Sun Di arrived in Beijing with a dream. In May, the 28-year-old moved to Zhouying village, a swath of low-budget apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts. He found a menial job at a pharmaceuticals company but aspired to start his own business.
Then came the evictions.
On Nov. 18, a fire tore through a cramped, low-budget Beijing apartment building — one much like Sun’s — killing 19 people. Authorities responded by launching Beijing’s biggest eviction drive in at least a decade. Sun has found himself caught in its grip, suddenly displaced along with tens of thousands of other migrant workers from less-developed cities and towns. Officials have given little or no notice, leaving many people homeless in the freezing cold.
This week, as social media sites have overflowed with pictures and videos of the evictions — migrant workers desperately packing up their belongings, sleeping on curbs, dragging suitcases down streets littered with trash — Chinese citizens have reacted with a rare upswell of collective rage.
“Now all of the time and effort I’ve spent in Beijing have been in vain,” Sun said on Tuesday as he packed his last few belongings, bound for his hometown in nearby Hebei province. “The government is too coldblooded, and I feel helpless and hopeless.”
Beijing is home to millions of migrant workers — construction workers, shop owners, security guards and delivery people who moved to the city for a shot at a better life. Yet China maintains a draconian residence registration system, barring the migrant workers from receiving social services enjoyed by local residents, such as access to healthcare and public schools. Critics say the system has created a permanent lower class — that the workers who built Beijing’s skyscrapers cannot possibly afford to make the city their home.
On Nov. 20, two days after the fire, authorities announced a 40-day campaign to rid the city of unsafe buildings, precipitating a rush of inspections and tear-downs across the city. They focused on dark, subdivided apartments in suburban and industrial areas — the only ones many migrant workers can afford.
Beijing plans to cap its population at 23 million by 2020, to ameliorate traffic, save resources and promote the development of high-tech industries. According to official estimates, the city had 21.7 million "permanent" residents at the end of 2016. The precise number of migrants — called a “low-end population” in official documents — remains unclear.
The online response to the evictions has been swift. More than 100 Beijing intellectuals signed a petition calling the campaign a “violation of human rights.” Nonprofit organizations and volunteer networkers offered moving assistance, shelter and food. E-commerce and food delivery companies scrambled to find shelter for their now-homeless employees.
Some internet users compared the evictions to two other recent scandals. On Nov. 23, a People’s Liberation Army general under investigation for corruption committed suicide, and last week several middle-class parents accused a kindergarten of abusing their children with drugs and needles.
“I’ve heard Beijingers have a new greeting,” said one widely shared post on WeChat, the country’s most popular messaging app. “When you meet the low-end population, you ask, ‘Have you found a place to live?’ When you meet the middle-class population, you ask, ‘Is your child OK?’ When you meet the upper-class population, you ask, ‘Have the party discipline authorities found you yet?’”
The scandals have come at a sensitive time, about a month after a political conclave that elevated President Xi Jinping — an avowed defender of the poor — as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Tse-tung.
Authorities have censored discussion of the evictions on social networking sites and restricted media coverage, according to a leaked circular published online by the California-based China Digital Times. “Concerning the Beijing city campaign to regulate and purge illegal structures, all web portals immediately shut down related special topic pages, control interactive sections, refrain from reposting related content, and resolutely delete malicious comments,” it said.
Several posts offering charity to displaced migrant workers were censored. By Wednesday, links to critical articles on WeChat led to a screen containing the message: “This content cannot be seen because it violates regulations.” Many WeChat users shared screen shots of the page as a more muted form of protest.
“I really sympathize with these migrant workers,” Li Yanyan, a 38-year-old high school teacher in Beijing, said in an interview. “They come here, they work hard, and all they really want is to make some money to send home to their families.
“I cannot imagine my life without them,” she said. “I buy my breakfast and vegetables from migrant workers. The delivery guys are migrant workers. The convenience store outside my building — the one my whole family uses — is run by migrant workers. The guy who fixes my shoes and my husband’s bike is a migrant worker. My hairstylist is a migrant worker. My nanny is a migrant worker. Almost 90% of the services I use on a daily basis come from migrant workers. The quality of our lives depends on them.”
Sun Di’s village, Zhouying, is now a ghost town. Most storefronts are vacant, empty water bottles and cigarette butts piled on their tile floors. Many of his neighbors have returned to their hometowns outside the city. Some have sought temporary shelter at local farmers’ homes at exorbitant prices; others have refused to leave.
A block away from Sun’s apartment, a 49-year-old who gave his name as Li remained in the small restaurant he managed. “They’ve been moving people from dangerous houses into even more dangerous houses,” said Li, who declined to give his full name for fear of official retaliation. “The government has blamed this apartment for being unsafe. But as long as you move out, they don’t care where you go.”
Li said authorities cut the power to his apartment the day after the fire; and one day after that, a security guard told him he had three days to evacuate. His neighbors panicked. “It was like fleeing a conflict zone,” he said.
He said he planned to return to his hometown in Jiangsu province, about 450 miles to the south, next month, once his 10-year-old daughter finishes her semester at a Beijing private school. Until then, he and his family have been quietly sneaking into his old apartment to sleep at night, always wary of police and security guards.
“Every night, at 11 or 12, security guys come in to check,” he said. “If they see your stuff and sheets are still there, they throw them out.”
Some state news outlets have lightly criticized officials over the evictions. “The working methods of some villages were indeed too simplistic and brutal,” the Global Times said in an editorial last week. Yet the government is unlikely to change course.
“This has been happening again and again to this social group,” said Tzu-chi Ou, a doctoral student at Columbia University who has been researching Beijing’s migrant worker communities since 2008. “I’d actually argue that it’s not unprecedented. But this time it’s the scale, and also the cruelty — the way they did this is really cruel.”
The case calls to mind a scandal in 2003, she said, in which a young migrant worker in China’s south, Sun Zhigang, died in police custody after being physically abused. The incident prompted widespread outrage, which led to legislative change.
“But this time it’s much more pessimistic,” she said. “People try to argue, or do something, but your message just gets deleted.”