Mo Zhixu, December 14, 2017
In the evening of November 18, 2017, a fire broke out in the Jufuyuan Apartments (聚福缘公寓) in Beijing’s Daxing District (大兴区), prompting authorities across the city to begin “clearing out illegal apartments.” In an abrupt and sweeping action, tens of thousands of people were commanded to collect their belongings and vacate their homes onto the cold and windy streets of China’s capital. It was heart wrenching to watch.
The incident raised much online discussion. The drive to remove the so-called “low-end population” (低端人口) of Beijing harks back to the “shitizen” (屁民) phenomenon that arose a decade earlier in Shenzhen. For many, it is a blatant reminder that in China, a veil of prosperity and affluence conceals the poor state of human rights and even that of the Chinese human condition as a whole.
What Is Meant by ‘Low-end Population?’
A cursory look at the term “low-end population” suggests it is a concept of class, but detailed analysis shows this isn’t necessarily the case.
Firstly, “low-end population” in the Chinese sense refers exclusively to those from other regions. It is an identification status created by the household registration system (戶籍), as opposed to a class formed by market forces. Low-income but legally urban residents and poor rural dwellers may belong to a similar economic class, but they are not included among the “low-end population.”
Secondly, “low-end population” is partially defined by profession. As noted in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily on August 1, 2016, “low-end population” refers to “workers employed in wholesale markets inappropriately placed in megacities, or in mid-to-low-level industries.” Others, combing through past usage of the term, have discovered that “low-end” is often used primarily to characterize a type of industry, and as such it mainly refers to low-income people of low cultural background engaged in physical labor; in short, mostly rural migrant workers in the manufacturing or construction business.
By contrast, unskilled workers such as nannies, janitors, restaurant staff, deliverymen, etc. do not count as belonging to the “low-end population.” This is because they provide services essential for the “high-end population’s” standard of living and without them, the city’s functions would come to a halt.
In Beijing, the “high-end population” comprises first and foremost those in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) power structure, or the regime’s privileged class. As a result, some of the central authorities’ state-controlled media have commented sympathetically on the service workers among the “low-end population” who were affected by the recent expulsions, putting out phrases like “the city can’t only run on white-collar workers.” The starting point for their rhetoric is that these people are needed.
Lastly, it is possible to be considered “low-end” even if you are not economically poor. The stall owners in the wholesale markets make a sizeable income, even higher than that of the average middle-class resident. But because the customers at these markets are typically “low-end people,” the business is irrelevant to the needs of the “high-end population.” Thus even the affluent stall owners have themselves become “low-end people.”
In 2016, prior to the clearing out of illegal apartments, the famous Beijing Zoo clothing wholesale market, which boasted tens of thousands of stalls, was forcibly dispersed and the market closed.
As can be seen, the meaning of “low-end population” is determined entirely according to the needs of the “high-end” privileged class. It is derived from blatant discrimination based on status.
Why the Urgency to Clear People From the Capital?
Why is the city of Beijing in such a hurry to suspend the so called “non-capital functions” and remove people from the region? It’s impossible to explain this using an economic rationale. But looking at it from the political perspective and considerations of the privileged class, everything falls into place.
Beijing was the imperial capital of multiple dynasties and is built around a single center. After the CCP seized power, Mao Zedong rejected a proposal by Liang Sicheng (梁思成) to relocate the administrative center to a different part of the city. Mao criticized the architect’s ideas as an “attempt to deny that Tiananmen was the political center in the eyes of all the nation’s people.” Development of the new Beijing was therefore carried out radiating out in concentric circles from the government sector at Tiananmen and Zhongnanhai [the CCP leadership compound].
Liang Sicheng had his concerns: “Whether the multitude of government buildings are placed here in a meandering shape along narrow streets, or snaking about the edges of the massive public square, either option results in a long line of administrative workplaces. With the constant coming and going of vehicles, traffic will increase uncontrollably and the parking situation will be fraught with serious difficulties as well.”
After the year 2000, China began to industrialize. Beijing’s population increased rapidly, jumping from nearly 14 million in 2000 to 22 million in 2016. At the same time, the number of automobiles shot up from several tens of thousands to nearly 6 million in 2017. The daunting flow of people and vehicles overwhelming the single center validates the concerns Liang Sicheng raised back in the Maoist era.
The business day ahead of the mid-autumn festival in 2009, Beijing was hit by unprecedented traffic jams due to the high-level social gatherings and gift exchanges taking place at the time. “Cars couldn’t even get out of Zhongnanhai.” Rumor spread that following this experience, Hu Jintao gave the order: “Control the population, improve traffic.”
However, early decisions made by CCP authorities mirrored Mao’s architectural thinking. Moving the administrative district was out of the question given the need to “reinforce and safeguard the political center’s spatial security,” “safeguard safety and stability to ensure that the central military and political leadership can operate with high efficiency.”
As a result, the only option was to cut down the flow of people, vehicles, and goods in, toward, and around the core district. But as explained above, Beijing radiates outwards from a single center, so merely expanding the core to within the second ring cannot achieve this goal. They have to clean up all the rings one by one, to create some breathing room for the center.
This is the basic mentality behind Beijing’s need to weed out “non-capital functions.” Looking at the latest map of cleared-out areas summarized and provided by the media, it can be seen that virtually no distract is untouched. Put plainly, the people who are now freezing in the streets were expelled for the comfort and convenience of the privileged people occupying Zhongnanhai.
In a Totalitarian State, Who Isn’t a “Low-end” Person?
Just removing this small portion of the “low-end population” is clearly far from sufficient when it comes to satisfying the CCP regime’s need to ensure the convenience of its privileged class in the center core district. It can be assumed that even more “non-capital functions” and “low-end people” are awaiting treatment. But just who isn’t a “low-end person” in the coordinates of privilege?
Firstly, a “low-end person” is anyone who is unnecessary. University students don’t directly benefit the “high-end population,” so they can be considered transitional “low-end people” and thus be driven to the fourth or even sixth rings [Beijing’s beltways]. Beyond this group, the elderly and infirm provide no use to the “high-end population” and even consume extra resources, so the hospitals must also be relocated to the outer rings.
More importantly, to “reinforce and safeguard the political center’s spatial security” is meant in the political as well as the physical sense. Auxiliary to Beijing’s cultural, media, technical, education, and health resources, the city has developed some of its own competitive industries. In these industries, many are self-employed workers, specialized technicians, administrative staff, sales personnel and the like. They are a new social class, and a good part of the near 10-million population growth in the past decade belongs to this class.
This new class has intrinsic liberal tendencies. As a center of culture and cosmopolitanism, Beijing has become a multifaceted and dynamic stage. It is a ripe environment for nascent social movements. In the last few years, whether it’s the rights defense movement, the Charter 08 movement, or the New Citizens Movement, all of them began and were most active in Beijing.
Civil society and opposition movements have found space for expression in large part due to the existence of this new and large-numbered class. From the standpoint of the Party authorities, the presence of such a social class makes it possible for a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, should certain conditions converge.
Some commentators are already pointing out that the expulsions targeting the “new displaced class” are designed to preemptively halt large-scale social incidents. The logic is quite sound.
Getting to the core of the matter, the definition of “low-end population” in China is determined by the “high-end population,” that is, the demands of the privileged class. By clearing out “non-capital functions” to satisfy this privileged class, Beijing authorities have brought physical, emotional, as well as economic pain to a large number of people. As long as the government continues to operate on this logic with its premium on political security, still more people — including those currently involved and seemingly still in the ranks of the upper middle class — can be targeted according to their political leanings, societal potential, or perhaps just because of their numbers, and end up in the ranks of the “low-end population” all the same in a blink of an eye.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a mainland-based Chinese dissident intellectual known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition.
Beijing Refugees and the New Displaced Class, Wu Qiang, December 3, 2017.
Campaign to Drive Out Migrants Slams Beijing’s Best and Brightest, The New York Times, December 11, 2017.