In late November, days after a fire raged through an apartment building in a Beijing suburb, killing 19, officials began to uproot migrant communities on the city’s periphery. Residents were wrestled out of their rented homes, and bulldozers flattened entire neighborhoods. Tens of thousands were made homeless overnight.
While city officials justified the campaign as an effort to forestall future accidents, it was, in fact, the latest and most aggressive move in a series of heavy-handed urban policies that attempt to redeem the dire consequences of Beijing’s haphazard urbanization.
Before the evictions some eight million migrants lived in metropolitan Beijing. In the last few decades, they have flocked to the city from the countryside for the low-level jobs that have fueled the country’s spectacular economic boom. But their integration into urban life has been woefully constrained.
Lacking a Beijing “hukou” — the permit that ties access to most social services to one’s officially designated home province — these migrants inhabit an alternate urban reality.
It may take months to receive welfare payments, and state pensions may be canceled, because the migrants have not been living and working in the city of their hukou. Most devastating of all, with their children unqualified for proper local public schools, migrant parents are forced to choose between sending them home to the countryside for education, where they may be raised by grandparents or no one at all, and enrolling them in substandard Beijing schools created to serve migrants.
And while the plight of migrants is of concern to many Chinese, migrants’ housing troubles have often been neglected, overshadowed by middle-class angst over unaffordable real estate. The fire in November changed that.
Those who died were trapped in a dilapidated building on the urban fringe — what was likely their only option for housing. Affordable public housing for out-of-towners is virtually nonexistent. Landlords of migrant rental properties rarely bother to follow the fire code or invest in the buildings’ upkeep, since most of those dwellings are deemed illegal and are under constant threat of demolition.
The migrants’ struggles also reflect China’s urban-planning crisis: The country’s cities have grown too big, too quickly. Their metamorphosis from drab factory towns into dizzying metropolises in just a few decades has been propelled by a crude mixture of political and economic objectives, resulting in a wrecked environment, gaping inequality and broken family ties.
Beijing, the second-most populous Chinese city, is a case in point. The experiment, beginning in the early years of Communist control, of overlaying an imperial capital with a Soviet-style industrial city failed miserably, leading to circuitous commutes and atrocious air pollution, not to mention the destruction of vast swaths of historical neighborhoods.
Before officials reckoned with those repercussions, market forces took hold: Migrants arrived seeking jobs and roofs over their heads, driving the city’s population from 11 million in early 1990s to twice that size today.
The push to build subways and public parks in the last decade or so have been impressive in their efficiency, owing in no small part to migrants’ industriousness, but the local governments have not done enough to remedy the strains on urban life, especially environmental problems.
In 2015, a documentary directed by an investigative journalist about the city’s toxic air set off a maelstrom of online criticism of government ineptitude. The country’s top environment official, acknowledging citizens’ response to the film, compared it to “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book that helped ignite the environmental movement in the United States.
Less visible yet equally threatening is Beijing’s impending water crisis. Groundwater supplies have been depleted to dangerously low levels.
When desperate, authorities turn toward those with the least power to resist. In recent years, on top of discriminative policies the government has been waging a war on the “low-end population,” as migrants are referred to in official documents. Regulations in the name of urban improvement — neighborhood gentrification, school and service-sector upgrades — have been tightening restrictions over migrant employment and residence, chipping away at their livelihood so that remaining in the city has become less viable.
As a result, the exodus of migrants has accelerated, and the population of Beijing’s six core districts dropped by 353,000 in 2016, the first decline since urbanization began four decades ago. Those migrants who have built national stadiums, ferried lunches for office workers, and nursed the babies of middle-class families are making their final contribution to the city by leaving. In its most recent five-year plan, Beijing has set the goal to cap its population at 23 million by 2020; the current number is inching close.
The depopulation drive is mirrored by other policies to reduce environmental stress. This winter, authorities issued a ban on using coal to heat homes in some regions surrounding Beijing (though the ban was later rescinded in some of the areas). Generous subsidies and tax breaks are in place to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles. A satellite city twice the size of Manhattan is under construction southwest of Beijing to take pressure off the capital.
These measures are beginning to yield results: Pollution in Beijing dropped by a startling 53 percent in the last three months of 2017 compared to the same period a year earlier, returning this winter’s sky to the hue of crisp blue I remember from childhood. The perennially clogged ring-roads near my neighborhood are also seeing thinner traffic.
But some problems go even deeper than the superficial urban environment. In July, an essay titled “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” got more than five million views on social media. In a tone of weary detachment punctuated with the dark humor familiar to young Beijing residents, the writer, a migrant from the northwestern province of Shaanxi using the penname Zhang Wumao, bemoaned soul-crushing city life for leaving people perpetually adrift.
After spending a decade here, he said Beijing’s pull on residents is quickly diminishing: The wealthy are fleeing abroad, and the poor are returning to their home villages. Those damning descriptions prompted censors to block the essay, but not before it struck a chord with young Beijingers trying to cope with the isolation of city life.
Beijing’s urban strains require urgent alleviation. Some of the official steps, such as the investment in clean energy, have been laudable. Yet others are less so. In official speeches, President Xi Jinping speaks of a country that has moved beyond the single-minded pursuit of economic greatness, to one prioritizing the happiness of the people.
What the eviction of migrants and other urban policies have underscored, however, is the indignity of living in a tightening authoritarian grip.
Helen Gao is a policy analyst at a research company and a contributing opinion writer.