December is being dubbed as the coldest winter ever in Beijing, which seems pessimistic on the first day of the month.
But it’s not the temperature the locals are talking about, focusing instead on a ‘cold’ clearance campaign targeting areas populated by migrant workers.
Tens of thousands of people have lost their businesses, jobs and homes as local authorities crack down on illegal and unlicenced buildings in the wake of a deadly fire in the southern district of Daxing on November 18.
The blaze started in the basement of a three-storey property that had been converted into a cold storage unit. The upper floors housed small workshops and cheap sub-divided flats. The fire killed 19, including eight children, and 18 more were injured, mainly from toxic fumes given off by the cheap polyurethane cladding.
The Beijing government immediately announced it was launching a 40-day safety campaign to enforce fire and building codes. In some cases, people were given a few days’ notice to leave their homes and businesses before bulldozers moved in to flatten them.
“When they needed people to work and build the city, they welcomed us… Now the construction’s almost done, and they want us out,” one evicted person told the Washington Post.
To speed up the clearances in certain areas city officials smashed shop signs and cut off water, gas and electricity. Footage from Daxing showed streets littered with abandoned items and whole blocks of buuildings reduced to rubble.
One man speaking to Reuters said he had all the formal paperwork to be running a small supermarket in the area but was still evicted.
Other mobile phone footage showed traffic jams as vans crammed with people and goods tried to leave the area.
The Beijing government has denied it is using the tragedy to speed up the eviction of the so-called “low-end” population, but the crackdown chimes with a campaign launched earlier this year to close markets and small shops run by people without local household registration permits known as hukou (see WiC358).
The eviction has also sparked anger among the wider population of the capital. Many members of the middle classes may have tacitly supported the gentrification of central Beijing – the campaign that was launched earlier this year – but haven’t supported the more recent action, which is largely centred on the suburbs of the city.
“Kicking people out of their homes in the middle of winter is not the Chinese Dream,” wrote one blogger, referencing one of President Xi Jinping’s signature slogans.
They also recognise their own lives could be impacted if the flow of cheap labour dries up. “I cannot imagine my life without them,” one women told the LA Times. “Almost 90% of the services I use on a daily basis come from migrant workers. The quality of our lives depends on them.”
China’s courier and e-commerce companies look likely to be affected by the clearances too. Shentong, Zhongtong and Debang and other kuaidi companies have temporarily halted deliveries to Beijing and have warned that normal service may not resume till the 40-day campaign is over. Some have had to move their warehouses. Others have seen their dormitories closed and staff made homeless. Online retailer JD.com has said delivery times will be impacted and it offered its own staff free accommodation and transport to help them move house.
A group of around 100 academics also wrote an open letter to the government calling on them to stop the campaign. “We believe that this is a malignant event which is illegal and violating the Constitution and seriously trampling human rights, and should be resolutely stopped and corrected,” it said.
Dalian Wanda also took the unusual move of publishing a poem thanking migrant workers for their service.“If it wasn’t for you our city would not be clean and glorious… if it wasn’t for you there would be no one providing us with hot delicious meals,” it said. “If Beijing doesn’t have you we don’t know what it will be like,” the verse ended.
Even the state-run media agreed that the campaign seemed harsh. “The working methods of some [authorities] were indeed too simplistic and brutal, which justifies the anger on the internet against them,” wrote the Global Times.
“In a free and peaceful society, population mobility should be based on choice… we can’t ignore the dignity of the migrant population,” agreed state-backed CCCTV.
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