Migrant workers in Beijing mobilize to protest evictions

By Emma Johnson
January 1, 2018

Thousands of migrant workers in Beijing are fighting back against a stepped-up campaign by city officials seeking to force tens of thousands of them out of the area. City officials have demolished whole neighborhoods, in some instances ordering residents to pack up their belongings and leave with less than a day’s notice.
The city government is targeting these workers, the “low-end population” as officials call them, to free up land for profit-hungry real estate developers and replace the migrant workers with middle-class layers.

But the “low-end” workers are striking back. Hundreds gathered Dec. 10 in Feijia village on the outskirts of the city and hung a banner reading, “Violation of human rights” across the front gate of the village committee’s office. They rallied for several hours before police dispersed them.

In another neighborhood residents blocked a major roadway, chanting, “We want heat! We want to eat!” In other areas workers have organized to go to the local government to demand their rents be reimbursed.

Officials used a Nov. 18 fire in Xinjian neighborhood as a pretext to intensify and speed up the evictions, claiming they were acting to ensure people’s safety. Nineteen workers were killed and eight injured in the burned-out building, where more than 400 residents were crammed into 108-square-foot rooms, three to five in each. Many of the rooms had no windows.

Following the fire, the government declared a 40-day campaign against “illegal structures.” Authorities had tolerated, inspected and taxed these buildings for years.

“They never said it was illegal when it was built, or when they came to inspect it, or when we paid our deposits, but now we’re being told to move,” Luo Haigang, a driver who was given two days’ notice to get out, told the New York Times.

They threw people, young and old, out into the streets in the middle of the coldest days of winter. Xinjian was reduced to rubble within a week.

“They called us at 5 a.m. and by 8 a.m. they had arrived with demolition equipment,” Bi Yanao, a 54-year-old worker who has lived in Beijing for 13 years, told Japan Times. “In just one hour they flattened a 100-meter-long [109 yards] stretch of land.”

How many of the 175,000 residents in Xihongmen township, which contains Xinjian village, will be pushed out is unclear, but hundreds of people, possibly thousands, are on the move. Similar eviction notices are being enforced in other parts of the metropolitan area, affecting some 100,000 people.

In the summer the government began demolishing some of the city’s largest migrant schools. There were several hundred schools a decade ago. Now there are only about 100 left.

Shantytowns like Xinjian encircle Beijing’s outskirts, housing the city’s more than 8 million migrant workers. The buildings are draped in tangled power lines supplying a maze of apartments, garment plants, small factories, shops and restaurants along narrow alleyways.

Beijing officials have targeted six downtown districts where they plan to carry out a 15 percent cut in the population within the next two years. That amounts to 2 million people. They plan to demolish 15 square miles of “illegal structures.”

Close to 40 percent of Beijing’s residents are migrant workers. They are the millions who have run the factories, restaurants, delivery companies, construction sites and retail shops as the city and economy have grown. As migrant workers they have no hukou — Beijing household registration — which means they have no access to medical care, social services and schools. Their wages are low, their hours long and their working conditions abysmal. The average rent in the city equals 58 percent of the average income, but fully 100 percent of low-paid migrants’ income.

Over the last three decades hundreds of millions of young people have left rural areas and poured into the factories and construction sites of Beijing and China’s coastal boom towns, providing the cheap labor for capitalist expansion.