Skip to main content

You Juhong, a hotel worker, is bundled against the cold in her unit in the Family of Fortune and Prosperity apartment in Beijing, where tenants have been told to leave by Dec. 15 amid a large campaign to clear out migrant workers in the Chinese capital.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Inside room B209 at the Family of Fortune and Prosperity apartment building near Beijing's capital airport, You Juhong's eyes brim with tears as she speaks.

"In 2008, Beijing welcomed you. In 2016, Beijing hated you. In 2017, Beijing expelled you. In 2018, Beijing won't even bother to see you," she says in quiet fury. Those lines, a parody of a Beijing Olympics slogan, have become the bitter chorus for tens of thousands of people like Ms. You, workers who came to the city from other parts of China but are being evicted from their homes in the cold of winter, after the local government declared their homes unsafe.

Now, as the Communist Party asserts a renewed dominance over life in China, authorities in Beijing are also clamping down on those who have tried to help the newly homeless. That has left people like Ms. You, a hotel worker, with few options outside of leaving, as even those who might want to offer assistance are barred from doing so.

Story continues below advertisement

In November, Ms. You was evicted from another building. Then she found B209, and for the last half-month she and her husband have lived in its small confines, one of 288 units jammed into a small apartment building with others who have come to Beijing from other provinces to scratch out a living.

But on Thursday Ms. You will leave here, too, her departure a command from the Beijing government, which launched a sweeping clearance operation soon after a fire killed 19 people in an apartment building like Ms. You's nearly a month ago. Saying they wanted to avoid similar incidents elsewhere, authorities have razed buildings and emptied entire neighbourhoods of people who clean streets, deliver packages, drive taxis and sell houses. At the Family of Fortune and Prosperity apartment building and dozens of others nearby, local authorities have said they will cut off electricity and water Dec. 15 – although only at buildings occupied largely by migrant workers.

Night-time temperatures this week are expected to dip to -8 degrees Celsius.

"My heart is now cold as ice. Facing a world like this and a government like this makes my heart dead," Ms. You said.

And, she said, "we can only rely on ourselves to cope with all of this hardship. There is nobody to help us."

In fact, plenty of help has been offered. The plight of the city's migrants has prompted an outpouring of generosity among Beijing's moneyed and middle class alike, with people and corporations pledging free housing, free food and jobs for those affected.

In one social media post, Beijing's King Water Company offered free food and accommodations for 30 people. "Don't ask me why I am doing this. I used to be a Beijing migrant, too!" said the post, written by a manager named Mr. Wu.

Story continues below advertisement

He was soon giving assistance to a half-dozen people. Then he was told to stop.

"Someone from the police station came by and we had to halt the whole thing," he said in an interview.

"I absolutely feel pity for the state these people are in, and I'm sorry I can't do more."

Brother Wang and several Christian friends similarly got together, offering to assist evicted people find temporary homes or vehicles for moving.

"We wanted to help people because we feel that the measures taken by government are completely inhuman," he said.

He posted his contact details on social media, and soon heard from evicted people who were "aimless and anxious … uncertain about where to go, uncertain about the next meal."

Story continues below advertisement

But the day his post went up, police called. They "asked us to go to their office," Brother Wang said. He declined to describe how the meeting went, saying only: "We have halted our activities."

The Globe and Mail contacted a half-dozen other groups who publicly offered help to expelled migrants. They all refused comment. The Beijing Migrant Workers Culture Development Center said it was not working on the evictions, the biggest crisis to hit that population in years. One of the founders of the Migrant Worker's Home Culture and Development Centre said he could not speak. Another charity worker, Yang Qi, described in a lengthy social media posting how he was "interrogated by police" and then barred from helping migrant workers; authorities tore down the sign to his office. A colleague verified his account.

Such retribution comes as China under President Xi Jinping intensifies the role of the Communist Party in the country's economic, political and social life, while shunting aside those with differing agendas.

"When government spots a problem, it would prefer to solve it on its own rather than alongside other people," said Jia Xijin, a scholar at Peking University who studies civil society. Co-operate with the government and "you will be fine," she said. Refuse and "you will be stopped."

For that reason, helping migrant workers in Beijing today "would be seen as an act of defiance," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

"The party state has decided for the good of Beijing, and therefore Beijing's citizens, that these people from the lower strata need to be cleared out," he said.

An increasingly wealthy China has nonetheless become much more charitable. Last year, total national donations reached $27-billion (Canadian), up 26 per cent from the previous year – although, at 0.2 per cent of GDP, donations still lag well behind places like the United States, at 2.1 per cent, and the United Kingdom, at 0.5 per cent.

Some companies, too, have been able to help affected migrants in recent weeks unimpeded. House-cleaning company Home King has hired people who lost jobs at smaller competitors bankrupted by the departure of so many workers. Home King has also rented 20 apartments for those who lost homes. Of the company's 700 employees, 300 were affected by the eviction campaign.

"Without these workers from outside Beijing, there's no way for me to continue our business. We need them," said Wang Jin, a manager with the Home King.

Still, that's little consolation to Ms. You, who warns that Beijing without migrant workers "will be a bleak city, where there's nothing. A dead city."

As she talks, she is joined by Liu Feng, another migrant worker from Family of Fortune and Prosperity who is also preparing to leave Beijing Thursday. He smirks at the "Chinese dream" propaganda posters that have proliferated under Mr. Xi.

"The Chinese dream is 'do whatever China wants you to do. If it wants you to die, you die,' " he said.

- With reporting by Alexandra Li

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter