At night on the edges of Beijing, the migrant workers who keep China’s capital city fed, cleaned, swept and supplied wait in fear of a knock on the door that could ruin their hopes of finding a better life.
Far from the skyscrapers and monuments downtown, squads of police and safety inspectors have been scouring the city’s sprawling outer neighborhoods crowded with laborers from poor rural China. Those living or working in buildings deemed to be dangerous or illegal are ordered to vacate, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice, before homes, shops and even whole factories are demolished.
Tens of thousands have already been uprooted in the city’s most aggressive drive against migrant neighborhoods that people can recall; many more migrants are wondering how much longer they can remain in their homes, or even in Beijing.
The city government says they are being pushed out for their own safety, after a recent deadly fire in a migrant settlement. But many migrants say the government is using the fire as an excuse to ramp up efforts to drive them out and ease pressures in a city whose population has already soared beyond 20 million people.
“Suddenly in one night my livelihood was destroyed, as if I’d been attacked by bandits, but this was done by the government saying they care for us,” said Zhang Guixin, a 38-year-old woman from the central Chinese province of Henan whose fruit and vegetable stall was demolished.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in eight years in Beijing, nothing,” Ms. Zhang said, standing beside the flattened remnants of her stall in Xinjian Village, a migrant neighborhood in southern Beijing where the clearance has so far been most intense. “Beijing doesn’t want us. We’ll have to go back to our village.”
The expulsions have been in jarring contrast to the vision that China’s president, Xi Jinping, laid out in October when he won a second term as Communist Party leader and vowed to build a prosperous society of equals. The drive against the settlements has left migrants abruptly homeless as winter approaches and asking why leaders of the party founded to represent the poor laboring masses have turned so harshly on them.
“Xi Jinping is from our home,” said Dang Hui’e, a migrant from the northwestern province of Shaanxi, where Mr. Xi spent part of his youth. Ms. Dang said she was ordered to move out of her apartment with three days’ notice while caring for her 9-month-old baby.
“Does this country have any laws?” she said. “The law is laid down by you, you’re the president, so what’s the good of the laws that you lay down?”
Xinjian Village was teeming with migrant workers and their children until two weeks ago. Now half the area is a field of rubble and debris from demolished buildings, and the other half is nearly empty and waiting for the wrecking crews. Remaining inhabitants packed their belongings into suitcases and boxes.
In the buildings they had vacated, bowls of half-eaten instant noodles and abandoned toys testified to lives suddenly disrupted.
“It’s happened so quickly, it’s hard to believe that this was my home,” said Wang Guowei, a migrant in his 20s from Henan who was dragging a suitcase along a street strewn with trash and rubble. He said he had found a new room in Beijing with the help of his employer, a car parts maker.
“I’m not sure how long I can stay,” he said. “Nobody is sure how long we can stay anywhere.”
A similar scene is being played out in dozens of migrant neighborhoods across the city. Migrants said they felt as if they were being treated as pests by Beijing, which already excludes them from the education, health care and housing benefits provided to locals with permanent resident permits.
“We’re all Chinese, this is our capital too, the people’s capital,” said Shi Yongxiang, a ruddy middle-aged cleaner from northwest China living near Banbidian, a village on Beijing’s northeastern edge that is home for thousands of migrants.
“How can Beijing get by without migrant workers?” Mr. Shi asked as two curbside vegetable hawkers nodded in sympathy. “We do every job that the locals won’t do.”
The migrants tend to live on the edge of Beijing in stretches of three-, four- and five-story apartment buildings that are often cramped, but not dilapidated. The streets hum with activity from supermarkets, cheap diners, hairdressers and cellphone stores.
Local officials have tolerated, inspected and taxed these buildings for years until the current crackdown, when they suddenly declared them illegal for being fire hazards, or for lacking permits.
“They never said it was illegal when it was built, or when they came to inspect it, or when we paid our deposits, but now we’re being told to move without any say,” said Luo Haigang, 42, a driver from central China who was scrambling to vacate his one-room apartment after being given two days’ notice.
The Beijing government has said the clearances were urgently justified by a fire in a migrant worker apartment in Xinjian Village that killed 19 people, including 17 from other parts of China. After that, officials hastily listed 25,395 safety hazards across the city, and said they had to act fast “to prevent the tragedy recurring.” The city party secretary, Cai Qi, ordered a 40-day clearance campaign to rid the city of safety hazards in migrant neighborhoods.
“Starting from today, demolish what can be demolished, don’t wait until tomorrow,” Wang Xianyong, a district official in southern Beijing, said in a speech to officials that leaked onto the internet. “If it’s demolished today, then won’t you be able to get a good night’s sleep?”
Initially, city leaders ignored the complaints from the displaced migrants. But as images of expelled workers dragging their belongings along streets on freezing nights appeared on social media, they ignited an unusually strong public backlash. Even some state-run news outlets have chimed in to criticize the rushed demolitions.
“They are people of flesh and blood, the grass-roots laborers who keep Beijing, this huge city, running normally, and they deserve the respect and understanding of every one of us,” said a commentary on the website of China’s main state broadcaster, CCTV.
Charity groups have also sprung up to help displaced workers.
The images of homeless workers “made me think of those scenes from movies of Jews being expelled without anyone saying a word,” said Liu Bowen, a 35-year-old professional photographer in Beijing who helped set up a service to find housing for displaced migrants. “I thought we should speak up.”
In essays and petitions, critics of the campaign accuse Beijing of seizing on the fire as an excuse to accelerate expulsions that have until now failed to slow the city’s growth.
“The bodies of the dead were not cold, and yet some people in this fine capital cracked the whip to expel the ‘low-end population,’” said one of the petitions.
City officials denied calling the rural laborers a “low-end” group, and suggested critics were trying to stir up social divisions.
But the city government has also spent years trying to reduce Beijing’s population of low-income migrants, using demolitions and sweeping inspections of residency documents to force them out. They have warned that Beijing was overstrained as its population has soared to almost 22 million last year from 10.9 million in 1990.
Of last year’s figure, 8.1 million were migrants from other parts of China — mostly menial laborers but also white-collar workers, some of whom have also been displaced by the recent removals.
The campaign intensified in 2014, when President Xi demanded that Beijing deal with its bloated population. The city snapped into action, moving factories, schools and markets out of the city to force low-paid migrants to leave.
Beijing has set a goal of limiting its population to 23 million residents by 2020, while also making room to attract more higher-paid, university-educated professionals.
Despite such efforts, officials have so far failed to deter migrants from settling in the city, largely because Beijing still relies on them to be its cooks, couriers and cleaners.
“They want the horse to run, but they don’t want to feed it grain,” said Zhang Yonghui, a worker in his 30s from Shaanxi who moved to Beijing a few months ago after failing to find work in coal mines. “They’ll get rid of us for a while, maybe for a year, but then quietly they’ll let us back because they need our labor.”