Migrant workers in China

Evictions waken Beijing middle class to plight of migrant workers

More affluent and educated residents of the capital shocked by the forced eviction of poorer workers from their homes in crackdown on illegal building work

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 7:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 10:44pm

Becky Zhang, an information technology programme manager, shares one trait with many of her fellow residents on the outskirts of Beijing –previously she rarely paid much attention to the plight of migrant workers who crammed into ramshackle or substandard homes in her district.

But the sudden eviction of thousands of the area’s poorest residents from “illegal structures” in the wake of a deadly fire in the capital earlier this month has opened her eyes.

“Where will they go?” Zhang said. “If they return home, can they find a job or be able to support their family? Must they be evicted in such a rigid, uniform way?”

Beijing’s authorities have moved to evict thousands of people, mainly poorer migrant workers, in the safety crackdown after a fire killed 19 people.

Some were forced out of their rented accommodation amid freezing temperatures with only a few days’ notice – sometimes even within hours.

The migrant workers’ plight has struck a nerve among the area’s residents, particularly among the middle class and educated.

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Zhang admitted she has a vested interest in the migrant workers remaining in the city. She enjoyed buying fresh produce from the small fruit stands the workers operated locally.

“The inconvenience in [my] life accounts for only a small part of my feelings,” she said. “I don’t care for the way migrant workers are being treated – that they had to be evicted from their home within hours in such cold weather.”

Photographs and reports of the forced evictions have shocked social media users as the authorities’ crackdown quickly spread from the Daxing district to other corners of the capital.

In a rare show of unity, those who live in relative comfort in the area expressed their fury online about the iron-fisted way the eviction campaign has been carried out.

Beijing Communist Party chief, Cai Qi, has finally spoke publicly about the issue, saying those to be evicted should be given time to move out, the Beijing Daily reported on Monday.

Zhang said she understood why it was necessary to remove unsafe structures after the fire, but it would have been better to improve the safety of migrant workers’ homes rather than kicking them out.

“They have made their contributions to the development of the city,” said Zhang, who was born and raised in Beijing. “As much as I understand the government is doing this to improve safety, I think the right way is to improve their housing rather than forcing them out.”

Feng Guofei, a 25-year-old magazine editor, said the government’s campaign would have been better received if it had been carried out over a reasonable period of time to give residents time to prepare to move on. “It take times to eliminate safety risk, but it also takes time for the migrant workers to prepare for moving out,” said Feng.

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Li Wei, a government worker, also joined the chorus of disapproval over the eviction campaign.

It was right to move people out of unsafe houses crammed with tenants or with faulty electric wiring, but wrong to force them out without giving them a proper opportunity to organise their departure, she said.

“Or even better, why not build safe flats for those migrant workers to rent?” Li said. “There are different kinds of houses for Beijing residents of lower income.”

However, Jessica Zhang, a 35-year-old office worker, backed the clean-up campaign.

“It should have happened a long time ago” because illegal structures such as outdoor food stalls made the streets narrow and dirty, she said.

She added that the government was at fault for allowing illegal construction to get out of hand. “Where were they when illegal construction started?” she said. “This whole eviction could have been avoided.”

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Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the normally hawkish state-run tabloid the Global Times, has voiced concerns that the evictions will hurt the economy while causing the public to worry about how the people forced out will make a living.

“These are real concerns among the public,” Hu wrote on social media. “I hope the relevant authority will clear up doubts and stabilise morale.”

Sima Nan, a leftist scholar and social commentator appealed on social media for leaders to “feel the sentiments of the people and understand the hardship of people’s livelihood”.

More than 100 Chinese intellectuals have also signed a letter urging the Beijing municipal authorities to stop forcing migrant workers from their homes in the name of safety.