Wu Qiang, December 3, 2017
On November 18, a fire killed 19 people in Jiugong township, in the Daxing District of Beijing. A few days later, the city government launched a mass clearance operation of “low-end people” around the city’s suburban belt. Within a week, probably more than 200,000 of the “migrant low-end population living in Beijing” was evicted from their rental homes or workplaces.
Videos uploaded to social media, and reports by both citizen and mainstream media journalists, show that people living in the migrant worker “shantytowns” — village enclaves within urban areas — have been told that they have only two or three days to disband. The restaurants and factories in these shantytowns face marauding thugs who roam around smashing doors and windows. Their homes are invaded in the middle of the night by uniformed police, or auxiliary police, who kick in their doors and enter without permission, forcing them to evacuate under the threat of violence. The videos show them cold and homeless on the streets of Beijing in the middle of the night. Some pack onto trains taking them back to their home villages, while others look for temporary accommodations in nearby Hebei Province. Some simply linger on Beijing’s streets, refugees within China’s own borders.
The cruel and violent actions of the government have sparked fury and protest on Chinese social media. Some officially-controlled media, those which still retain some compassion, have published articles that offer veiled criticism of the Beijing municipal government’s policy. Civil society groups in Beijing, which have been under sustained repression for the last five years, have summoned up extraordinary courage to organize protests and relief. Alumni of Renmin University of China, Beijing intellectuals, and labor groups in China have published open letters of protest, for example.
What is particularly noteworthy is that, apart from the small number of Christian organizations and labor NGOs that reached out to help, some Beijing residents volunteered and organized their own relief networks, providing emergency accommodations, food, and jobs to the displaced. Hundreds of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and got involved, showing that civil society in Beijing, despite being under tremendous political repression, is still resilient and courageous.
Consideration of Political Security Underlies the Fascist Expulsion Campaign
As far back as February 2014, during his first inspection of Beijing, Xi Jinping proposed the idea of “relieving Beijing of its non-capital city functions (“疏解北京的非首都功能”).” In 2015 the State Council passed the “Programme on the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Coordinated Development (《京津冀协同发展规划纲要》).” In the same year, Beijing passed the “Beijing Municipal Party Committee and People’s Government’s Opinions on the Implementation of the ‘Program on the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Coordinated Development (《中共北京市委北京市人民政府关于贯彻〈京津冀协同发展规划纲要〉的意见》)’” and, in 2017, “Beijing Municipal Overall Development Program (《北京市总体规划》).” This indicated that China’s top leaders had made up their minds that Beijing’s population would be capped at 23 million, and cleaning out “superfluous people” would be a key task for the next two Beijing administrations, in addition to the urgent target of Beijing returning to its so-called “capital city functions.” The officials determined that “demonstrable results” would be reached in 2017. Thus, just as winter 2017 arrived, a suspicious fire in a low-rent apartment building in Daxing District presented the perfect pretext. Beijing municipal authorities, using their executive organs in every district where migrant workers dwell and their shops and factories operate, struck. Using the excuse of “fire safety” and an environmental requirement to convert households from coal to gas (煤转气), they orchestrated a mass mobilization of personnel, bringing in construction equipment accompanied by uniformed officers, directly entering the villages and getting to work expelling residents. That is how the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Beijing was created.
The mass clearance is occurring shortly after Cai Qi (蔡奇), an associate of Xi Jinping, ascended to the office of Beijing Party Secretary around the 19th Party Congress in October. To be sure, it has been common for local Party cadres to kick into radicalist governance as a means of accumulating political merit and showing their loyalty to the top. Similar things took place during the G20 in Hangzhou (杭州), with a massive urban redevelopment plan that came with restrictions on city operations and vehicles, or in Xiamen (厦门), prior to the BRICS summit, where city officials took up a scorched earth policy for stability maintenance. Officials in Lijiang, Yunnan (云南丽江), forcibly shut down guest houses when the occasion called for it, and Shenzhen (深圳) officials have suddenly banned electric-powered scooters.
But there is more to what’s happening in Beijing now, in addition to scoring political points and realizing the central government’s desire to turn Beijing into a show-case city like Pyongyang. Defining why Beijing is undergoing urban redevelopment in People’s Daily in August, Cai Qi stated clearly that “political security” is the number one security issue in Beijing and is part of the national security.
A New Displaced Class
The difference between the current actions and the “arrest and control” of public intellectuals, dissidents, and NGO workers during the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” in Beijing, is that Cai Qi’s target this time is a massive group of people. These are the “new displaced class,” the main target of expulsion in Daxing District and now in virtually all districts of Beijing. This group includes clothing manufacturers, small factory owners, home renovation laborers, others in the service industry, individual business owners, Taobao store owners, and other small business enterprises and self-employed workers. They — along with the construction workers now holed up under tents on work sites, as well as the contract and lease workers (派遣工) now sleeping in factories — all constitute a massive, growing group, a new displaced class. Their common characteristic is the lack of a stable and long-term employment relationship. They also lack social security or real estate. Compared to the mainstream class in society, they live on the margins of China’s urban environment. Ten years ago, the main representative of this group was the “migrant worker” (农民工), but with the rapid growth of urbanization and movements of people — in particular the relentless expansion of temporary employment relationships, the collapse of the social security system and the shrinking rights of city residents — this group continues to grow. They have now spread to the so-called low-skilled computer programming (码农) and traditional industrial workers.
Guy Standing of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London took note of this phenomenon in 2011. He discovered that the globalization of capital was creating a larger and larger displaced proletariat, from developing countries to the developed world. Their employment is unstable, their work hours are not set, their pay is not fixed, and their scale is massive — from the lowest-rung of work to traditional blue and white collar work. They include both “leased workers” in factory workshops and white collar working positions. They’ve become “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” as Standing titled his book, a new source of social inequality and unease.
The first “displaced class” to arise in reform-era China were migrant workers and entrepreneurs who moved to cities. Today the faces of the displaced class have changed a little, but they’re all a part of the “new displaced class” in the backdrop of globalization. This is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon, but it’s a trend that has deepened and expanded as China has globalized. This group has uncertain work, a lack of rights, informal contracts, no social security, unstable family environments, and exists outside the social mainstream. This description of the “precariat,” in fact, can be traced back to the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 170 years ago.
The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.
The unstable work and compensation of the newly displaced are creating a new form of inequality and insecurity, and also new forms of marginalization that they are unable to overcome. They may end up the objects of resentment due to wave after wave of “evictions,” whether scorned by city residents, or the nation as a whole. Put another way, the reason they are helpless in the face of expulsion is not because they suffer the feeling of inferiority of the so-called lower class. Strictly speaking, they are different from the lowest class. But, it is their lack of security and civil rights that makes them helpless in the face of violence. This is why the danger of the newly displaced is different in the eyes of the authorities from the Jasmine Revolution in 2011 although the group is big, living in close spaces and has the appearance of potential political confrontation.
Beijing: a City Gearing up for the ‘Beautiful Life’
Daxing District is located in the new Beijing airport’s “economic zone” (临空经济区) and is crowded because of its economic opportunities. So the evictions have been the most violent there. These shantytowns burn coal through the winter and create pollution, leading to frequent fires. They also lack law enforcement. “Zhejiang village (浙江村)” in Dahongmen has a high concentration of clothing manufacturers, logistics companies, repair workshops and houses large numbers of the newly displaced class. But such areas also frequently turn into places with appalling Kowloon-Walled-City-style living conditions; they are seen as a cancer on the outskirts of the city; and they provoke the authorities “sense of security.” They have become a sacrificial offering to the “beautiful life (美好生活)” policy unrolled at the 19th Party Congress. The existence of this class is incompatible with the “beautiful life” designated by the powers that be.
In addition, as the rising middle class has grown, so have internet industries such as courier and online sales services, changing the traditional urban landscape. Streets are filled with couriers, delivery trucks, and countless shared bikes. The expansion and instability of the new middle class has itself impacted many traditionally high-salaried industries and groups, including computer programmers and financial workers. Their temporary accommodations and shared housing arrangements also go against the notion of a “beautiful life” envisioned by the authorities.
By identifying the undesirable class of floating proletarian migrants and analyzing the Beijing government’s policy to “cleanse and reduce the low-end population,” we are bringing the state of this “non-citizenship” to the attention of the public and the international community. In Beijing and the rest of the country, this new and growing class of floating migrants who are “long-term temporary workers” is quietly altering China’s social class structure and urban landscape. They lack basic civil rights and the right of free movement into cities. Their unstable labor relations — that is, the obstacles caused by the backwardness of Chinese labor conditions and social security net — inform their unstable lifestyle that in itself poses a challenge to the urban space. Matters of household registration (户籍) aside, it is possible that this group of people will be used as an excuse for future discrimination and stratification by the state. This kind of stratification no longer entails the classic distinction between the modes of education and residence that once formed the gulf between proletariat and bourgeoisie.
In practice, recent years have seen Beijing’s poor move away from the old city quarters to the suburban districts at an accelerating rate as they search for economical housing, engendering a localized kind of class stratification.
A Genuinely ‘Dangerous Class,’ Perhaps
Placing ourselves in the aftermath of the 19th Party Congress, the net result of the authorities’ utopian designs for “a beautiful life (美好生活)” and hardline radical governance is a new kind of internal colonialism. Walls to maintain financial stability and to spatially isolate the new displaced class are being erected so as to guarantee what Cai Qi (蔡奇) calls “political security.” It is a reversal of the continuous breaking of social barriers during the 30-some years of reforms and opening up.
At the Davos World Economic Forum at the beginning of the year, China projected itself as the greatest proponent of globalization. Its arbiters are clearly taking a page from the statecraft of Li Hongzhang (李鸿章), a general and a diplomat of the late Qing Dynasty, whose Huai Army employed a fortress tactic to overcome the Nian rebels. In the same vein, firewalls are being erected everywhere. The tactic is being elevated to overall strategy: not only has the concept of internet sovereignty received heavy promotion; the “One Belt, One Road” is threatening to divide Europe. Meanwhile, in the United Nations, China has started proactively undermining the universal concept of human rights.
In the future, as Slavoj Žižek said in 2012, “to be exploited for the sake of holding of a long-term job is becoming a kind of privilege.” In the future, perhaps the only people allowed to live and work in Beijing will be elites and members of the new privileged class who accumulate a sufficient score in the new “social accreditation system.” Maybe there will be no more need for the display of state violence in the streets, which would be superseded by symbolic, big-data violence. This would be enough to ignite the increasingly intense class and spatial conflicts between the new displaced class and the mainstream class, creating human rights crises over and over again.
More Beijing refugees will likely be produced as a result of internal colonialism. At the same time, this new displaced class, in the course of repeated expulsions, could in theory find their self-consciousness and engage in independent societal grouping—becoming a genuinely “dangerous class.”
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
Also by Wu Qiang:
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.