Outcry as Beijing begins sweeping evictions of migrant workers
Authorities in Beijing have launched sweeping evictions of workers who have migrated from elsewhere in China, triggering a public outcry over the treatment of low-paid residents.
Workers say whole families have been evicted, often with little notice, leaving them scrambling to transport belongings in freezing weather.
Last week, the city launched a 40-day campaign to clear out tenants from buildings deemed unsafe after a massive fire killed 19 people at apartments rented mainly by low-income Chinese migrant workers.
"They called us at 5 am and by 8am they had arrived with demolition equipment," said Bi Yan'ao, a 54-year-old migrant worker who has lived in Beijing for 13 years, describing what it was like to have to leave his apartment in Daxing in just a few hours last week.
"In just one hour, they flattened a 100m (330ft) -long stretch of land. How scary is that."
After that, Mr Bi went to work with his relative at a shop selling cosmetics, but then they were told they had a couple of days to move out.
Most tenants living in such homes on the outskirts of the city are factory workers, construction labourers , delivery people, drivers, cleaners, or hairdressers who come from poorer parts of China.
Others run their own small wholesale businesses and shops selling cheap goods. Some have lived in the city for years with their children.
The owner of a luggage store described a similar experience as Mr Bi, saying officials came and told her family to leave within days before the area was to be sealed off and demolished.
"People have feelings, we cannot accept this, to be asked to leave suddenly," said the store owner, who gave only her surname, Yang.
"We've lived in Beijing for a long time and it's not about how much contribution we've made. In the end, we've ended up with not even a place to live, I feel sad. So deeply sad."
The eviction drive has been met with widespread criticism online, with a group of intellectuals signing an open letter to the central government urging the city to stop the evictions and provide temporary housing for the migrants.
One of the signatories, independent political commentator Zhang Lifan, said anger over the evictions showed that rapid economic growth has resulted in a massive accumulation of wealth and also rising inequality and a sense of unfairness.
Mr Zhang said many Chinese were quick to extend a hand to displaced migrants because they too had once been in their shoes, having worked their way up the socio-economic ladder to secure a decent middle-class life.
"When they saw that the migrants had been evicted, they realised that similar tragedies could have happened to them," Mr Zhang said.
The Beijing Work Safety Administration has denied that the campaign is aimed at driving out low-income migrants, saying it covers unsafe housing across the city.
The Beijing city government said last year it plans to cap the city's population at 23 million by 2020 and cut by 15% the number of people in six main districts.
China Labour Bulletin spokesman Geoffrey Crothall said the evictions are part of an ongoing effort by the government to redevelop land and capitalise on rising land prices.
With the evictions, the government is effectively driving out the backbone of the city's labour force, Mr Crothall said.
"Beijing needs migrant workers to do all the low-cost efficient service jobs that middle-class Beijingers depend upon," said Mr Crothall.
"But if you push them out of the city altogether, then there is going to be no one to do those jobs."