After a fire at a block of flats that killed 19 people in Beijing, government officials began a series of brutal washouts of migrant workers from their homes. However, the Beijing municipal authority denied that the campaign was intended to force poor migrant workers out of the city. The administration justified themselves by claiming these efforts were intended to avoid tragedies like the fire.
Rural migrant workers are workers with a rural household registration under the Hukou system. The hukou system has a binary framework which divides people into either urban hukou holders or rural hukou holders. Yet, these workers are not necessarily from rural areas. Although some of them are born in cities, the rigidity of the hukou system makes it insurmountable for them to obtain an urban household registration. As more migrant workers pour into first-line cities to cater economic needs, it became crystal clear that internal migration limitations made the system even harder to enforce. As of 2016, there are approximately 281.7 million rural labourers working in urban areas in China, which constitutes 35% of the Chinese total workforce.
According to a letter signed by 112 intellectuals including scholars, lawyers and artists, the authority’s campaign was a severe violation of human rights. Tenants were evicted from unlicensed residential structures with a few days’ notice, or even only a few hours’ notice. As a result, many migrants were forced to leave the capital and their workplace. In the past decade, China’s economic growth relied highly on the manufacturing and construction sector. As its economic growth slows down, China requires new stimulation to fuel its economy. This time round, the burden was laid upon migrant workers. China has taken aggressive measures to encourage white-collar workers to purchase properties. However, as this market goes saturated, the government diverted their target towards the blue collars.
In my opinion, the underlying cause of the conflict is deeply rooted in the rural and urban discrepancies between first-line cities and undeveloped regions. With a Gini coefficient of 0.465, China has significant income inequality issues embedded in its society. In 2014, Chinese migrant workers received an average of 2864 yuan monthly, which makes it impossible for these workers to afford house prices in big cities. In order to alleviate this problem, the hukou system has to be slowly advanced or abrogated. Not only does it increase labour geographical mobility, but also general living standards of migrant workers. Citizens shall be able to enjoy the same level of social benefits including education and healthcare. Without accessible public healthcare services, migrant workers have to save up their monthly earnings in case of emergencies. In January this year, the government attempted to loosen the restrictions by requiring cities to offer a baseline of public services, mainly healthcare for migrant workers. Undoubtedly, such measure will slowly improve living conditions of migrant workers. However, it will take time for the policy to fully come into effect.
Forcing low-income groups to purchase expensive housings is an unrealistic expectation. Rather than brutally forcing people out of their homes in the winter, the government should adopt a realistic time frame and carry out fiscal policies to assist low-income groups to purchase properties in the city.