Tens of thousands of migrants have been forced out of the Chinese capital, amid a drive targeting Beijing’s “low-end” population — a loaded government term for migrant workers — and the evictions still rage on.
After a fire broke out in Beijing’s southern Daxing district on November 18, authorities are evicting many migrants that live throughout the sprawling city during a sweeping 40-day campaign.
According to a state-backed newspaper, the “low-end” population is migrant workers in wholesale markets or low- and mid-level industry who are “inappropriately placed” in megacities like Beijing.
These migrant workers lack an official Chinese urban household registration, a system that has long plagued migrant workers residing in the country’s cities.
Obtaining registration is highly competitive and mostly available to those who are well off and well educated.
Registration is essentially an urban passport that allows a resident to engage in education, health care, purchasing property, and even driving.
“The main reason that officials are driving out migrants is that they want to control issues of sprawl and limit the size of Beijing,” said Timothy Heath, Senior International Defense Research Analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“They also want to make Beijing more of a wealthier, prosperous city so they are purposely targeting low-income migrants whom they have characterized as undesirable or ‘low end.'”
In the Daxing district, where authorities first purged the migrants, the government is now building the world’s largest international airport—it is slated to open sometime in 2019.
Although the purge began in the Daxing district, migrants all through the capital have been made to clear out since November.
A map provided to the BBC Chinese documenting evictions shows that they have happened in dozens of places throughout Beijing’s downtown districts.
“This policy risks exacerbating China’s problem of inequality and making Beijing a ‘gated community’ of well to do urbanites who are cut off from their less prosperous countrymen,” Heath said.
Forcefully evicting the city’s migrants has elicited widespread and poignant criticism from those within Beijing—which can be unusual in China, because of the severe legal ramifications of speaking out against the government.
Beijing-based artist Hua Yong said he was on the run from Chinese authorities after posting videos of the clearing of buildings where migrants lived, and claiming that about 100,000 have been affected by the government campaign.
“Popular sentiment on the Internet seems to be incredibly anti-government, and public intellectuals rallied to the cause of the migrant workers in a way that hasn’t been seen in years,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.
“This could be seen as a significant incident that damages the government’s legitimacy as actually existing to ‘serve the people.'”
According to the Guardian, more than 100 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter slamming the campaign to drive out migrants.
The letter criticizes the authorities for the lack of the rule of the law in the eviction campaign, and also its speed.
Earlier this month, hundreds organized and demonstrated in northeast Beijing’s Feijia Village against the violation of human rights.
Large-scale protests in Beijing are also very rare because of the potential harm it can bring to those who protest, including detention and being disappeared.
Smaller protests and confrontations have broken out, but the protest in Feijia Village has been the largest and most organized.
According to a recent report from Reuters, some of those who were evicted have still not left their homes in Beijing — and now face a harsh northern winter without power and heat.
“Poor migrants have few choices,” said Maya Wang, Senior Researcher, Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
“They may continue to try to find ways to live in cities, making use of grey legal areas or just lack of enforcement, or they may conclude that they’d be better off staying in the rural areas for now.”
In the spring this year, the government started aggressively bricking up the city’s hutongs — its characteristic alleyways where migrants had often operated ground-level restaurants and stores.
While the government called it a beautification project, the campaign to brick up the hutongs was widely criticized for being a veiled crackdown on migrants, pushing out their businesses to make way for government and finance.
China has for a long time tried to limit Beijing’s population through the urban registration system, which was widely institutionalized under Mao Zedong in the 1950s.
In 2014, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced he would move all of Beijing’s noncapital functions—such as bureaucracy, factories, and hospitals — to the large surrounding province of Hebei.
Beijing will eventually form with Hebei and the major port city of Tianjin into a massive economic region called Jing-Jin-Ji, with the Chinese capital at the center—a move meant to massively accelerate the area’s growth.
Xi’s dream, then, is to eventually turn Beijing into an ultra-futuristic capital unmarred by crowds and congestion.
“If Beijing officials are kicking out migrants with, in some cases, just minutes notice, then it would be hard to imagine that other cities would feel pressured to act more humanely,” said Amnesty’s Nee.
“However, the long term ramifications of this mass campaign of evictions remain to be seen.”
The Beijing city government is trying to reduce its downtown population by 15 per cent from its 2014 figure by 2020.
This is the first time Beijing has ever revealed a hard number to the public for decreasing the population — it was announced last year to alleviate the capital’s “three major pains” of crowds, pollution, and high property prices.
The fire last month in Daxing killed 19 people, 17 of whom were migrants.