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 Editors
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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 renminbi, 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 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.