Authorities in Beijing have started an extensive 40-day campaign to inspect and demolish cheap housing in the city’s outskirts and forcibly evict residents, mostly migrant workers communities. The crackdown comes after a recent fire killed 19 people in an apartment building in Daxing district, a blue-collar area of Beijing inhabited for the most part by migrant workers.
Eli Friedman, a professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University and author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China, studies Chinese urbanization, with a particular focus on access to education and other services migrants moving from rural to urban areas. Friedman says the evictions reveal the regime’s moral vacuum and cautions that if replicated in other cities, they could lead to a real humanitarian tragedy.
“The recent fire in Daxing and subsequent mass evictions are startling, even to a Chinese public relatively inured to the idea that migrants are second-class citizens in the city. The rapidity, scope, and brutality with which people have been removed from their homes, and left to their own devices, is economically short-sighted and reveals the moral vacuum at the core of the regime.
“Clearly the ‘China Dream’ is only for a certain segment of the population.
“But these efforts at removing so-called ‘low end’ people from Beijing as well as other wealthy megacities is not new. While city governments have been afraid of being overrun by the rural masses since at least the 1950s, there has been a renewed effort at population reduction in the largest cities since 2014.
“An urbanization plan for 2014-20 developed by the central government is explicit that ‘extra large’ cities, those with an urban population of over five million, are to ‘strictly control’ the scope of their population. Population control has taken many forms, including relocating labor-intensive industries, closing off access to social services, and demolishing schools for migrant children. ‘Slum redevelopment’ has been a priority for several years, as city governments have sought to get access to increasingly valuable land. In each of these cases, it is rural migrants who have borne the brunt of population control measures. Despite the fact that these workers have quite literally built these cities, and the urban economy continues to be dependent on their labor, they are also the first to be sacrificed. While this most recent round of expulsions and demolitions is shocking in its ferocity, it is just the most recent manifestation of a trend that has been developing for several years.
“One thing that is notable, and somewhat new, is that the government is framing this as a public safety concern. Certainly migrant worker housing is in general substandard and rife with health and safety concerns. However, upgrading the quality of housing by no means necessitates the evictions and dispossession that have marked this campaign. The government is transparently interested in population reduction and securing valuable tracts of land—the public safety explanation is untenable, when thousands of people have been rendered homeless in the cold of late November.
“Something to watch moving forward is the extent to which this method appears in other cities around the country. Just in the last couple of days, we have seen reports from Shenzhen and Guangzhou of similar campaigns. This could turn out to be a real humanitarian tragedy, as expelled migrants will have no choice but to return to the poverty of the countryside.”