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.