Class Dismissed: How Class Divides are Changing Beijing

Last week, the Beijing municipal government announced a “red line” for population. By 2020, the population of the city will be capped at 23 million. The sticky wicket here is that the current population figures are based on the number of official residents, or holders of residence certificates.  That number is about 21.7 million but doesn’t include the “floating population” of semi-legal residents and migrant workers. They don’t have residence certificates and, like undocumented workers around the world, are undercounted when the census takers come around.

Estimates vary, but the actual population of the city may already be north of the 23-million-people red line. This means that instead of simply slowing in-migration, the new policy may require the government to take coercive measures to move folks already here out of the city. We’ve seen one aspect of this policy in the closure of many low-end businesses throughout Beijing’s neighborhoods, exactly the kinds of businesses owned, operated, and staffed by economic migrants from other parts of the country.

It is possible that some of Beijing’s haves will cheer this policy as a raising of the drawbridge. Fear of being swamped by the rural masses has long been at the core of class anxiety in urban China.

But a city is more than just the upper middle class.