomenon in the course of urbanization across the world. However, to inexperienced Chinese city administrators, the appearance of "slums" is a severe challenge.
Rural people in China began to flow into cities in the late 1970s, when China initiated the policy of reform and opening-up under the leadership of the late Deng Xiaoping. Nowadays, more and more rural migrants hope to settle down in the cities as a result of the fast urbanization of China in recent years. The current urbanization rate is approximately 40 percent.
At present, China has about 40 million farmers who have lost their cropland, statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security show, and the number is rising by two million each year.
The Beijing municipal government has decided to completely demolish the "villages inside cities."
According to the Municipal Committee of City Planning and Management, Beijing will demolish 171 such villages by 2008 to greet the 29th summer Olympic Games. By 2010, 232 will be cleared.
For this year, Beijing has allocated approximately three billion yuan (370 million US dollars) to sweep 69 such villages away. The committee declined to disclose its detailed plan for the relocation of the non-native "villagers" after their houses are pulled down.
However, some sociologists and specialists on management are not in favor of such practice. They argued that it is just because of the existence of the "villages inside cities" that China has not seen such "slums" as those in some foreign countries, in which residents build their homes with sheet iron and paper boxes. Once those villages are demolished, where can the "villagers" go?
Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of social studies with the Beijing-based People's University of China, said that the "villages inside cities" should not be simply wiped out from the maps.
City planners should not only "urbanize the land" but also "urbanize the people," and turn the "villagers" into true "citizens," he said.
Ding Xuedong, director of the Agriculture Department with China's Finance Ministry, has called for the building of special communities for people who have low-incomes.
"There are luxury villas, first-class residential apartments as well as affordable houses in the cities, but never has a special community for migrant farmer workers or other low-income people been built," he said.
In such a community, residents can enjoy not only a house to live in, but also the service of inexpensive supermarkets, schools and hospitals, he said.
"That may be a solution to the issue of the 'villages inside cities'," he added.