Why a Xi Jinping protégé came under fire in Beijing over mass eviction of migrant workers
The capital’s party secretary, Cai Qi, initially called for ‘tough’ response in wake of deadly blaze last month
Around a dozen uniformed police stood impassively, shoulder to shoulder, at dusk in Beijing, their faces half covered by masks in the wintry November mist.
It was an image that went viral in China because they were guarding piles of wreckage, all that was left of buildings that were once home to thousands of rural migrants in the Chinese capital.
The devastation was not caused by an earthquake or explosion but was the result of a hasty demolition operation that resulted in the forced eviction of many members of Beijing’s migrant worker population.
Along with the buildings, the demolition campaign also shook the foundations of the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy and dealt a blow to the image of Beijing party secretary Cai Qi, a protégé of President Xi Jinping with a reputation as a smooth social media operator, just six months into the job.
Videos of police kicking open the doors of flats and photographs of migrant workers sleeping on the streets after their flats were torn down also went viral, and overseas scholars accused the party, which prides itself as the protector of the proletariat, of practising social Darwinism.
On December 10, UN Human Rights Day, the bitterness turned into scattered protests across Beijing, with hundreds of people, mostly rural migrants, chanting slogans complaining about human rights violations.
The protests coincided with the first South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing, where the Chinese authorities sought to rally international support for their own human rights narrative and advance a “China solution” for global human rights governance.
Beijing wants to cap its population – 21.7 million in 2015 – at 23 million from 2020 as it tries to turn the sprawling, overcrowded capital into a liveable, international city with cleaner air.
It has been trying to reduce its “low-end ” sectors since 2014 by pushing out unwanted factories, schools and wholesale markets, but the evictions were accelerated following a fire in the south of the city that claimed 19 lives on November 18.
Cai became the focus of criticism after videos of a speech he made a day after the fire were leaked online. “I went to the scene today. Some should have been cleared long ago, but that’s difficult, so no one dared to do it,” he said. “When it comes to the ground operation, it should be cut-and-thrust and tough confrontation.”
The controversy broke out at a delicate time, with the slogans from October’s party congress – at which Xi renewed his pledge to serve in the interests of the people – still reverberating.
In a report on the evictions that was leaked online, a think tank associated with the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a scholar as saying “the party should hold Beijing authorities accountable” because they were “making a mess for the party”.
“It seems only political performance, not the people, matters,” the scholar said in a thinly-veiled criticism of Cai. “A new broom sweeps clean, but things backfire.”
Beijing is not the only mega city in China with plans to cap its population and Cai is not the only city or regional chief to have ordered the demolition of unapproved dwellings. But Professor Zhu Lijia, from the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the recent evictions in the capital had not matched Xi’s pledge to care for the people.
He said Zhu the public outcry had been the largest in the past five years over a single incident and it was a lesson Beijing and other cities needed to learn.
“The people now have a higher awareness of rights and dignity, and they can’t be treated with the same rough manner as in the past,” he said. “The civil servants who leaked this video obviously don’t agree with Cai’s views.”
Cai was defended by media directly under the control of Beijing’s party committee but eventually had to change his tune.
Nine days into the fire security crackdown, Cai cautioned against “oversimplified” and “hasty” evictions and said those facing eviction should be given more time. Three weeks into the operation, media showed him asking a street cleaner one morning “have you found a place to live yet?”
His softer tone reminded many of the public relations skills he exhibited during his time in Zhejiang, when he was a popular microblogger, with more than 10 million people following his social media account.
A Beijing-based communications professor who met Cai when he was director of Zhejiang’s organisation department between 2010 and 2013 said he “seemed to enjoy a lot talking to different people, and was a very likeable man. He felt like an uncle in the neighbourhood.”
But it’s a different task to manage the capital city, where other ministries and the military are also at play.
Since he was parachuted into Beijing last year, Cai has been confronted by a long list of tough priorities set by the leadership.
As part of a massive campaign to overhaul the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin area, Xi and other top leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of capping the capital’s population, battling smog and pushing the urban cluster up the value chain.
The professor said Cai should have a good understanding of how to deal with street vendors and migrant workers after scaling the party ladder in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, but he had now been “given an important job to handle tough business”.