The Beijing Migrants Crackdown

A ChinaFile Conversation

After a fire in a Beijing apartment building catering to migrant workers killed at least 19 people on November 18, the city government launched a 40-day campaign to demolish the capital’s “unsafe” buildings. Many Beijing residents view the campaign as a thinly veiled excuse to force out migrant workers. Since mid-November, police and security officials have evicted tens of thousands of migrants from their apartments, and pictures of the newly homeless from all across China sitting outside in the Beijing winter have spread widely on social media. Why did the city government take this step? And what does this mean for the rights of China’s so-called “low-end population”? —The Editors


After last weekend’s deadly fire which killed 19 people and injured eight others, the Beijing municipal government announced citywide inspections targeting “illegal and unsafe structures,” a move which is as much about transforming the urban core of China’s capital and clearing out economic migrants (officially referred to as “low-end residents”) as it is about fire safety.

The workers and migrants displaced in these forced demolitions are not only among this city’s most vulnerable residents, they also represent a group relied upon by Beijing’s more affluent classes to provide essential services for little pay.

The economic realities of life in the capital frequently force migrant workers to live on the fringe, often in buildings divided and subdivided into improvised residences and makeshift industrial spaces. According to China Labour Bulletin, the average rent in Beijing (2,748 renminbe, about U.S.$415) is equal to nearly 100 percent of the salary of a migrant worker. The result is a proliferation of “migrant villages” with dilapidated housing and limited social services.

Few of these folks, if any, have a Beijing hukou, or residence permit. They exist on the margins, as many undocumented workers do around the world, fearful of being sent back, easily exploited, and often blamed for social problems.

They are also one of the pillars of the new economy in China. They are the young semi-literate men from the rural areas, modern-day descendants of Lao She’s famous Rickshaw Boy (luotuo xiangzi), who careen through streets and sidewalks on their electric carts delivering the promises and packages of China’s e-commerce revolution. There are the thousands of young women in these communities as well, not just waitresses or menial staff, but also women who work in the lower rungs of offices and companies hoping to climb the ladder of success. These are some of the faces of Beijing’s migrant community.

One of the few bright spots of this recent campaign has been the response from Beijing’s urban elite. Many of my friends and neighbors here are polite, but they sometimes have trouble hiding their disdain for “people from away.” The phrase “people with low suzhi (personal quality)” is used depressingly often by Beijing residents to describe economic migrants.

And yet this past week, many Beijingers traveled to the newly “improved” areas of the city to offer food, blankets, and other support for the recently displaced. There has been a public outcry on social media against the forced demolitions, an outcry muted recently by system blocks on key online search terms such as “low-end resident.” The general sentiment is that public safety is necessary, the city needs an upgrade, but the way this is being done, people being forced from their homes with little notice, is inhumane. Regulations are important, but they need to be implemented consistently and fairly.

Perhaps, too, we are all starting to realize what life will be like in a city without economic migrants. My own neighborhood has recently undergone “urban renewal.” Most of the lower-end businesses had their doors and windows closed with bricks, municipal workers demolished buildings in several courtyards and structures housing migrant workers. At first, the more affluent residents of our neighborhood were happy. They were tired of the entrance to the apartment complex parking garage being blocked by vegetable sellers and carts selling delicious, hot jiaozi pi (dumpling wrappers).

Then a few weeks after, a plaintive text on our apartment complex WeChat group wondered: “Does anyone know a place to get jiaozi pi around here? The guy I usually use in the morning is gone.”

The plight of Beijing’s migrant population is now a point of concern for at least some of the urban elite. It is hard not to have sympathy for the displaced. After all, winter is coming in Beijing, and the winters here can be very cold for everybody.

I don’t know how often I hear that “China doesn’t have slums.” It’s not just a common comment from visiting foreigners. It also comes from Chinese whose route from home to work passes through neighborhoods pleasantly free of the squalid urban street living that people usually associate with developing countries. (One young educated person told me last month that she “didn’t know where to find poor people in Beijing.”)

The evictions and demolitions in Beijing this winter have made the living conditions of the capital’s other half painfully obvious. Most of China gets too cold in the winter to support visible slums. The migrants who cram into Chinese cities have to find housing indoors, behind the blank walls of former villages, in basement warrens beneath upscale apartments and in the long faceless blocks around the wholesale markets in the bleak outskirts.

In other words, Chinese cities have a housing crisis. Peking University’s Institute of Social Sciences says 90 percent of Chinese are homeowners. HSBC says 70 percent of Chinese millennials own their own home. Leave aside the question of who was surveyed. Many Chinese migrants do indeed own homes; it’s just that the homes aren’t where they want to live.

This brings us to the long history of forced de-urbanization in the People’s Republic of China. Current official policy says urbanization will drive China’s next stage of growth. But the dominant trend of Communist rule in China has been to keep people out of cities.

The hukou policy of restricting social services to the place of household registration—including grains and oil rations—was cemented in the late 1950s, during the Great Leap Forward. Grains were confiscated from the countryside to feed the cities, and planners needed to prevent starving peasants from following the grain. Even before that, many personal accounts of the 1950s mention city dwellers forced back to their country birthplace after the Communist victory. The problem was the planned economy couldn’t meet the demand of populous cities. The solution was to depopulate them.

The reform period allowed free movement of people, or more accurately, of labor. You could get a job wherever you wanted. But you couldn’t raise children there, or get old there. In other words, you couldn’t settle. When I arrived in Beijing in 1995, the police were still trying to force migrant construction workers out of the city. One of civil society’s greatest successes was abolishing the requirement for migrants to carry permits—after a migrant college graduate was beaten to death in custody in 2003.

For me, the most hopeful development of the 2000s was seeing migrants bring children to the cities, to climb the social ladder as a family. Over the past three years, it has been heartbreaking to watch Beijing reverse that dream, first by making it harder to educate the kids, and now by eliminating places for migrants to live and work. It’s undeniable that slum dwellings are often crowded firetraps. But when resources and jobs are concentrated in the cities, of course the people will come too. Forcing migrants to spend their savings on homes in towns without jobs doesn’t solve the problem of China’s invisible slums, it just perpetuates the costly legacy of the planned economy.

Let there be no mistake about it, China’s internal migrant problems are very much analogous to cross-border illegal immigration and refugee crises in other parts of the world. The issues Jeremiah highlights are also familiar patterns elsewhere: entire populations, fleeing in fear or hopeless despair, migrate into affluent regions to seek a better life, competing for soul-crushing jobs that the locals shun, suffering class and ethnic discrimination in the process. Beijing’s problems should be seen in this global context of growing economic inequality and lack of access to the fruits of modern society.

But outside China there is, at a minimum, an ongoing and contentious policy debate about migration, a transparent and open discussion about finding humane and equitable social compromises to address the problem. In Beijing, by contrast, there is a striking lack of official discourse about migration policy. Rather, the municipal government, with no acknowledgement of its true intent, has over the last decade been forcing these people out of the city by eroding their economic ecosystem and demolishing vast swathes of infrastructure that have always been spaces for survival.

If this can be seen as a test of Xi Jinping’s yifa zhiguo (“lawful governance”) campaign, I’d say it is failing the test. Far from exploring policies and legal frameworks to deal with the demographic influx, Beijing has used selective enforcement of long-ignored ordinances to target and expunge the floating population. As has often been pointed out, Xi’s policy put into practice should be categorized not as “rule of law,” but “rule by law,” If you want to criminalize the marginalized, make marginal activities illegal. Anatole France wrote: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

As with undocumented workers and refugees in the U.S. and Europe, the migrant communities are no longer “the other,” but have come to constitute an intrinsic part of the melting pot culture. In Beijing, street-side cuisine (including the fast disappearing dumplings that Jeremiah and I share a love for), the mom-and-pop local restaurants, and the legal-limbo motorbike rickshaws (heimo, “black motorcycles”) have all become iconic aspects of Beijing life. It is thus encouraging that the term diduan renkou “low-end population” has shocked the political sensibilities of the normally indifferent Beijingers, alerting them to the ugly classism lurking beneath the legal façade.

“Human flow,” the worldwide phenomenon of which Beijing’s floating population is just one example, should only be addressed with humanitarian solutions. Beijing’s forced eviction agenda under the guise of law and public safety is merely apartheid by another name.

The current and ongoing expulsion of significant numbers of migrant workers from Beijing’s city center is accompanied by a supposed crackdown on “unsafe buildings.” This has led to eviction notices being sent to a wider range of Beijing residents than simply migrant workers and, while many migrant worker dwellings are indeed shoddily built and potential firetraps (something that could have quite easily been dealt with by regular inspections and enforced building to code), other targets of this latest eviction and demolition campaign are traditional courtyard dwellings called hutong often inhabited by anybody but migrant workers.

We should be quite clear that any further loss of hutong to the bulldozer is a matter of serious concern. It doesn’t diminish the plight of the migrant workers themselves, but is another aspect of this campaign. We should also be quite clear that as far as the long-term preservation of a range of hutong—from those once (and still sometimes) inhabited by the wealthy of previous centuries to those occupied by ordinary folk then and now—we are in the endgame. Any further loss is catastrophic to any sensible and serious built environment heritage preservation for Beijing.

In 1949, by the Beijing city administration’s own numbers, there were 3,050 hutong. By 1990, this was down to 2,250; by 2004, to 1,300, and by 2012, to 900. The number is now probably around somewhere just under 550 hutong left. Of course, the numbers are argued over and contradictory. Government sources have noted the “600 remaining hutong,” yet a recent general city plan for Beijing called for the preservation of “more than 1,000 hutong,” despite there not being that many left! And what of the approximately 550 hutong remaining? Not great news despite some high-profile restorations in Dongzhimen and Dongsi. At least half of those hutong remaining are already changed beyond recognition—truncated or partly demolished. Now more hutong are being bulldozed amid excuses of fire safety. There is now a very real and imminent case of architectural extinction.

“Extinction”? Well, yes, extinction—the death of a species, or form or type. Hutong are almost unique to Beijing and totally unique to northern China. Unfortunately, those clusters of hutong away from central Beijing, such as at Tongzhou, have taken a major bashing too. We’ll never lose all the hutong—a few will remain as showcases, just as Shanghai will keep a handful of that city’s unique lilong lanes, and Singapore some traditional shophouses. But out of context, without residents, without the contrast of the different upper and working class hutong lifestyles, they will to all intents and purposes become extinct.

Others will comment on what this current harsh and spiteful campaign means for the city’s migrant worker population, but remember that it is also yet another attack on the city’s built heritage and a land grab by developers. Beijing is running low on hutong—we should fight to preserve every one now and mourn any that pass into rubble.

There are intelligent and somewhat less intelligent ways to criticize the recent wave of migrant worker eviction in Beijing: The intelligent way is to highlight the eviction program’s disparate impact on rich and poor migrants, and question both the economic wisdom and social justice of targeting lower-income migrants, not to mention the ruthless brutality with which these specific evictions were carried out. For example, one could argue that a far better way of handling population pressures—compared to, say, either the hukou system or the current eviction program—would be to systematically divert firms, government agencies, and universities away from the capital, and therefore incentivize a proportionate amount of both high- and low-income households to move out. The much-hyped Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development project is one such attempt to shift some of Beijing’s economic, political, and educational clout onto neighboring regions, although it will take some years to have substantial effect.

The less intelligent way is to simply assume, implicitly or explicitly, that Beijing and other major Chinese cities should have no population controls—and there have been a surprisingly large number of arguments to this effect. The obvious questions about skyrocketing population density, natural resource depletion, and ecological impact aside, allowing unchecked growth in major cities can only exacerbate the already severe economic divide between them and the rest of the country, which creates enormous social and political costs over the long run. (Beijing already has a much higher population density than virtually any major city in developed countries, including even Tokyo, but also has less access to water.) The economies of scale generated by large cities are not unlimited, whereas the externalities can be enormous beyond a certain point. A careful consideration of appropriate scale should therefore always precede policy arguments about urban planning. Arguing that urban planning should be sensitive to the economic contribution of lower-income workers and/or social equity is one thing; arguing that it shouldn’t happen at all is quite another.

The predatory violence overtly and massively visited upon Beijing’s “lower-end populations” (diduan renkou) by the State must be viewed along a continuum of the logic through which “low-quality people” (suzhi di de ren) were named and shamed in cultural discourse more generally. As we should recall, this latter locution and mode of reference emerged largely in the 1990s, consequent upon the huge urbanization infrastructural works and the large-scale migrations from rural areas into the cities following the agricultural economic crises after the mid-1980s. In other words, the cultural disdain has always been part and parcel of the active State destruction of the livelihoods of the folks thus referenced; it has always been part and parcel of the active destructuring and restructuring of the possibility of rural lifeworlds in reform-era China.

It should be obvious that all historical modernizing efforts—state-led, capital-led, whichever—require the subordination of whole swaths of populations—domestic or colonial, enslaved or “free”—to the will of developmentalist desire; it also should be obvious that these efforts always require the destruction of the environments, habitats, and livelihoods of those who might stand in the path of such desires. The ways in which these desires are implemented vary widely in their particulars; they do not vary hugely in their general aspect.

China’s depeasantized migrant populations have been created over and over again, wave after wave, in the past 40 years by the ever-emerging and transforming modernizationist-developmentalist, quasi-capitalist policies of the Chinese Communist Party and its allied private or state-owned enterprises. The only thing standing between this depeasantized population and absolute destitution has been the hukou system, which allocates to them land and the possibility of eking out a minimal livelihood in their natal villages; to be sure, that very same hukou system is at fault for the inequalities with which such depeasantized populations are treated in the cities. Many liberal commentators believe the only remedy for this situation is to privatize land, release all from the hukou system, and float everything on the market. This, I submit, would create ever more slums, ever more cultural distinctions, and would release ever more versions of the predatory violence now on display, albeit perhaps less visibly. It would contribute, moreover, to ever less possibility of thinking about the possibility for the just redistribution of ever-shrinking pools of collective property.

What this overt display of violence against a whole category of population has demonstrated is that labor precarity, which is a creation of a particular form of predatory economics hardly contained to China alone, is dependent upon State violence. This specific bout of violence in Beijing—one bout in a very long line of such violence—may concentrate minds; or it may lead to a lot of hand-wringing and loud lamentation. Most likely, there will be some bursts of public displays of solidarity—no small thing, obviously, given the huge censoring operations the Chinese Communist Party is able to muster to its side—followed by a rapid fading from view of the conditions of possibility that make the so-called “China dream” a nightmare for so very many.

In recent decades, China’s national government has attempted to encourage movement of migrants away from the country’s largest and most prestigious coastal enclaves to lower tier cities in the interior through a variety of household registration (hukou) reforms. However, the vibrancy of Beijing retained its pull for migrants looking to make good wages. City officials want a population of those who have done well, with the thought that they will be the ones most inclined to do well by the regime. Pushing the migrants who deliver goods, cook meals, and build and clean the city's towers out into a North China winter is a cruel and cold calculation that follows from prior policies.

As has been said above, there is a history to managing the movement of people inside of China. The current efforts to shape the population of Beijing follow a tragic fire that killed 19 people in Xinjian Village, but officials in the capital have attempted to reduce the so-called “low-end population” there for decades. Scholars of authoritarian regimes understand the core political impulse involved in this kind of management: urban protests are dangerous for governments that, after all, by definition are located in capital cities. Dictators would subsidize the residents of those in cities—often through cheap housing and food—to reduce their potential grievances against the government. Those subsidies would come from taxing agricultural producers. This kind of urban bias was regressive, as the denizens of cities tended to be wealthier than their cousins in the countryside. Just as taxing one crop and assisting another will lead to crop switching, so too does taxing agriculture to benefit cities ends up incentivizing farmers to move to urban areas—increasing their size and the potential for protest. In Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China, I showed how China navigated this Faustian Bargain through its coercive household registration (hukou) system. During China’s period of economic planning, the ability to acquire food was accessed through government ration cards, which were good in one's own locality--and so prevented movement from rural to urban areas. With marketization, migrants increasingly came to China's cities taking advantage of markets to purchase the staples of life. Yet these migrants were always separate from the local population. They had trouble accessing social services and legal protections than their local counterparts. Employers and local governments perpetuated this urban-rural divide, undermining the potential solidarity among those all sharing the experience of living in China’s cities. What is yet to be seen here is whether locals will rally in defense of their “low-end” compatriots or revel in their removal from an overcrowded megacity.

It is nothing new that the Chinese government evicts huge numbers of the “low-end population” through various gentrification campaigns, cracking down on porn and gang activities, and banning unlicensed motorcycle transport and electric bicycle delivery services. In November 1995, in a few rushed days of demolition by the city, more than 100,000 migrants were forcibly evicted from 48 compound sites in what was called “Zhejiang village,” in the Fengtai district on the southern edge of Beijing—this despite efforts by Zhejiang provincial officials trying to negotiate to stop the eviction.

In this short conversation, it’s important we discuss the nature of the “low-end population,” a new migrant class in today’s digitalized and globalized context, and try to understand Chinese society’s response.

The victims of both the 1995 “Zhejiang village” eviction and the 2017 Beijing migrants crackdown are not as poor as the country’s most disadvantaged: Chinese living in remote villages. The migrants to Beijing are small factory and shop owners, family workshop bosses and their employees, self-employed professionals, service industry workers, and, in 2017, the owners of online stores. They have relative mobility, for they are not living in dormitories at factories or on construction sites. Many of them have the resources to sustain small businesses. What they don’t have, by and large, is a willingness to confront state authorities.

Many evicted tenants try to find a new place to stay and restart their business and get back to work again quickly, to earn money rather risking personal safety by confronting the government. This strategy was confirmed in reports about the 1995 “Zhejiang village” eviction, and is largely reported by volunteers and researchers during the 2017 Beijing migrants crackdown.

So far, crackdown victims have not been able to organize to resist the eviction. The public reacts to the crackdown by expressing sympathy for migrants, fear about their own property security and personal security, and anger about the government authorities’ actions: demolishing migrants belongings and housing sites without giving enough time for them to move out and find a new place to live. In the midst of a cold winter, a large population of eviction victims in Beijing have become refugees in their own country.

The weakening of civil society under Xi Jinping’s rule has forced individual initiatives to react to the emergency by providing eviction victims temporary asylum and helping them to find new residences and jobs, particularly in the service sector. Censorship has made reporting the crackdown tough. A lack of free information about recent events has limited the ability of public opinion to impact government policy. Since Ai Weiwei persistently questioned the government on the number of school children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and a series of collective legal actions during the 2008 contaminated milk powder scandal, wave after wave of detentions of lawyers and activists has undermined civil society organizations’ ability to question government accountability, an ability that has faded in the midst of the crackdown chaos.

The crackdown on Chinese migrants did not begin last month.

Indeed the the forced relocation may have been in the makings since Beijing’s 2011 Five-Year Plan. But targeting poor migrants and peasants with state violence is a long-time nationwide policy.

The large majority of collective action in China is led and carried out by people with rural hukou. Citizen journalists Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu collected and calculated instances of protest from social media information. Before authorities arrested them and sentenced Lu to four years in jail for the documentation work, they managed to record nearly 30,000 protest events in 2015, over two-thirds of which were carried out by workers and peasants. At least 14,200 people were arrested in these events. We can assume these were incomplete figures. When it was still allowed a greater degree of transparency, the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences (CASS) reported 90,000 “mass incidents” in 2006, a rise from 32,000 in 1999. CASS data also revealed the proportion of worker and migrant protests to be two-thirds.

The riches and economic might of China have been built on the backs of hundreds of millions Chinese with rural hukou. While they have have not enjoyed most of the benefits, migrants and peasants have borne the greatest economic and social costs. So they push back. To save their homes, to demand due compensation, to demand accountability for corruption or heavy-handed development policies. Knowing the power of marginalized people who get organized, the Party has responded by systematically monitoring, arresting, and intimidating poor people with rural hukou.

At the heart is a regressive development model which commodifies rural people. Riches are squeezed from their land and labor to be transferred to the selected winners—corporations, some urban residents, and the Party. When migrants are no longer needed, they are promptly moved. Violently, when deemed necessary.

The first thing that struck me about the Xinjian Village demolition was just how frighteningly familiar all of it was. I’m referring not just to the longstanding question of migrants in China’s cities, but to the way safety (and especially fire safety) was used as a rationalization for the wholesale destruction of tenement housing. Over the decade I spent researching urban villages across China, but especially in south China, for my book on the subject, this was an inescapable theme. Urban villages with local populations of just one or two thousand, providing cheap housing often to tens of thousands of migrant workers, would be targeted as “black spots” on the urban fabric — on the canvas of China’s emerging modern self-image. It was very often fire and fatality that prompted exactly the kind of action we’ve seen recently in Beijing. Local governments would talk about the need for “clean” and “modern” urban living environments, but the end result for migrants was always the same. They were forced to move on to another urban villages, further out on the margins, where the same safety and sanitation issues prevailed. This story is replayed on nearly a daily basis in China, and our noticing it this time is also one of the only things that makes this case exceptional.

I have just a couple of things to add to the cogent remarks above. First, we should recognize that this story involves not just migrant workers but also local villagers, two aspects of the urban-rural rift. Xinjian Village is actually made up of four villages where the local villagers have made a living in part by renting properties to migrant workers. In coverage of the story, there has been a lot of discussion of the plight of migrant workers, but the local villagers have been mostly overlooked. Video has circulated on social media of these villagers gathering today outside the village committee offices demanding answers about their own livelihoods. So the conflict now will almost surely turn to the difficult question of compensation for their collective land and properties. It is worth noting, then, that Xinjian Village was a “rural” space in the city where “rural” villagers were capitalizing on the market provided by “rural” migrants in the city. This complicated picture can be seen in hundreds of villages in every one of China’s many thousands of cities.

Second, there is the critical question in this case of language and censorship. An important aspect of this problem across China is that it cannot be discussed because issues of demolition and urban development are so sensitive, and touch on so many vested interests. So it’s interesting that much opposition online in the Xinjian Village case centered on the term we are using here, “low-end population.” Netizens objected strongly to the use of this very derogative term, and they dug out the origins of the phrase in official documents and the state media. They started a discussion that is now rapidly disappearing. I suspect, though I apologize for my cynicism, that very soon we will all move on, settling into a fresh disregard for this issue.

Almost 25 years ago, the well-informed analyst Qin Hui wrote an essay describing how the plight of slum dwellers in India and victims of pass laws in Apartheid South Africa was not as bad as the plight of rural migrants to Chinese cities who had no way to organize in their own interest or organize protests and change their situation. Today, 25 years later, I wonder which of the three groups has most bettered their situation. I suspect it is not the Chinese internal migrants treated as lower caste people, but I really do not know. Does anyone?

Also, I wonder how much these Chinese tendencies are inherent in Leninist systems. How different is today’s Beijing, in its treatment of lower caste people, from Moscow under Stalin or Pyongyang under the Kims? Or, is it possible that Supreme Leader Xi has found Pyongyang, at least in the matter of making the urban center a beautiful home to the “deserving” (suzhi gao) to be a positive model and therefore Xi is consciously moving China in the direction of North Korea?