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This winter, forcible evictions in China’s capital have intensified. After an apartment fire killed 19 people in November, the government launched an aggressive campaign to destroy unauthorized and unsafe structures.
Entire neighbourhoods in Beijing have since been demolished, forcing eviction upon tens of thousands of residents. The campaign is so widespread some families have been evicted from multiple residencies within a month’s time. It is not uncommon for residents to have only a matter of hours to gather their belongings and vacate the premise before it is flattened. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of those affected are poor migrant labourers of rural origins.
Dozens of schools declared unsafe or operating without permits have also been evacuated, shut down, and marked for demolition, with little to no warning. The targeted schools mostly serve the children of migrants. Destroying them has been reported to affect 15,000 young students. Analysts voice concerns about limiting access to education, explaining that it is a surefire strategy to decrease social mobility and increase resentment between socioeconomic classes.
Because impoverished migrants are the primary target of this campaign, many believe that its true purpose is to achieve the government’s goal of capping Beijing’s population at 23 million by 2020 and rid the city of eyesores. Critics point out the cruelty in driving away the people who helped build the capital into a city of global stature. Migrant workers are the nannies, couriers, trash collectors, and construction workers. They take the hard and necessary jobs that many are unwilling to do. This discontent around the demolitions has provoked street protests, attracting hundreds who chanted, “violent evictions violate human rights.”
Government advisers have also questioned the strategy of alienating the cheap labour that fuels the growing city. This tactic is a trend amongst Chinese cities trying curb rural migration; they limit access to social services in hopes of combating the allure of higher paying jobs the city has to offer.
But most problematic is that many evictees have started families and established their lives in the city. They are now left with few options: return to the countryside they left in hopes of a better future, seek limited temporary arrangements, or homelessness during the harsh winter.
Still, the government maintains that the campaign’s only goal is to prevent further disasters and loss of life due to hazardous structures. And this is a real problem, as exemplified by Hong Kong’s notorious “Coffin Cubicles.” These are illegal subdivisions of apartments into coffin-like spaces, each large enough to accommodate someone lying down and a few possessions. China’s cities must deal with the serious issue of overcrowded and dangerous housing. However, in enforcing safety regulation, authorities must do so in a manner that does not further marginalize some of the poorest citizens already facing limited resources.