Beijing’s mass eviction programme is leaving workers out in the cold

A rare street protest against evictions from the Beijing Zoo wholesale market. Image: Getty.

As the sub-zero temperature of the Beijing winter closes in, tens of thousands of the city’s migrants are being suddenly and at times brutally evicted from their homes, with little if any options for alternative accommodation in the city.

Nearly 40 per cent of Beijing’s 21.7m population are migrants, most of them rural people working in construction and courier services. They were hauled in by the millions to ready Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, and many came afterwards seeking work; now they are being pushed out of the capital they helped create. These workers live in rundown migrant villages on the outskirts of Beijing, a stark contrast to the central urban sky rises or increasingly ‘beautified’ hutongs, the ancient alleyways of central Beijing, which themselves were subject to a summer remodelling programme, which evicted hundreds of people.

Lately, however, the shabbier outskirts have been under attack by the Beijing government. Following a fire in Daxing, a migrant village on Beijing’s southern fringe, that killed 19 people on 18 November, the government launched a mass demolition programme across the city of buildings deemed unsuitable for habitation. The cited reason was public safety. But many believe that the eviction programme is in fact part of the government’s ambition to cap the city’s population at 23m by 2020.

Si Ruomu, a 28-year-old programmer from Inner Mongolia moved to Beijing in the summer of 2017, was evicted twice in three weeks since the Daxing fire. The first time he got 48 hours’ notice; the second he got a more generous 72 hours, although the landlord turned off the water and electricity immediately. Both apartments were costing him 1000 yuan per month, but the second was much smaller and on the city’s fringes, closer to Hebei than central Beijing. Before the Daxing fire, such a property would have cost 500 yuan per month, but housing supply is rapidly diminishing.

Si’s second eviction notice cited “vague reasons” about fire safety, even though his block was a newly built, two storey building with smoke detectors, fire escapes and plenty of other safety features. “It’s not in the public benefit, which is supposed to be the government’s responsibility,” he told me on the day of his second eviction, as he mused on returning to his small home village where there is no demand for a man of his qualifications.


Si is unlike the typical victim of the current spate of evictions in that he is highly educated – he studied computer science in New Zealand – and works in a white-collar industry. He is just the kind of worker that many thought Beijing sought to attract, rather than the “low-end”, according to official documents, population of workers in menial but essential jobs.

Migrants in Beijing live in a constant state of insecurity, subject to the conflicting whims of central government planning – that wants to relocate workers into ‘new economic zones’ – and free market forces, that pull workers to the capital. Without the Beijing residence permit that entitles the holder to access to public services, migrants live literally and socially on the city’s fringes. Low-paid and with no insurance, there is no safety net for sudden urban remodelling programmes that leave them homeless.

In one group chat for residents who have just been served notice, people were discussing if they could get their deposits back from the landlord, who had suddenly become uncontactable. “A bunch of bastards, I don’t have any fucking money to live anywhere else,” said one irate evictee, who said he’d fallen into debt paying hospital fees this year.

“People are submissive and obedient, they will not protest,” reckons Si, even though “there is no incentive” to go anywhere other than Beijing. But flashes of resistance have burst through. Some people are putting the words “low end” in their names on WeChat – China’s main social media platform, which has close to 900m users – in solidarity with the affected migrants. Others have taken to the streets, such as a gathering of hundreds of people in Daxing, who chanted: “Forced evictions violate human rights”.

A couple scavenge from the wreckage of a demolished neighbourhood in the Daxing area of Beijing. Image: Getty.

The artist Hua Yong, who shared videos of the evictions, recently posted a video of himself singing happy birthday to his daughter, as police banged on the door to arrest him; Hua believed that he would be missing her forthcoming third birthday, but after significant media attention, Hua was released a few days later.

As well as the political upset, the evictions are causing logistical problems. Some 100m packages are delivered every day in China, but delivery companies have warned of delays as they lose couriers, and delivery prices are expected to rise by 20 per cent. Warehouses staffed mainly by migrant workers have shut down, leaving the remaining workers unemployed. One major delivery company, JD, has stepped in to provide workers with temporary accommodation and allowing staff to use JD vehicles to move their belongings – but most other companies employ workers on a gig basis and offer no such security. This particular campaign was a 40 day project designed to eliminate unsafe buildings, and with them thousands of low-paid workers.

Beijing starts 2018 a quieter city than 2017 and years previous, but jobs, opportunity and connections remain in Beijing. Sending rural people back to the countryside, especially the young, is a useless exercise for people who haven’t been raised with agricultural skills and whose hometowns are often ill-equipped to support them. Many will find their way back to the capital.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.