A deadly fire led to a dramatic intervention that saw thousands turfed out into a freezing Beijing. There are better ways to tackle the troubles of megacities, Bingqin Li writes.
On 18 November, a deadly fire broke out in the peri-urban township of Xihongmen on the outskirts of Beijing, claiming the lives of 11 adults and eight children. Two days later, the Beijing municipal government initiated a massive clearing in the name of safety. They targeted not only informal residential buildings, but also small businesses, including restaurants, workshops, factories, warehouses, and wholesale markets.
Nor did they stop at Xihongmen, with other peri-urban villages and townships also targeted. Thousands were evicted in days. In some places, the evicted were given notice of less than 72 hours. Buildings that were considered informal or illegal constructions had their electricity and water supply cut. On 24 November, over 100 scholars, lawyers and artists signed a petition to the Central Government to call for a stop to such inhumane actions. Five days later, 14 officials including the Mayors of Daxing and Xihongmen were fired.
The fire was the trigger, but the bigger picture is Beijing’s industrial upgrading and urbanisation plans. In February 2014, Xi Jinping said that Beijing should “adhere to and strengthen the core functions of the Capital as a national political centre, cultural centre, international exchange centre and science and technology innovation centre, thoroughly implement the strategies of Humanistic Beijing, and Technology Beijing and Green Beijing and strive to build Beijing into a world-class harmonious and liveable city.”
The Beijing authorities took this as a signal to develop ‘high end’ industries and eliminate ‘low end’ ones. From 2013, Beijing gradually started to clear businesses that were considered ‘low end’.
Between 2013 and 2016, 1,341 general-purpose manufacturing and polluting enterprises were shut, with a further 500 were targeted for 2017. From January to August this year, 38.34 million square metres of illegal buildings were demolished and more than 25,000 hole-in-the-wall shops were shut.
In October, the Beijing Government further proposed the idea of “peeling the cabbage” – to focus on improving the core.
Controlling the city’s burgeoning population is a priority in the current Beijing City Master Plan. The target for 2020 is to keep the total population of Beijing under 23 million. Given that Beijing already has 22 million long-term residents and people are still trying to move in, achieving this target requires significant levels of deportation.
Migrants to the megacity compete for a limited supply of resources (such as water) and public services (including education and transport), and long-term residents resent this competition. In an attempt to deal with this, Beijing introduced a point system, allotting permanent resident status to a limited number of migrants, and granting Beijing Household Registration to an even smaller fraction, while rejecting the majority.
Removing people is not easy. To encourage implementation, each district received a quota of people to be evicted, and these quotas were further broken down to the neighbourhood and community level.
Local authorities were held accountable to the municipal government for the implementation of the quota. Some responded cynically, with stories of street vendors being persuaded to move to the other side of the road as that belonged to another neighbourhood.
Beijing’s residents believe that the city is getting less liveable. As such, clearing out the “low end” population and businesses in peri-urban areas received significant support, including from migrants who came earlier and are now settled.
However, these migrants and their businesses came to Beijing for a reason. They thrived in the city as a result of market demand for their products and services.
The recent fire put pressure on local authorities to take stronger action. But it was action that had serious consequences and brought unwanted international attention to China.
After all, forcibly evicting thousands of people into the cold of winter can only undermine the image of a “people-centred” government that China is trying so hard to promote and maintain.
So what could Beijing’s government have done differently, and how should it tackle these problems in the future? Policymakers need to come to terms with the fact that eviction is a temporary solution at best. It is often the cause of social tensions rather than a solution to them. Once political trust is lost, it is difficult to restore.
Eviction is rarely likely to be the best solution, but if it is necessary, it should be exercised with great caution, and support should be offered to the people whose livelihoods are affected. The safety concerns flagged by this disaster should be addressed systematically on an ongoing basis. It is too late to try and deal with it after a disaster happens.
Some of Beijing’s local authorities have complained that they cannot cope with such a massive inflow of migrants. But as has been proven in many cities in China and other parts of the world, community self-governance can take the pressure off the government. For example, fire prevention measures can be increased through community-organised inspections.
Ultimately, inequality is the driving force behind migration into Beijing. To stop the flow of people, poorer areas will need to develop to standards of living approaching that of Beijing. Fortunately, development is happening, but it will take time for people to react to the changes.
The government may provide information or even financial incentives for people to relocate. But it’s always better to let people decide for themselves than to push them out into the cold.