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Beijing gives migrant workers their marching orders

a shift in thought

For decades, low-paid migrant workers from the Chinese countryside have been building the shiny new Beijing and keeping it running. Now the government is demolishing their homes and forcing them out of the city. How will the capital function without them?

Zhou Xinci, a migrant to Beijing from Heilongjiang (her son sits at left), spoke with a visitor Nov. 27 about her fears of being evicted. Authorities in Beijing have been driving domestic migrant workers from the capital in droves, triggering a public outcry over the harsh treatment of the people on whom the city depends to build their skyscrapers, care for their children, and take on other low-paid work.
Ng Han Guan/AP
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For the past five years, Ms. Peng has worked as a cleaner in a Beijing office block. It was a tiring, low-paying job – the kind that is easily overlooked but essential in cities around the world.

Beijing is no different. Over the past four decades, millions of migrants have flocked here from poor rural China in the hope of finding a better life. They have built the city’s gleaming new skyscrapers, they have cared for its children, and they have sold and delivered its groceries, among other services.

While the municipal government has hardly welcomed the newcomers – denying them basic rights such as free public education and health care – it has long accepted them as essential to Beijing’s transformation into a modern capital. They number close to eight million, nearly a third of the city’s population.

Now, suddenly, the authorities have turned on migrant workers like Ms. Peng, who gave only her surname, forcing them out of the city by demolishing their homes. Over the past two weeks tens of thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of people have been evicted.

Most of the victims seem resigned; there is little they can do to resist the government. “If they don’t let us live here, we have no choice but to go home,” Peng said sadly last Friday, rummaging through her belongings in a cluttered apartment on the northeastern edge of the city.

Her heating and electricity had been cut off ten days earlier, in mid-winter subzero temperatures. On Sunday, she and her husband bowed to the inevitable and flew to their home province of Sichuan, where they still have a plot of land. They have no plans to return.

Peng’s neighbors appeared to have taken similar decisions. Many of the shops and apartments near her home were already deserted.

Peng’s abrupt departure, and that of untold thousands of other migrants, raises questions about what Beijing will look like – and how well it will function – when they are gone. The government says it needs to restrict the city’s population to ease the strain on public resources such as water and roads. But some experts warn that driving out migrants threatens the city’s overall growth and productivity.

“Every city has its own ecology, just like in nature,” says Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “If you kick out a part of the population you disrupt the social ecology of the city.”

Migrant workers leave with their belongings after they were required to move out of the area due to a citywide fire safety inspection prompted by a deadly fire in an apartment block, at Xinjiancun in Daxing district, in Beijing, China November 25, 2017.
Jason Lee/Reuters
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“With these sorts of shocks to the system, we see just how important and integral these migrant workers are to the economy,” says Keegan Elmer, a researcher at China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong. “A lot of middle-class Beijingers are starting to finally feel and understand just how important these people are to their nice, comfortable lives.”

Evicted for their own good?

Beijing authorities say migrants are being removed for their own safety. Last month a fire in a crowded housing complex on the outskirts of the city killed 19 people. Seventeen of them were from other parts of China.

When Peng first heard about the fire, she knew her days in the city were probably numbered. Sure enough, three days later, an eviction notice appeared outside her apartment building, its wording oddly cheery: “Hope everyone finds a place to live and moves as soon as possible. Hope you can find a warm and comfortable house! Thank you for your cooperation!”

Peng and other migrants say fire safety is a thinly veiled pretext for the evictions. The government had clearly planned the mass eviction campaign; it was launched just two days after the fire. And while officials say they are now targeting more than 25,000 safety hazards across the city, the authorities have been shutting down shops and restaurants owned by migrants for more than a year.

Last January the city approved a plan to demolish more than 430 million square feet of illegal buildings by the end of this year, and its goal of limiting Beijing’s population to 23 million residents by 2020 is well known.

“Beijing is kicking out migrant workers everywhere,” says Gao Yanhua, a migrant from Hebei province who works with her repair-man husband. “It’s getting harder and harder to live here.” She says she expects her own apartment in the southern district of Daxing to be torn down soon

The recent evictions have been especially brutal. Whole families have been given very little notice to vacate their homes in freezing weather, often finding their water and electricity cut off, before the backhoes arrive.

The campaign prompted 100 public intellectuals to sign a petition deploring the evictions as a violation of human rights, but that has made no difference. Nor has widespread anger online, where citizens have criticized the government for denying migrants, who provide crucial services in Beijing, the same status as the city’s residents enjoy. 

If they don't do the work, who will?

Meanwhile, analysts have raised concerns about the effect the evictions will have on Beijing’s economy. Bloomberg Economics warns in a report published on Monday that the recent evictions could shrink the city’s workforce, hamper potential growth, and lead to inflation.

Among Beijing’s official resident population, the number of working age adults is dwindling. The city needs working-age migrants to help fill the low-paying jobs that keep the city running. If their numbers shrink, prices of goods and services will likely rise.

Li Yunfei, for example, who manages a hotpot restaurant, says it’s getting harder to find new employees. His costs have increased 40 percent this year as the supply of cheap labor dries up.

“You can’t divide people in a city into ‘high-end’ and ‘low end’ populations and move out all the ‘low-end’ population,” says economist Hu Xingdou, using a derogatory term that the government has used to describe poor migrant workers. “If you move them out, no one will work in the service industry. The economy will stall and the city will become more and more unlivable.”

Beijing’s burgeoning e-commerce sector has been hit especially hard by the eviction drive. Fewer migrants means fewer drivers to provide the almost instant delivery of everything from coffee to couches that middle-class clients of online shopping sites have come to expect in the capital.

Ma Yanlong, a courier for ZTO, says his workload has increased by 20 percent in recent days.

But Mr. Ma, like many of his fellow couriers, isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to stay in Beijing. He too has found a notice posted outside his apartment, giving him until Dec. 10 to move out. Ma hopes he can find a new place to live before then. After all, he says, Beijing is where the jobs are.

Xie Yujuan contributed reporting to this article.

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