In Beijing, 'historical preservation' effort sends blunt message to migrants

Workers have built walls in front of many of the small, migrant-owned shops that dot Beijing's traditional hutong alleyways. Beijing is working to rein in urban growth, but critics say policies largely target the migrants who helped build Beijing.

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
A man sits outside a laundry store in Baochao Hutong in Beijing. Construction workers sent by the Beijing government built a wall in front of its display windows earlier this month in what appears to be a move to push out small shop-owners, many of whom are migrants.


Migrant workers may have helped build the roads and skyscrapers that transformed Beijing into the modern capital it is today, but now the government is telling them it’s time to leave – and doing so in a strikingly blunt fashion.

Orange-vested construction workers descended last month on Baochao Hutong, one of hundreds of narrow, winding alleyways that crisscross central Beijing, ostensibly to begin historical preservation work.

“Restoring the original look of the architecture,” read one of the banners that the workers posted, warning against the construction of windows and doors in the hutong’s traditional gray brick walls.

Local shop owners soon found brick walls being erected directly in front of their store display windows – a modern addition – blocking potential customers’ ability to see what was for sale. Similar walls have gone up in dozens of hutongs since midsummer – and the stacks of bricks stashed in Baochao Hutong make it clear that more are to come.

The small-business owners, most of whom are migrants from elsewhere in China, suspect the government’s true motives have nothing to do with a desire to preserve the historical integrity of their hutongs, which date back centuries. The newly built walls, they say, are a crude signal that they’re no longer welcome in the city.

“The government hasn’t directly told us to leave,” says one shop owner who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “They’re just making it impossible for us to make a living here.”

The market reforms China launched in 1978 opened the floodgates to migrants. Construction workers, artisans, small-business people, shopkeepers, and domestic helpers have flocked to the capital by the millions in search of jobs and a better life.

But this influx has put pressure on public services and infrastructure.

The city’s population has grown by more than 6 million – that’s 42 percent – over the past 10 years. With a population of 21.7 million at the end of 2015, Beijing, the eighth-largest city in the world, is over capacity, warns the municipal government. Its latest five-year plan aims to keep the population under 23 million and to thin out the urban center by 15 percent, ejecting about 2 million people by 2020.

While officials promote the plan as a means of maintaining the health of the city, urban policy and migration experts say the policies mainly target the 8 million migrant workers who helped build Beijing and now call it home. Critics say Beijing is transforming itself into a city for the elite at the expense of class diversity.

“The general thinking is that you’re welcome to work here, but you’re not welcome to stay,” says Lu Ming, an economics professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, about how policymakers view migrants in China’s largest cities. “It’s totally wrong.”

Closing shop

Migrant workers have made their living alongside local artisans and longtime residents in Beijing’s hutongs for nearly 30 years, opening hair salons, restaurants, convenience stores, and myriad other small businesses. Their arrival has transformed some of the historical alleyways into microcosms of China.

Baochao Hutong, which takes just over 10 minutes to walk from end to end, is typical. There’s a cluttered clothing store owned by a woman from the southwestern province of Sichuan. A family of three from Shandong province owns a small grocery shop on the next block.

They’ve flocked here from across the country to claim their own small piece of China’s economic miracle.

Despite their success as small-business owners, many of the shopkeepers in Baochao Hutong fear Beijing’s government could soon force them to leave.

“This isn’t over,” one of them says as she surveys the newly built wall in front of her store’s windows. She’s worried the door could be blocked next. “They will build more.”

For now, the stores and restaurants along Baochao Hutong remain open, if dark, since their windows were walled over. The owners are more fortunate than the thousands of stall holders in more than 150 low-end and wholesale markets within the city’s fourth ring road, which officials shut down last year.

The city government has even extended its push to places outside the city center such as Baliqiao Market.

Located on the eastern outskirts of the city, Baliqiao houses more than 2,800 vendors selling everything from bottled soft drinks to large sacks of rice. But it, too, is slated for closure and relocation farther from the city.

Lin Sidong has been selling tea in Baliqiao Market for 10 years. He didn’t intend to move to Beijing when he came here two decades ago to collect money from a former client. The idea struck him after he arrived, when he realized the city had much more to offer than his quiet hometown in the Wuyi Mountains in eastern China.

Mr. Lin’s business has flourished. Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with loose-leaf tea line the walls of his shop. A talkative man with a wide smile, he’s happy to pour a fresh cup for anyone who wanders in.

He’s less happy at the prospect of having to move, but he says he is being given no choice.

Wherever the market is sent, he will follow. “There’s nowhere else to go,” he says ruefully, while serving cups of white tea grown in Fujian, his home province, to a couple he has known for a decade.

But he is worried. “It’ll be hard to find new customers,” he says.

An elite checklist

Beijing authorities are sending unwelcome signals in other forms as well. In August, the government unveiled a points system for outsiders wanting to obtain a highly prized Beijing hukou, the residence permit that carries with it the right to social services such as education and health care.

Points are awarded based on a migrant’s contributions to the city, qualifications, education, and age. Professor Lu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University says the new system largely favors the wealthy and well educated.

“This is discrimination,” he says. “Under the score system, low-skilled workers are almost hopeless to get a Beijing hukou.”

Big city problems

This isn’t the first time that Beijing has promised to tackle overpopulation, and the failure of previous efforts suggests that stopping the flow of migration into the city is easier said than done.

In 2004, the government announced a goal of keeping the population below
18 million people by 2020. It broke that ceiling just five years later, in 2009.

“The government can have all kinds of plans, laws, or regulations,” says Zhou Jiangping, who researches Chinese urban planning at the University of Queensland in Australia. But in the absence of strict implementation, “in reality people will find various ways to circumvent [the rules] if they can benefit more by doing that.”

Some analysts argue that China would be better off if it allowed the free market to determine where people live and work.

A study led by Cai Jiming, an economics professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, concluded that Beijing could accommodate as many as 30 million people by improving public services and moving municipal government offices outside the city center.

But rising concerns about pollution, traffic congestion, and a dwindling water supply have led Beijing’s government to work harder than ever to curb population growth.

The traffic gauge

A study published in 2014 found that Beijing drivers were stuck in traffic jams for one hour and 55 minutes every day, 25 minutes longer than in 2012. And the city faces a level of water scarcity usually associated with countries on the Arabian Peninsula.

Beijing announced plans in August to accelerate construction in suburban areas. That could help alleviate its population woes by encouraging migrants to settle away from the city center. The national government has eased taxes and down-payment requirements to make it easier for them to buy homes.

In addition to closing markets, city officials have also started to crack down on polluting factories and workshops as well as the illegal use of homes as shops. They also plan to move the municipal government and tens of thousands of civil servants to the eastern suburb of Tongzhou. 

“Beijing has too many city functions and these functions are too concentrated,” the Beijing government said in an emailed statement. “That brings problems like overpopulation and unreasonable distribution of the population.”

The statement said the six districts that make up central Beijing cover 22 percent of the city’s geographical area but are home to 59 percent of its long-term residents.

So far, the closure of markets and factories in the city center appears to be bearing some fruit. Beijing’s permanent population, which includes anyone who has lived in the city for more than six months, dropped by 181,000 in the first half of this year, the vice mayor announced in late August.

The government seems determined to keep up the pressure regardless of what residents think – and to those in Baochao Hutong, the walls seem to be all part of the policy.

One recent day, a middle-aged man stood with his arms behind his back, watching a corner food stall being blocked off. He looked as if he were fighting back a grimace as he watched a worker lay brick after brick.

“Whose shop is this?” a reporter asked him.

“The Communist Party’s,” he said, snorting as he turned away.

Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.

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