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.

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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