Migrant workers in China

How the mass eviction of migrant workers has left Beijing reeling

Although the pace of the demolition has slowed for now, many of the city’s poorer residents fear they will be frozen out in future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 11:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 11:04am

Zhang Jun was lucky. Evicted from his rented hut in the east of Beijing, the electrician from Anhui province managed to find a flat in the same village in Chaoyang district.

Like many others – tens of thousands of mostly poorer migrant workers – he was forced to move out after the electricity and water was cut off on December 1, in freezing temperatures, amid a 40-day safety blitz by Beijing to rid the city of “illegal structures”. The campaign was launched after 19 people were killed in a fire in the city’s Daxing district on November 18.

Zhang now has a new home in the same area, at an affordable rent of 1,000 yuan (US$150) a month.

But for Zhou Xiaoyun, who has sold steamed buns, fruit and vegetables in Daxing for the past 10 years, finding a new place for her family to live, and for her to work, has not been so easy – her husband is still looking. She said they had been evicted along with all of her neighbours in the village of Haizijiao.

“Our electricity has been cut off and we haven’t had any running water for a week,” Zhou, who has three young children, said. “I’m too upset to sleep or eat properly. I cry whenever I think about it. This is my home and for all I know it will soon be gone.”

The authorities moved swiftly after the blaze ripped through a three-storey block of flats packed with migrants last month. Many of the city’s neighbourhoods where migrant workers live have already been cleared as part of the safety crackdown. Xinjian, for example, another village in Daxing, was reduced to rubble within a week, and any illegal buildings deemed unsafe were cleared and sealed off.

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The migrant workers who used to live in them suddenly found themselves out on the street. Those who can still make a better living in Beijing than their hometowns have stayed, taking a risk that they will find somewhere else they can afford to rent. But those who cannot are having to leave the capital, even though it has been home for years in some cases.

Economists are expecting an exodus of migrant workers from Beijing in the coming months, and say the campaign will have a broader impact on the cost of living in the city.

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Zhang, the electrician, has worked in the capital for almost seven years. He decided to stay because his skills installing and repairing air conditioners are in demand. He was prepared to pay more rent for a smaller room – that 1,000 yuan gets him 8 square metres. He has a bunk bed, a table and access to a toilet on the ground floor via a narrow ladder, while his small collection of clothes hang outside in the corridor.

It is a bit more cramped for now because the friend who helped him move in, another migrant worker, has yet to find a new place of his own so he is staying with Zhang temporarily.

Rents have gone up since the evictions began, and that is making it even harder to find a place. Another migrant worker from Anhui, who declined to give her name, said many people from her neighbourhood were struggling to find somewhere affordable to rent.

“One building said they would only rent flats to white-collar workers or artists,” she said. “It can cost at least 5,000 yuan a month to rent somewhere in a ‘proper’ building now.”

Rent for the cheap places that have temporarily survived the crackdown has also doubled. “A room without heating can cost 800 yuan now,” she said.

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Property agents said they had seen a lot of people scrambling to find a place to rent.

“If there’s a place going, people will snap it up as if it’s the last one,” according to a property agent near the village of Huangcun in Daxing. “They’ll ask about available flats and immediately pay a deposit because they’re worried it will be taken by someone else. We’ve seen the price of a two-bedroom flat go up from 2,800 yuan to 3,300 yuan within a day.”

But for some, paying more rent is not an option and they will have no choice but to leave.

Zhou’s ramshackle home is still standing for now, but if her husband cannot find somewhere else for the family to live and where she can continue her small business, they will have to go back to farming in her hometown Heze, in Shandong province. That would be a bitter blow for the family. Zhou, tears in her eyes, said her children, who go to school in Beijing, had begged her to stay.

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The campaign has prompted an outpouring of sympathy for the migrant workers in Beijing, where many have been shocked by the sudden evictions and their scale.

More than 100 Chinese academics signed a letter urging the authorities to stop forcing migrant workers from their homes in the name of safety. The backlash has even extended to state-run media outlets, including Global Times and People’s Daily, both of which have carried critical reports.

A week after the clean-up campaign began, under mounting pressure, the Communist Party chief of Beijing Cai Qi said it would be less “hasty” and tenants would be given more time to prepare before they were evicted.

Demolition work in some areas appears to have slowed since then, but the authorities said buildings identified as unsafe and illegal would still be torn down, just not immediately.

The government also emphasised that the campaign was aimed at improving safety rather than forcing out low-end migrant workers.

It was responding to accusations that it is using the safety crackdown as a convenient way to reduce Beijing’s population – something it has been trying to do since 2014 by pushing out unwanted factories, schools and markets.

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That strategy appears to be working. The number of migrant workers staying in Beijing for longer than six months fell last year for the first time in two decades. There were 8.01 million such workers last year, a drop of 150,000 from 2015.

Beijing wants to cap its population at 23 million from 2020 – an increase of 6 per cent from last year’s 21.7 million – as it tries to turn the sprawling, overcrowded capital into a liveable, international city with cleaner air.

But in the short term at least, the campaign is expected to have a “massive, comprehensive and negative impact” on the city, according to Chen Zhiwu, director of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong.

“Migrants have made a great contribution to Beijing, and to the country. Without them, the city can’t function and people will see a sharp rise in their living costs,” Chen said.

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Beijing’s economy grew a robust 6.7 per cent last year to 2.5 trillion yuan, mainly thanks to the banks, insurers and hi-tech companies.

Although most of the more than eight million migrants living in the capital do not work in high-end sectors, they support the city’s economy by providing basic services.

Economist Hu Xingdou, with the Beijing Institute of Technology, said the ruthless campaign to drive out migrants and tear down their homes with little or no notice could backfire on the government.

“They’re building a fortress like we see in Pyongyang, North Korea, where the affluent people are cut off from the poor. But this sort of separation won’t do anything to address China’s problem of a growing disparity between the rich and the poor – it will develop into social unrest,” Hu said.

Sales assistant Xiao Chen has been evicted from her home and is about to lose her job in a cosmetics shop, but she had less invested in the city than some other migrants. She moved from nearby Hebei to try her luck in the capital, but now she is not sure what to do. Most of the shops on the street where she works in Fijia village, Daxing, have been identified as “illegal structures” and will be closed.

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“When the shop shuts I guess I’ll just see what happens. If I can’t find a new job quickly, I might go home,” she said. “I just wish I was a native Beijinger,” she added. “How nice it would be.”

After decades of contributing to the capital’s development, some migrant workers say they have been made to feel unwelcome and it is time to move on.

Liu Jianbin, from Jilin province, has worked in Beijing for years, including running a small shop and a printing business. Now, he is moving further south, to Langfang in Hebei.

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But life in Hebei might not be any easier. Authorities in Wanzhuang, in Langfang, have already warned landlords not to take tenants or businesses evicted from Beijing, according to a notice obtained by the South China Morning Post.

“I used to live south of the third ring road before 2008,” Liu said. “I’ve been moving further and further away from the city centre since then because we’re not wanted here any more.”