In the wake of a deadly fire that killed 19 people, nearly half of them children, authorities in Beijing have launched a sweeping campaign in the name of safety that has seen tens of thousands of migrant workers evicted from their residences.
The purge is still going on and is taking place in scores of villages across the city, many of them far away from the location where the fire occurred. In some cases, entire blocks have been razed. In other communities, ground floor shops and restaurants have been forced to close – robbing residents of nearby places to eat and neighborhood conveniences.
Untold loss, uncertainty
In the wake of the fire, Beijing Communist Party Secretary Cai Qi launched a 40-day effort to rid the city of safety hazards. But what it feels like for many is an all-out assault on migrant workers – the people that help keep this city running - and a blunt intensified push to keep the population in check.
In recent days, many have been frantically searching for new places to live. If not, they wait anxiously at night for a knock on the door and possible orders to vacate.
Some places such as Xinjian Village – which is near where the fire occurred – look like a war zone.
Many of the buildings in Xinjian Village have been torn down, and if they are not, they’ve been made uninhabitable, with windows smashed in and walls partially demolished.
Sifting through the remains at a restaurant in Daxing where he used to work, an elderly man surnamed Sun was prying a large metal backsplash from the wall.
Shards of glass were strewn across the floor among abandoned tables and chairs. Very little remained of what now is a shell of the former eatery. The owner of the store, who like him is from China’s central province of Hubei, had little choice but to go home.
“They’ve gone to work in the fields and to see if there is any other work to do elsewhere,” he said.
As the campaign kicked into gear, many have been forced to vacate their places of business or residences at a moment’s notice. In some cases migrant workers were given just hours to gather their belongings and leave.
For some, picking up and going home is not only leaving jobs behind. Sun said the owner of the restaurant like others has lost money they’ve invested.
“There is another shop over there that just opened up a year ago,” Sun said. “The owner invested 240,000 (around $36,000) and now it has been torn down. Who knows if they will receive any compensation.”
No heat, no power
Across the city in another village, Xianning Hou, all ground level shops have been shuttered. Local security guards were out patrolling the streets and several men were seen loading a truck with soda refrigerators and other equipment.
In one shop, along Xianing Hou’s main street, the owners of a restaurant huddled inside their now closed shop. They said that earlier, dozens of security guards had been to their shop to remove gas tanks and make it impossible for their business to continue. If they resisted they were told they would be arrested. They plan to leave Beijing and go back to the northeastern area of Heilongjiang.
“There is no place to eat, you can’t cook any food and the heat has been turned off where we live,” one man said. “You can’t use coal for fuel or gas or electricity, there is no way to cook food.”
And it is not just villages, residences and restaurants that are being targeted, but business complexes as well. And in some cases, landlords or local officials appear to be using the campaign as an excuse to clear residents out. In some cases it appears their only aim is to raise rents or tear complexes down and have them rebuilt.
A key source of revenue for local government’s in China is land transactions.
At one such complex on the east side of the city, more than a dozen shops were recently enclosed by a tall shiny metal fence. Some of the shops appear to have been empty for some time, but employees at other shops, an auto shop and express service, remain busy.
Business owners have no idea, how much longer they will be able to continue there or why the row of shops may soon be torn down.
“It feels like we're in prison,” said one man.
An express delivery worker said that while his company has been helpful, offering to provide moving assistance and a living allowance subsidy, the past few days have been hectic.
“My landlord is kicking me out and I don’t know where I am going to live,” he said. “After I finish this delivery, I am going to go look for an apartment again.”
Nearby in Shuangshu South Village, more than a dozen evicted residents waited outside the management offices of a newly built apartment complex waiting for the return of their rental deposits.
Around the corner, a moving truck was slowly being loaded as others moved out. One man surnamed Zhang said he has spent several thousand Chinese yuan on fuel just driving around trying to find a new place to live.
In the end, he found a farm house outside the city to live in for about $220 a month.
“I am not talking about a place where rich people live. Just a place that has a shower, is warm and where I can cook food and eat. That’s enough,” he said.
At the apartment complex there was no sign that the building was going to be torn down or in violation of safety codes. Still, residents there too were caught up in the campaign.
The way authorities are forcing residents to pack up and leave at moment’s notice has sparked a backlash online and from liberal academics. Even state media has chimed in.
Hu Xingdou, an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said while he disagrees with authorities’ methods, from their point of view, the purge of residents is necessary because the migrant population is seen as a source of social unrest in big cities.
“Beijing plans to shake off some of its low-end industries, which [authorities believe] is more suitable for its position as the country’s capital city,” Hu said. “Beijing isn’t an economic center, it’s a capital city, and its population and traffic conditions must be kept under control.”
But for those caught up in the campaign, what is happening is not fair and too personal, with some arguing the city government is targeting its “low-end population,” a phrase state media has previously used to describe migrant workers.
“How do you define a low-end population? We are all Chinese [citizens], what is low-end or high-end? It isn’t something that you can define by the amount of money a person makes,” said one recently evicted young migrant worker as he waited for the return of his rent deposit.
The campaign comes just a little more than a month after China’s President Xi Jinping, at a high-level political meeting, pledged to build a fairer country. He also promised to make the Communist Party more responsive and sensitive to the public’s demands.
Authorities have denied calling migrant laborers “low-end” and the four-character phrase has been blocked from social media. But for many, the message of the clean-up campaign is clear – go home.
(Joyce Huang, Allen AI and Brian Kopczynski also contributed to this report.)