IT was a hot summer afternoon in a Peking park, and thousands of people were milling about at the city's fifth annual house-swapping fair. While waiting for the right match to come along, several dozen people threw themselves into a debate.
``In Peking we have only 3.5 square meters of housing per person,'' one man asserted.
``No,'' a younger man argued, ``it's more like 2.5 square meters per person.''
Other estimates were tossed out and refuted. No one was sure of the correct statistic -- 6.18 square meters (67 square feet), a recent survey said -- but everyone was convinced that, whatever the amount, it was too little.
``I hear that in West Germany it's 60 square meters per person,'' a bystander called out, a figure that seemed incredible to everyone.
Since 1979, more residential space has been built in China than in all the first 30 years of the People's Republic. But despite the rows of new high-rise apartment buildings in Peking and other cities, lack of space remains a serious social problem. The 20 percent of China's 1.05 billion people who live in urban areas share some of the most crowded living conditions in the world.
For city-dwellers, living space is assigned by a work unit or public housing office. Assignments are a key indicator of a person's seniority or of connections within the bureaucracy. Many people wait for years for adequate housing, postponing important decisions in their lives until their living situation makes it possible to marry, care for parents, or change jobs.
Even for those with assigned housing deemed adequate by Chinese standards, many people find they are too far from work or too tightly closeted with family members. In new apartments, a family of four or five typically shares two rooms. One room is both living and dining room by day and bedroom by night. One family having a small kitchen and private toilet is common, but families often have to share toilets with others in the building and almost always share bathrooms.
For those dissatisfied with their assignments, a swap is possible through a city housing office or at outdoor fairs such as the one held annually in Peking.
Thus it was that on one afternoon, Li Jie, an elevator repairman, found himself squatting under a tree inside the Workers' Cultural Palace with sheets of old newspaper spread before him. On them, he had described his situation in broad, black brushstrokes.
The notice said that Mr. Li had three rooms that he shares with his wife, parents, and two younger brothers. The total space is 34 square meters, and rent is 7 yuan ($2.20) per month. His apartment in west Peking is 1 hours from his job.
``I live too far from work,'' he explained sullenly.
At first, his case looked simple. Li and his extended family of five had agreed to accept a slightly smaller space if he could cut his commuting time. Trading down is easier than trading up.
But it turned out that Li was trying to solve two of the most common housing problems at once. He added that he and his wife also wanted to live separately from the rest of his family. This would require a difficult three-party agreement that could take months if not years to arrange. Such a swap requires great reserves of patience and seemingly endless inquiries.
``Rent is no consideration,'' an interested bystander said. ``Everything is very cheap.'' Li's rent was high by Chinese standards but was still less than 8 percent of the average monthly income for an urban worker.
With no classified advertising in Chinese newspapers, house-swapping is a makeshift business. Peking's 10 house-swapping offices take hundreds of cases like Li's every week, but many people rely on their own networks of friends and workmates to find the right match.
``About one-third of those who want to swap are living too far from work,'' said Ma Naixue, head of the Chaoyang District House-Swapping Office. According to Mr. Ma, the ideal commute for Peking residents is a 10- to 20-minute bicycle ride. Anything over 40 minutes by bicycle or more than an hour by bus is too long for most people, he said.
Other common reasons for swapping are that two or three generations are sharing one apartment and want to separate or that there are quarrels with neighbors. For most city-dwellers who still live in old-style courtyard houses, sharing a water tap and cooking and bathroom facilities among five or more families can be a strain.
Ma said his office had managed successful swaps at the rate of a little more than one a day since it opened six years ago. The charge for the service is now 1.50 yuan (about 50 cents) a room.
``No one complains about the cost. Some even say they'd pay 100 yuan [about $31] to invite all the officials in the housing office to a banquet if we are successful in making a swap!'' he said jovially.
In the past two years, some 280,000 residents in 33 Chinese cities have found houses closer to their work under government house-swapping programs. Citywide house-swapping fairs are now annual events in many places, while local governments have tried to put a stop to individuals posting their own notices on neighborhood bulletin boards and utility poles.