One morning in mid-March, Wang Tianle and his mother visited the site of his old school in northern Beijing. The school had been demolished last August, reduced to a pile of rubble that had yet to be hauled away.
Tianle ran toward the heap of crumbled bricks with the irrepressible excitement of an archaeologist who has just discovered an ancient city. The ruins of his former classroom might as well have been Petra, the cafeteria Pompeii, the principal’s office Persepolis. Whatever treasure he dug out was his for the taking. Two stray dogs were his only competition.
“Be careful!” his mother yelled, but Tianle didn’t respond. By then he was already excavating, too immersed to notice when she began to cry.
Tianle’s mother, Peng Jie, hadn’t expected to become so emotional at the sight of the school. She thought she was over the government’s decision to tear it down. After all, she told herself, it had been seven months since its demolition.
But as her memories flooded back, Ms. Peng was overcome with a deep sense of loss. She had been a teacher there for 13 years. It was her first job in Beijing, the reason she had moved to the city from the countryside of Henan province.
“I taught in almost every one of these classrooms,” she said, as she surveyed the wreckage through tears. She turned around and pointed to another pile of rubble about 400 feet away. “Our house was right over there,” she said. “This place was our home.”
A short time later, Tianle returned with three long-lost artifacts he had unearthed: a stuffed snake, a green hula hoop, and a wicker basket.
“What I miss most is seeing the children on the playground after class,” Peng said. The children were gone now, too. Many had moved away with their families – not just from the school, but from Beijing altogether.
Peng, along with her son and husband, would soon do the same. Their life in Beijing had never been easy, but it had become much harder in recent years. Things started to change in 2015, when the municipal government announced plans to cap the city’s population at 23 million by 2020. At the time, the population was 21.5 million and rising. It soon became clear that the government wanted rural migrants to go.
Although migrants have been important contributors to the city’s economic growth, they have also placed a considerable burden on its infrastructure and public services. Over the past three years, officials have embarked on an aggressive campaign to limit their numbers. The goal is to transform Beijing into a gleaming, orderly capital befitting China’s rise.
Last year alone, Beijing demolished more than 23 square miles of illegal structures, an area about the size of Manhattan, according to government statistics. Most of the structures were owned or occupied by migrants, and many were built illegally and haphazardly. Authorities targeted everything from individual fruit stalls, to steel shipping containers that migrants had turned into makeshift homes, to entire neighborhoods of six-story apartment buildings. The bulldozers razed dozens of migrant schools, too.
The campaign picked up in November after an apartment fire killed 19 people, all but two of them migrants. By the end of the year, Beijing had 22,000 fewer people – no small feat considering that the city had grown by an average of 640,000 people annually between 1990 and 2016. And the wrecking crews aren’t done; in fact, they’re scheduled to demolish 15 square miles of illegal structures this year.
Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies Chinese migration, warns that the negative consequences of the eviction campaign could be severe. He points out that Beijing still needs migrant workers to fill the low-paying jobs that keep the city running. If the workers disappear, the logic goes, the prices of everything from a bowl of noodles to housekeeping will rise. Professor Chan says Beijing simply doesn’t have a large enough working-age population to sustain itself.
Urban industries like construction and sanitation are almost completely staffed by migrants. Then there’s the burgeoning e-commerce sector. Fewer migrants means fewer drivers for delivery and ride-hailing services. That’s bad news for the growing number of middle-class residents who have come to rely on them.
But it’s the migrants themselves who have suffered the biggest disruptions – and have the most to lose.
Peng was born in a remote, hilltop village called Guandimiao in 1984. Located in the southeast corner of Henan, Guandimiao consists of about 30 red-brick houses surrounded by terraced rice fields, patches of bamboo, and scattered vegetable gardens and tea plants. The nearest bus station is 12 miles away; the nearest train station, 107 miles. Before Peng went to college, the farthest she had ever traveled from home was the local middle school. It was six miles up the road.
Peng’s father says she was an introverted child and an average student who rarely acted up. “She wasn’t rebellious,” he says, with a hint of pride.
Peng enjoyed playing outside and spent almost every Sunday morning herding the family’s goats with her younger brother. In the spring, when bright-red azaleas were in bloom, she would pick flowers on her walk home from school and place them in vases around the house. The scent helped cover the smell of pigs that wafted from a nearby pen.
“You could find azaleas everywhere back then,” Peng says, explaining that in recent years opportunistic outsiders had discovered that they could make a quick buck by harvesting the flowers in bulk and selling them in faraway cities. “It used to be really special.”
In 2001, Peng enrolled in a three-year vocational college in Gushi, a small town 30 miles north of Guandimiao. She had decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a teacher.
“My father was very strict,” she says. “I never thought about doing anything else.”
Peng’s initial plan was to return to Guandimiao after she graduated and teach at a local primary school. But that was before she met Wang Long in the fall of 2003. Mr. Wang was a physical education student with a slender build, tanned skin, and a brash personality. After being introduced to Peng by mutual friends, Wang fell for her long hair and gentle demeanor.
“She was more mature than the other girls,” he says.
Peng never thought about moving to Beijing until Wang decided to do a teaching residency at a migrant school in the city during their last semester of college. The school was named Zhiquan School – “spring of wisdom,” in Chinese. Wang had a cousin who worked there, and he knew that the principal, Qin Jijie, was a well-respected teacher from Gushi.
Wang started work in March. A month later, Mr. Qin offered him a full-time job and said he also had one available for Peng. Wang called her to tell her the news. Peng wanted to be with him, but she struggled because her father disapproved of their relationship. Wang’s family was poor, even by the standards of rural China, and Peng’s father worried that Wang didn’t have the means to support his only daughter. He also thought Beijing was a dangerous city.
“My daughter was very young at the time,” he says. “I didn’t want her to live far away.”
In the end, nothing Peng’s father said was enough to stop her from following Wang to Beijing. She moved there in July 2004 with a single suitcase and about 1,000 yuan ($120). Seven months later, during Chinese New Year, she and Wang got married.
“That was my biggest act of rebellion against my father,” Peng says, “and also the most hurtful.”
By the time Peng arrived in Beijing, China’s new market economy had led to an explosion of activity in the city. New factories were popping up everywhere, and migrant workers provided the cheap labor needed to fill them – to say nothing of their work building the expressways, subway lines, and train stations that made it possible for Beijing to expand so rapidly. Cities across China were undergoing a similar transformation. Over the past three decades, 280 million rural migrants have flocked to metropolises like Shanghai and Shenzhen in search of work. Demographers have called it the largest migration in human history, and it’s far from over. The Chinese government estimates that at least 3 million rural migrants will seek jobs in cities in 2018. It’s just that Beijing – which is currently home to more than 8 million migrants – is now pushing back.
In the mid-2000s, Beijing had fewer than half the number of migrants it has now. Many came alone and lived in crowded slums on the outskirts of the city. They came to make money, not new homes. The community that formed around Zhiquan School was different, as was the neighborhood of crammed, single-story houses in which it stood: Dongsanqi Village.
“Everyone there was like family,” says Shen Shuwei, a math teacher from Hebei province who taught at the school for seven years. “I felt like I belonged.”
Other teachers expressed the same sentiment. Zhiquan School was the one place in an otherwise unforgiving city where they felt safe and secure. They looked after one another, forming a kind of social safety net that the Beijing government refused to provide to migrant workers and their families.
The problem lies in China’s household registration system. Known as hukou, it was launched during the Mao era as a way to prevent rural residents from flooding cities. Eli Friedman, an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who has studied migrant communities in cities across China, says that Beijing has used this system “time and time again to remind people that this is not their home.”
“The city government doesn’t see these people as their responsibility,” he says. “They see them as expendable.”
By restricting subsidized social services to a person’s place of birth, the hukou system makes it almost impossible for migrant children to attend public schools in Beijing. Hundreds of privately run schools have opened over the years to enroll them instead. Many of these schools operate underground and tend to have poorly trained teachers and crude facilities. When Peng and Wang started work at Zhiquan School, the classrooms didn’t have heating. Yet that didn’t disqualify it from being named one of Beijing’s 63 official migrant schools in 2004, when the city gave it a license to operate.
Peng fell in love with Zhiquan School as soon as she arrived. Despite the long hours and low pay – her starting salary was 610 yuan ($75) a month – the school was her sanctuary, and she rarely ventured far from its walls. She cooked and did laundry with the other teachers after class and spent long summer evenings chatting with them near the playground. When she gave birth to Tianle, on Aug. 14, 2005, her colleagues shot off fireworks to celebrate.
The gratitude Peng felt for Zhiquan School was cemented one summer afternoon when she found Wang lying on the floor of a public bathroom near the school. Wang had suddenly fallen ill. He couldn’t stand up, let alone walk. Peng ran to find Principal Qin, who quickly found a car to drive Wang to a nearby hospital.
Once there, a doctor took one look at Wang and said he needed emergency surgery. But the 5,000 yuan ($600) fee was more than he could afford. Without hesitation, Qin said he would give him the extra 1,000 yuan ($120) he needed. He would later also hire a caretaker to look after Wang during his weeklong recovery. Afterward, when Wang tried to pay him back, Qin refused to take the money.
“I sometimes like to talk about this with Wang Long,” Peng says. “I like to remind him that when life in Beijing gets hard, our colleagues have always been there to help us, especially Principal Qin.”
The Beijing government announced the demolition of Zhiquan School at the beginning of last July. It didn’t matter that the school had a license. Authorities had deemed all of Dongsanqi Village an illegal settlement that needed to be torn down.
Residents were given until the end of the month to move out. On July 10, the government shut off water and electricity to the neighborhood. The school responded by renting a diesel generator and collecting water from a well. Qin knew he couldn’t prevail, but he at least wanted to buy time to find a new place to set up classrooms.
“The students need to go to school,” he said at the time. “It would be irresponsible to leave them on their own.”
The first wrecking crew arrived unannounced at Zhiquan School on Aug. 1. By the end of the afternoon, a backhoe had flattened the front gate and a row of classrooms. Qin hadn’t expected the demolition to start so soon, and after a series of negotiations with government officials he won a temporary delay. The demolition wouldn’t resume until Aug. 21, just enough time for him to secure a lease on an empty building in the far north of Beijing.
Over the course of a single weekend, the few remaining teachers moved the school’s furniture and supplies to the building 13 miles away. Peng was hopeful that they would be able to start over, but reality soon sunk in. The demolition had forced many families from Dongsanqi to move back to the countryside. The school didn’t have enough students to reopen. On Sept. 1, Qin held a meeting with his teachers to tell them the news.
“I felt helpless,” he says. “I didn’t have any other choice.”
Qin tried hard to find jobs for those who wanted to stay in Beijing. Peng and Wang went to work for another migrant school and moved into a single-room apartment on the northwest side of the city. (Both quit in January, and Wang has since started working at a tutoring agency.)
With Zhiquan School closed for good, they decided to send Tianle to live with his grandparents in Guandimiao. It would be his first time away from his mother and father.
“We don’t have a stable life,” Peng said last summer, after Tianle had already left. “Outsiders are no longer welcome in Beijing.”
Peng said this without a hint of resentment in her voice. She was sad. Of course she was sad. Zhiquan School was gone and so was her son. But rather than make her angry, these events reaffirmed what she already knew to be true and had come to reluctantly accept: that Beijing would never accept her. After 13 years of living in a city that had treated her family and her as second-class citizens, it was time to move on.
Her husband agreed. He didn’t like the government’s crackdown against migrant workers but said there was no use in trying to fight the system. The demolitions and evictions, like many efforts undertaken by China’s authoritarian government, are a fait accompli.
“There is no point in making a fuss,” he said. “Although we have lived here for more than a decade and feel sentimental about it, we can’t do anything about the government’s policy. We don’t want to keep drifting.”
On Feb. 10, Peng and Wang drove from Beijing to Guandimiao to spend Chinese New Year with Peng’s family. Although the trip took more than 13 hours, Peng was excited to be home for the first time in months. Tianle ran over to greet his parents and help carry their bags. He had grown a couple inches since the last time he had seen them; the top of his head now came up to his mother’s chin.
Dinner that night was a feast of braised pork, stir-fried vegetables, and steamed rice. After the family finished eating, they gathered round a charcoal fire pit to stay warm. It was then that Peng and Wang began to talk about their plans for the future: They wanted to move back to Henan, though they hadn’t yet decided between Guandimiao and Gushi.
“When Zhiquan School was demolished half a year ago, we lost our sense of belonging,” Peng says.
Her father said he thought it was a bad idea. There weren’t any jobs left in the countryside, he told them. They were better off staying in Beijing.
But the couple had already decided. They would move back by the end of June and look for new jobs wherever they could find them. In the meantime, they would take Tianle back to the city. Peng had quit her teaching job so she could home-school him.
“He hasn’t been away from me since he was born,” she says. “He wants to be in Beijing.”
The next morning, Peng went with her son to see the school he had been attending in a neighboring town. Tianle had insisted that the trip would take only 30 minutes, yet it ended up taking more than an hour.
“It’s because you walk slow,” he said to his mother as they made their way along a two-lane road. “I’m much faster on my own.”
To be sure, Peng wasn’t in a hurry. But to be fair, neither was Tianle. Together they stopped at a small pond to skip rocks and at a roadside stall to buy a box of firecrackers.
Peng reminisced about her childhood as they meandered toward the school. She told stories of long afternoons spent trying to catch sparrows in the rice fields and shared the stories her grandfather had once told her about a dragon that lived in the surrounding hills.
Tianle listened halfheartedly to his mother’s tales. He was more interested in lighting firecrackers and throwing them into puddles of water. When they finally made it to the school – a white, two-story building made of concrete and brick – the front gate was locked for the holiday. The two of them stood there for a brief moment before turning to go back home. There was no point in lingering. It was only a school.
Xie Yujuan contributed to this report from China.