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Why Are the Migrants Being Kicked Out?

During my time in Beijing in June, I spent an afternoon driving around town with some friends—“old Beijingers.” As we drove, they told me about the kai qiang (open the walls) campaign that had been launched in the central districts to get rid of illegally built add-ons to buildings that had sprung up in the past 20 years.

Of course, getting rid of buildings, be they shops or housing (in China, they are often one and the same), means getting rid of people as well.  In most cases the structures being demolished were small shops and restaurants run by people from out of town (waidiren—not-from-here-people).

That afternoon has been on my mind a lot lately as I have read about the new, and more aggressive (or should we say ruthless) campaign that has been launched to rid the city of the often ugly and unsafe “illegally” built communities, and by extension the migrant workers who live there.

The question comes to mind: is it about ridding the city of structures or people? And this being China the answer to that question is, of course, “it’s complicated.”  Here is a round-up of some of the reporting on this situation, including important analysis.

The current, and more visible campaign was in response to a fire in a migrant district that killed 19 people on November 18. According to The New York Times, the Party Secretary of Beijing ordered the campaign:

After that, officials hastily listed 25,395 safety hazards across the city, and said they had to act fast “to prevent the tragedy recurring.” The city party secretary, Cai Qi, ordered a 40-day clearance campaign to rid the city of safety hazards in migrant neighborhoods.

“Starting from today, demolish what can be demolished, don’t wait until tomorrow,” Wang Xianyong, a district official in southern Beijing, said in a speech to officials that leaked onto the internet. “If it’s demolished today, then won’t you be able to get a good night’s sleep?”

It’s an excellent article, and includes numerous heart-wrenching photographs of the human cost to this campaign.

We need to keep in mind that a move to reduce the population of migrant workers in Beijing isn’t simply a response to the unsafe living conditions or the fire; it is part of a 5-year plan to reduce the population of the city. The China Daily reported on this plan back in May.

The city has recently published its economic and social development plan for next five years, and an important goal is to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 and reduce the number at six downtown districts by 15 percent from 2014. This is the first time that the capital has drawn a red line on its population.

The six districts are Xicheng, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, Fengtai, Haidian and Shijingshan. About 12.76 million people lived in these six districts in 2014, which means the figure would be 10.84 million by 2020 according to the plan.

ChinaFile asked 10 China experts (foreign and Chinese) to offer their observations on the situation.

While the focus during the past few decades has been on urbanization in China, Financial Times China Bureau Chief Lucy Hornby reminds us that “de-urbanization” has long been a mainstay of the Party’s attempts at managing China’s population:

This brings us to the long history of forced de-urbanization in the People’s Republic of China. Current official policy says urbanization will drive China’s next stage of growth. But the dominant trend of Communist rule in China has been to keep people out of cities.

Historian Paul French reminds us that it is not just migrants in the slum villages on the edges of town that are being affected; the destruction and expulsion are happing in the old hutong neighborhoods as well.

Others will comment on what this current harsh and spiteful campaign means for the city’s migrant worker population, but remember that it is also yet another attack on the city’s built heritage and a land grab by developers.

Again, this is not the first wave of demolitions in the old hutong neighborhoods. In the more than 20 years that I lived in China (15 of them in Beijing), I can’t tell you how many old neighborhoods I saw destroyed. Ian Johnson’s book Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China chronicles the destruction of Bejing’s old neighborhoods in the late 90s and early 2000s.

David Bandurski, editor of China Media Project, suggests that “safety” is a convenient and often-used rationale for these types of “clean-ups.”

The first thing that struck me about the Xinjian Village demolition was just how frighteningly familiar all of it was. I’m referring not just to the longstanding question of migrants in China’s cities, but to the way safety (and especially fire safety) was used as a rationalization for the wholesale destruction of tenement housing. Over the decade I spent researching urban villages across China, but especially in south China, for my book on the subject, this was an inescapable theme. Urban villages with local populations of just one or two thousand, providing cheap housing often to tens of thousands of migrant workers, would be targeted as “black spots” on the urban fabric — on the canvas of China’s emerging modern self-image. It was very often fire and fatality that prompted exactly the kind of action we’ve seen recently in Beijing. Local governments would talk about the need for “clean” and “modern” urban living environments, but the end result for migrants was always the same. They were forced to move on to another urban villages,[sic] further out on the margins, where the same safety and sanitation issues prevailed. This story is replayed on nearly a daily basis in China, and our noticing it this time is also one of the only things that makes this case exceptional.

As it relates to the church, urban migration has also seen the movement of Christians from the countryside into the city. Many rural church networks have extended their reach into these urban migrant communities as they seek to meet the spiritual needs of their flock. In the summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly this year, Dr. Mary Ma had a conversation with a migrant worker church minister

It will be interesting to follow how these intense campaigns, as well as the broader ones of urban population reduction, will impact these new migrant churches.

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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