A year after deadly Daxing fire, no let-up in campaign to marginalise migrant workers

  • ‘Migrant workers are not being integrated, they’re just being ignored’
  • Mishandling of population pressures tied to China’s rush to urbanise
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 8:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 11:27pm

Wang Jie is an anomaly. A year ago, 19 people were killed when a building in Beijing’s Daxing district that had been converted into tiny flats caught fire. The incident triggered a massive razing of illegal structures across the city. As large swathes of Xinjian village turned to rubble, tens of thousands of migrants in impoverished communities were forced from their homes.

Wang, who runs a small noodle shop, is one of the few members of the local business community who have managed to resume operations in Xinjian after the clearing-out endeavour shut down nearly all enterprises in the village.

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“There aren’t so many people left here any more,” Wang, whose store is just a few hundred metres from the site of the fire, said in an interview. “They’ve all gone home. Business is bad.”

The impact of the deadly inferno that engulfed the Gathering Fortune Apartments – a two storey building honeycombed with tiny units – on November 18, 2017, is visible on the walls that seal off a square kilometre of rubble from the rest of the village.

Billboards advertise a new “shantytown redevelopment project” – referring to a plan to tear down the old neighbourhood and replace it with new residential, business and public areas.

The advert offers an appealing bird’s eye image of several city blocks of green space dotted with new high rise flats and criss-crossed with walking paths.

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But the mass clearing of Beijing’s “low-end population” – an oft-used official euphemism for the working class migrants who take the delivery, sales, food services and other low paying jobs that are an essential part of China’s urban economy – has once again raised questions about China’s policy on migrants – and on urbanisation in general.

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Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at the Hong Kong-based labour rights organisation China Labour Bulletin, said despite the loss of life from the Xinjian fire, Beijing has done little to integrate migrant worker populations into the city.

“They’re not being integrated,” Crothall said. “They’re just being ignored.”

“There has to be a fundamental policy shift, and an acceptance of the fact that low-paid workers, migrant workers, are an essential part of the city, and deserve to be allocated housing that is both safe and affordable,” Crowthall said.

“It doesn’t need a lot of investment by the city government. It just needs the political will to take on the big developers and make sure that the land needed for low-cost housing is made available.”

In June, Beijing city officials said the fire was caused by a short circuit in the cold storage equipment of a small business operating in the basement of the Gathering Fortune Apartments. The short ignited insulation material, spreading deadly toxic smoke and flames through the building, an investigation revealed.

Amid accusations of property mismanagement and ignorance of safety risk, four companies tied to the flats ultimately were fined a total of 9.6 million yuan (US $1.4 million), while more than 20 officials were punished, 15 of them with arrest.

A year after the tragedy, the blaze has meant change for the local people who escaped the post-fire demolitions.

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Wang and her family had operated their shop in Xinjian for five years. They were forced to close down and return to their hometown in Hebei province while buildings were torn down in what authorities called a move to ensure the occupants’ safety.

When they reopened the shop two months later, they left behind their six-year-old son who needed to attend school at home. As the boy does not have a Beijing hukou – a formal residence permit – he is not allowed to go to school in the capital.

“I remember the day of the fire, many people ran over to go look,” Wang’s father, who owns the shop, recalled. “I didn’t go. I had to work, but it was pretty scary.”

The fire has become a symbol of what critics call the city’s mishandling of population pressures tied to China’s rush to urbanise.

The central government had preached that urbanisation would be a long-term engine for growth as hundreds of millions of people in rural areas moved to cities to take up jobs in the nation’s burgeoning economy.

But amid Beijing’s growth, some critics have claimed authorities have used the Daxing blaze as an excuse to drive migrants out to ease the related pressures.

So far this year, the Beijing government has announced over 130 sq km (50 square miles) of “shantytown redevelopment” plans. Thirty of these projects stretch across 15 sq km of Daxing alone.

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It is questionable that the migrants are the intended target market for these new developments. Wang said she doubted that getting into one would be within her means.

“We will never be able to afford those flats they’re building,” she said. “They’ll be 20,000-30,000 yuan per square metre. They’ll all be bought by outsiders [people from outside Beijing]”.

The migrant workers typically share tiny rooms to save money because of Beijing’s high rental rates, reflecting the challenges posed by the rising cost of living far outpacing wage growth.

Those who died in the Daxing fire were living three to four to a room no larger than 10 square metres (108 square feet), according to media reports. A room for one or two people could cost as little as 200-300 yuan per month, according to reports.

Rental rates in the capital are up by 25 per cent this year compared to a year earlier, according to renting app Zhuge.com. And despite Beijing’s having the nation’s highest average salary of 8,467 yuan per month in 2017, average wage growth was just under 10 per cent.

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Wages for migrant workers like those who died in the fire, or were cleared from the low-cost outskirts of the city, are far lower than average. Thus, they seek out cheaper, and invariably far less safe, housing options.

Government statistics show the average monthly salary for a migrant worker in Beijing was 3,230 yuan in 2017, up 7.7 per cent from the year before.

The situation may change if pressure from the general population of Beijing became great enough to force the government to act, Crothall said.

“Now that white collar workers, and even middle class families, who can’t afford to buy property are being squeezed out by higher rents, if they start to voice their concerns and demand action on housing, you might see the authorities responding,” he said.

In the meantime, Beijing, which is home to 21.7 million people, is aggressively moving to limit its population growth, eyeing those at the bottom of the urban economy.

The city government has said it needs to cap its population at 23 million by 2020, to address “urban ills”. The plan dates back to 2015, after the city failed to meet its 2010 population cap goal.

Reflecting the tougher stance on population, in 2017, when the city’s population dropped for the first time in 17 years, Xinhua quoted Beijing bureau of statistics director Pang Jiangqian as crediting the decrease partly to the reduction of “traditional labour-intensive enterprises” in the capital, and its transition to “high skill” industries.

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With efforts to limit population growth in full swing, more than 8 million people, or a third of the population, are without a hukou in Beijing, according to government statistics.

A report on the Daxing community news website connected the prevalence of migrant workers to the need for demolition and reconstruction: “As the migrant population continues to gather here, the floating population has increased year by year, passive income returns are falling,” it said.

“This has created a classic urban-rural fringe, with weak infrastructure, and prominent safety problems.”

As officials wrestle with the migrant issue, those who are trying to make a go of running businesses in Xinjian are confronting a depressed commercial environment.

A shopkeeper selling snacks said business was so slow he said he didn’t know what the future would hold. “I used to do cellphone repairs in that area,” he said, pointing over a wall to the location of the demolished buildings.

He said he moved to Beijing from the east China province of Jiangxi at the invitation of a relative who worked in the capital before the fire. In spite of the changes to the area, he has managed to find both a new job and a place to stay in a neighbouring village.

At one of Xinjian’s many clothing factories, sales of winter coats, the factory’s main product, were slow despite the fast approach of winter, according to a saleswoman surnamed Xie, in a clothing shop affiliated with one of the factories.

“Business used to be much better when all the local residents came to buy clothes,” she said.