In November of last year, a fire in an overcrowded Beijing suburb killed 19 people and prompted the government to mass evict tens of thousands of migrant workers and other residents from their homes. Beijing government agencies undertook a 40-day campaign to forcibly remove migrants and demolish large blocks of shoddy housing around the city in the name of public safety, often giving residents little to no notice before being evicted.
The evictions provoked criticism and concern across China as thousands of migrants were suddenly left homeless with bitter winter weather closing in. The government quickly censored online dissent and criticism regarding the evictions.
Migrant workers have flocked to major urban areas over the past couple decades in search of better work and career opportunities. They often can only afford and find housing in cheaply constructed, suburban housing projects in which they share space with several people to one room. While they occupy the lowest rungs of urban society, migrant workers take on the vast majority of jobs that city residents do not deign to do. Yet, it’s these very jobs migrant workers take up that keep these massive urban areas developing and running day to day.
In this article from Oaktree Publishing, Jiang Deng-xing, himself a migrant to Beijing and long-time resident, reflects on the Beijing evictions. He looks back on what it used to be like for migrants to Beijing and how the evictions have changed things. All Christians, he reminds us, are exiles and sojourners called to live in a community, a “crisis relief agency” that is the church, which can weather any storm. He encourages Christians to remember that our lives are a sojourn, that we belong not to any earthly kingdom, but to Christ’s heavenly kingdom.
A Different Kind of Sojourn in Beijing
I woke around midnight and remembered the great fire from a few days ago. I thought of all the people living on the outskirts of town. Looking back over 18 years of living in Beijing, I realized that we poor people, we who found acceptance among Beijing’s single-story housing neighborhoods and areas highly crowded with unemployed and low-income college grads, eventually, after hard struggles, have wandered upwards, to the relatively stable life we have today.
Once upon a time the poor in Beijing had springboards from where they sojourned upward, and the springboards were the outskirts of town and the highly crowded neighborhoods filled with unemployed and low-income college grads. But now that we stand on high ground; we are tearing down the springboards. I wanted to organize my records from the recent past, and record my different kind of sojourn on the outskirts of this city, recording the lenience and grace once shown me by the single-story buildings and the public toilets at the end of the little alley. Perhaps this too counts as history, and as a farewell to those brothers and sisters who are now leaving this town.
18 Years Ago—My Initial Beijing Experience
I came to Beijing in 1999 on borrowed money. At our poorest, my brother and I only had 2 RMB left between us. Yet, 18 years ago, the stars over Daxing District in Beijing shone as brightly as they did over the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
A single room in a single-story house could be rented for 150 RMB and shared between three or four other laborers. We built our own kitchen, and our beds were made of doors held off the ground by bricks. We all shared a toilet at the end of the street. When the Lunar New Year came round, I'd buy a couple of cabbages, some pickled mustard, and turnips, and store them in the hole dug outside our window. This was a bachelor’s New Year’s dinner. But the aunties and sisters at church would sometimes gift me meat and dumplings. I had no fridge, so meat and dumplings were stored on top of the metal sheet that was shaded by the front door. That was my fridge.
These are the ladies who watched over me during those years.
The Northern Sojourn
Opportunities were all over the place. As long as you had the ability, you could make a living.
At the time, Beijing was filled with traveling artists, wandering poets, and scholars with great passions frequenting the bars. The autumn leaves were bright on the Third Ring Road. One could almost feel a kind of sojourning in process there. The solemn pines at the Princess' Tomb, the maidenhair trees of autumn, the magpie who so leisurely crosses Sitong Bridge at dawn, these are all enduring memories of this city.
It was an intellectuals' northern sojourn: caring about the cultural atmosphere of the city, its ideals, and paying no attention to investment or savings. It was a believer's northern sojourn: frequently watching the great winds whip up a sandstorm over the wheat fields, listening to the rhythmic rumble from the distant city, and quietly whispering the words of the Bible, "Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you." (Genesis 13:17) Every day I looked up to the blue sky. Every day I wandered in the wheat fields while praying. I truly believed that God would give me this land, that someday I would put down the roots of my existence in this town.
I believe what Jesus said, "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:33) You will fear nothing if you seek Jesus. My younger brother gave up on me when he saw me reading my Bible daily, praying, going to church, with no intention of getting rich. He said that I'd never find a wife.
Daxing District Xihuang Village, around 2002
Even when life is a desert, you can spend your entire existence looking upon God. Thank God for blessing you with a piece of desert, so that because you have nothing else, you can look upon him unceasingly.
Another Type of Sojourn
As a believer, how do we face the city today?
The city is already evicting people. Beijing's goal is to evict about 1.7 or 1.8 million, seeking to disperse economic ability and population to the edges of town.
And so, many people who have started out in this city now move on to a different kind of sojourn.
Students who have graduated from college now pay about 800 RMB for a bed in Beijing. Two-bedrooms near subway entrances beyond Fifth Ring Road now cost at least 3,500 to 4,500 RMB a month. Ten years ago, it was only 600 RMB.
A 60-square-foot apartment outside the Fifth Ring would cost about 20 years’ salary of two people, and that's assuming they don't need to eat or drink. Whereas 10 years ago, it would only take two office workers about five years.
So how do we face this city, this city in which we seek to survive?
To Sojourn and Hold Tight to the Church Community
God had Abraham move from Ur to Canaan. He had to leave behind all his fixed assets and could only bring a limited amount of hard currency and cattle. God said, “Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land." (Genesis 13:17) Even though there was no inflation at the time, Abraham had no chance to acquire property because of the savagery of the Amorites.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)
What does it mean to sojourn in the wilderness? It means being an utter stranger on earth. There is no place to call home, because we are fundamentally opposed to the culture in which we wander. Through an ever wandering lifestyle, we affirm that we are citizens of heaven. Our faith is strengthened by our sojourn. We are utterly reliant on God's promises and blessings, not our own achievements. Being in a foreign land, we have no hope of gaining our own property, and so we rest all our hope in God.
Children at a neighbor's Sunday school from 15 years ago. Where might they have drifted to today?
Abraham's sojourn in Canaan was a type of gospel sojourn.
Economics tells us that poverty is the problem. But the gospel tells us that our sin is the problem. The first human ancestor rebelled against God and was banished from Eden. God declared the consequences of sin, that is, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19)
And to Cain who had murdered his brother, God said, "You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." (Genesis 4:12)
But the gospel reversed this, causing people to leave their sojourn in sin for justification by God, to leave their eternal death for eternal life. And this is possible because Jesus also sojourned.
One year a farmer from Beijing's countryside lived in the underground pipes of Beijing.
Do people who live below ground have any dignity? I still remember Wang Xiu-wing's reply.
Dignity? Dignity has nothing to do with me. I was washing cars by the road in 2008 when the Urban Administration came and took me away. They let the dog loose from the cage, and put me in it instead. I want dignity, but what kind of dignity could I have then? I don't care whether or not people look down on me. The reality was right in front of me. All I want is to save some face. My children don't have enough to eat and can't go to school, but at the end of the day it's still losing face that upsets me the most.
That year in Beijing, I told Wang another story of poverty. There was a young man named Joseph, and he came from a small town on the far side of Galilee, called Nazareth. He was a poor carpenter, but his hukou was in Bethlehem, the famous hometown of David. The king decreed that everyone had to show up in person for hukou registration, and so Joseph had to bring along his wife to his original registered home. The Bible says that Mary was Joseph's "betrothed." In other words, she was pregnant and engaged, but her son was from heaven. He was God's son.
The hotels of the small town overflowed because of the people there for the census, just like the hotels were overfull during the Beijing Olympics. The young couple asked around, but no one was willing to help these two provincials, not even with Mary so close to giving birth.
They finally begged the innkeeper for the stable, that they could give birth even in this cold weather. There was no midwife, no warm bed, only the smell of animal feed and livestock manure, and the bleating of horses, cows, and sheep. "And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7)
The gospel tells us that although we are impoverished and naked, our poverty has been transferred to Jesus through God's grace. Through him, our debt of sin has been cleared, and the curse of our sin has been lifted. Not only that, but by believing in Jesus, God counts us as righteous as Jesus is. The gospel tells us that although we should have been cursed to hell, by Jesus' resurrection, we have journeyed from everlasting destruction to everlasting life.
Sojourn in Community
Because of this disruption, everything that we have once taken to be absolute has become relative, and only the gospel has absolute authority over us all. In face of the struggle to survive, we can either draw ever close to Jesus, or completely cast God aside and rely only on ourselves.
In this wilderness living, we need to bind ourselves with the church. It is a time of great change, and the power of the individual becomes increasingly weak in this age. Historically speaking, only communities with a high level of cooperation have the strength to face an age of great danger. In an age where the economy becomes increasingly difficult, the church is our community of survival.
This is where our emotional bond lies. Because of the church, we are no longer lonely. Where the church is, our home is.
This is a community that supports one another, a place to live, a crisis relief agency.
A child named Yuan-yuan and her dog, where might they have drifted to now?
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. . . Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7)
These are exiles. These are sojourners in the city of Babylon. And God prophesied that their sojourning would be for 70 years, which just so happens to be the duration of property rights in China today. As sojourners and exiles, it is easy to fall into an attitude of passive resistance. However, God revealed to Jeremiah that the exiled Israelites should have clearly defined interactions with the foreign culture in which they lived, and to retain religious purity. By this defined interaction, the Israelites are to become strong, to preserve their remnant and multiply.
The Israelites prospered when Babylon prospered. This age is no different. We are all sojourners, who prosper when our city prospers.
Looking at the City with an End Times Perspective
But though we have earthly promises, the Bible gives us an end times perspective. We are able to view this world in the past tense because we await a heavenly kingdom. For speculators on the housing market, however, housing prices are eternally in the progressive or future tense. As they say, "the CSI index is always crazy, and Beijing-Shanghai housing prices forever inflate."
But the Bible has a perspective of ultimate judgment. We know that everything that the world boasts of today will one day be destroyed. Isaiah 5:8-10 says:
Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.
Because Jesus' resurrection is in the perfect tense, this world is in the past tense, and so we will always be merely sojourners in this world.
We prepare to leave our tents on this earth and return to the incorruptible city. We are in a different kind of sojourning. In essence, we are those who wander in the wilderness. This is our city. This is, for now, our home. Not because our houses are here, but because our family is here. Not because the air is clean, but because the people we serve are here.
Ultimately, the wealth and growth of this city has nothing to do with me. Then again, I am not living here for the wealth. Many people have wandered through here. We have had a chance to serve them, and to be remembered by them.
I remember an auntie from Henan Province. She lived in the single-story district and prayed with us every day. She always prayed for Beijing and blessed Beijing. Every time she finished praying, she would stand by the entrance of the barbershop, and bless me, the young person, with the tone of a prophet. She left for her hometown after a round of demolitions, or perhaps a forced migration.
I believe that someday, we will meet again in heaven, in another city.
The Biblical prophets spoke with a perspective of judgment. Everything that we store up today will one day be dust. There is only one immovable kingdom, and that is Jesus' kingdom.
For that eternal Kingdom, we continue to sojourn here today.
Original: 我们在北京的另一宗漂流 (Oaktree Publishing)
This article has been edited for brevity. Translated, edited, and reposted with permission.
Header image credit: Matt Ming, via Flickr.
Text image credits: Oaktree Publishing.
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