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Residents who survived the fatal fire in Daxing carry their belongings out of the ruins. Photo: AFP

Chinese intellectuals urge Beijing authorities to stop ‘forcing’ tens of thousands of migrant workers out of city in wake of deadly fire

Petition protests against ‘ruthless human rights violations’ after safety drive sees some of the capital’s poorest residents forced out of illegally built homes

More than a hundred Chinese intellectuals have signed a letter urging the Beijing municipal authority to stop dislodging tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of migrant workers from their homes in the name of safety after a fire at a block of flats that killed 19 people this month.

The government has denied it is targeting specific elements of the population after the city authorities started a 40-day campaign last week to drive people from temporary buildings.

These structures are not fully licensed but have been serving as shelters for poor domestic migrant workers for years or even decades.

Small shops and restaurants on edge of the city have been shut down, tenants were kicked out with just a few days’ or even a few hours’ notice, and workshops were told to pack up and leave – forcing many domestic migrants to leave the capital.

The Beijing municipal authority’s campaign is “ruthless” and “a serious violation of human rights”, according to the letter addressed to the Chinese leadership, which was signed by the 112 scholars, lawyers and artists. The letter, dated Friday, then circulated online.

The list of signatures was still growing, one of the petitioners said on the weekend.

A row of closed shops in Daxing, the village where the fire broke out. Photo: SCMP/ Simon Song

“Beijing has been able to develop into what it is today not solely as a result of the hard work of Beijing citizens, but also because of the sacrifice and contribution of people from other parts of the country,” the statement said.

“Therefore Beijing has an obligation to be grateful towards all Chinese citizens, instead of being forgetful and repaying the country people with arrogance, discrimination and humiliation – especially the bottom income group.”

The message said the evictions were “discrimination against our own people … It cannot continue”.

The petition demanded that the Beijing government stop its hardline approach, and help those who suffered losses in the fire and during the evictions.

Among those who signed the petition was Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan, who said he had noticed it was still circulating on WeChat on Saturday afternoon – which surprised him given how heavily the platform is censored.

It was not immediately clear whether the authorities had acted since then.

“This is a big concern because it is related to the stability of Beijing society, if they [the government] try to push [development of the city] in a rush, social problems will emerge,” Zhang said.

Another signatory said he believed the Beijing government had a responsibility to deal with migrant workers.

“I think these people are unrepresented, someone should speak up for them, therefore I signed it,” he said.

Migrant workers carry their possessions after being forced to leave their flats in Beijing’s Tongzhou district. Photo: Reuters

The fire in Daxing, an outer district south of the city centre, broke out in a two-storey building cramped with migrant workers attracted by its cheap rents. It killed 19 people, including eight children.

The Beijing government responded to the deadly incident by cracking down on online reports of the fire.

It also started a citywide safety check, which saw buildings identified as illegal being knocked down, leaving low-income migrants immediately homeless.

The fire came amid a beautification campaign in the capital, with officials demanding the closure of unsightly stalls and businesses.

The authorities plan to cap Beijing’s total population at 23 million by 2020, with the number of residents in downtown areas to be cut by 15 per cent.

The intellectuals who signed the petition said the city’s success depended on the efforts of migrants, such as construction workers. Photo: Reuters

The Beijing municipal authority denied that the campaign was intended to force poor migrant workers out of the city.

The Beijing Administration of Work Safety said in a statement on Sunday morning that the efforts were intended to avoid “tragedies” like the fire last Saturday.

“The allegations that the campaign is targeting the ‘low-end population’ are irresponsible and groundless,” according to the administration’s statement.

The government was targeting “illegal buildings and operations” as well as “illegal behaviour” that put migrant workers in danger, it added.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Intellectuals stand up for MIGRANTS