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A City’s Dilemma

A recent fire in a suburban district of Beijing catalyzed a citywide campaign to demolish illegal buildings and evict migrant workers, on top of the capital’s attempts to deal with issues of overpopulation and shoddy construction

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

On the night of November 18, 2017, a fire in a two-story apartment building in Daxing District in Beijing’s southern suburbs killed 19 people, including several children, and injured at least eight others. The deadly fire was later found to have been caused by an electrical fault, due to the unregulated mixed accommodation conditions in the building.  

What followed was an immediate 40-day campaign by the Beijing municipal government to identify and demolish all illegal constructions to maintain urban safety.Some major areas slated for the clean-up initiative included old districts and rental apartments in the suburbs, with a focus on industrial enterprises, construction sites, large rental compounds, factories, warehouses, logistics storehouses, markets and underground spaces. As these places accommodated mostly people from outside Beijing – referred to as migrants in China – the campaign resulted in mass evictions of the residents who lived and worked in these areas.  

Sudden Eviction 

Li Yi used to live in Hezijie, a village some 20 kilometers southeast of downtown Beijing, an area home to several logistics companies, restaurants and small-scale carpet manufacturers. Li, along with some other neighbors, was handed a sudden notice from his landlord on November 21, 2017 telling him he had to leave his rented home within three days. Within the neighborhood, more than 40 households had to find new lodgings after the notices were sent out. 
But it was not so easy. Li told our reporter that due to the sudden increase in demand for accommodation, the price of a single room spiked from 450 yuan (US$68) per month in mid-October to over 1,100 yuan (US$151) on November 22, 2017. 
Similar mass evictions and demolitions cut a swath through several outlying parts of the capital. Domestic media was flooded with stories of the dramatic changes in the areas that had been cleared. The pathetic stories of Li Yi and all the other migrant workers driven out of their rented homes were widely reported, and garnered much sympathy. But behind the scenes, the contradictions between urban development and the management of migrant workers living in unregulated houses on the fringes of the city have always been a pressing issue for local authorities. The sudden mass eviction campaign in late November corresponds with actions already taken over the course of the previous 12 months to limit the size of Beijing’s population, an initiative that has resulted in the closure of wholesale markets and the clearing of slum areas. 

Previous Attempts 

In the 1950s, outside the city walls, most of the land was still agricultural – occupied by villages and farmland. In 1953, Beijing’s government started to make expansion plans and allotted agricultural land for urban construction. 
By 1958, according to the revised version of the then Beijing Urban Construction Overall Plan, a “dispersed group pattern” was chosen as the framework for urban-rural development. This meant that up until the 1990s, the rapid expansion of the urban area had left many former rural villages “marooned” inside the city and on its fringes, surrounded by modern construction.
Data on Beijing’s transient population indicates that from the early 1980s to 1994, the number of migrants increased from 264,900 to 3.3 million. Beijing authorities started to take action following official guidelines, such as “controlling the total number, optimizing the population structure, improving management and providing active services.”
The overall Beijing urban plan (1991-2010) stated that permanent residents in the city center area, considered as within the city’s Second Ring Road (built on the site of the former city walls), should be dispersed outside the downtown, with the aim of reducing the population of that area from 1.75 million in 1990 to 1.6 million by 2000, and further down to 1.5 million by 2010. In addition, according to the plan, renovation of old constructions in the old city center should speed up. However, in reality, from 1997 to 2005, the number of migrants into the urban area of Beijing increased by some 300,000 annually. The population of the urban area within the Second Ring Road reached 3.9 million by 2002.
In the early 2000s, after Beijing was awarded the right to hold the 2008 Olympic Games, rapid development made population and resource pressures much more prominent. 
The Beijing Urban Plan (2004-2020) aimed to control the overall population of the whole city, including the hinterland, to within 18 million, containing the annual population increase to 1.4 percent. But the target again failed and government statistics showed that by 2010, there were 19.6 million permanent residents in Beijing. 

The city started initiatives in 50 villages in the urban-rural fringe in 2010.  
Tangjialing near Zhongguancun, known as China’s Silicon Valley, transformed from a village of 3,000 inhabitants to one of 40,000 after it became known as a center for cheap rental accommodation. Many of these renters were low-income graduates, who were nicknamed the “ant tribe” by the media due to their cramped living conditions. Illegal construction by villagers posed a serious potential danger.
A sweeping and complete eviction soon started from May 2010 until the end of the year. 
In 2014, Beijing stepped up its vision of economic and social transformation. Optimizing and upgrading the industrial structure was as urgent as relieving the population pressure. The overall city development plan was revised to emphasize the coordinated development of a wider area, to include Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province in aspects of transportation, resources, energy, industry and ecological planning. 
In 2015, the central government approved the outline plan for the coordinated development and integration of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, clearly pointing out that the core of the new national strategy is to devolve Beijing’s non-capital functions. Beijing’s eastern district of Tongzhou was formally named the capital’s administrative sub-center. 
From 2013 to 2015, over 210 projects to renovate shanty towns were launched by authorities in the capital, including six villages near Tongzhou District center. By July 2015, evictions and demolition of regional wholesale markets started, and within five months, a number of major textile and clothing wholesale markets were closed down. 

By 2015, data showed 233 markets were either demolished or upgraded in the city, which affected 33,000 vendors. Since 2016, 174 manufacturers were ordered to close, and another 25 wholesale markets were relocated, which affected more than 12,000 vendors.  


Li Yi had lived in his rented room in Hengzijie for over four years. His job as a transport worker in Beijing for products including carpets, glass or tiles earns him a monthly salary of around 4,000 yuan (US$606). He paid 500 yuan (US$75) a month for a single room with a shared bathroom on the first floor of an apartment building. 

In July 2016, Chaoyang District government launched a campaign to demolish constructions that posed potential safety problems in Xizhihe Village near Hengzijie. Seven apartment buildings, 15 storehouses and 11 roadside stores were demolished, which meant over 3,100 residents had to move out. 
Soon after, other nearby villages including Xiaowuji, Laojuntang and Hengzidian were all included in the campaign, which aimed to demolish some 600,000 square meters of “low-end market places.” 

As Li Yi and his neighbors faced the grim reality of having to move, trucks from moving companies were lined up outside Hengzijie. He said some of his neighbors were considering taking their families back to their hometowns, and he was looking at having to pay a monthly rent of 1,100 yuan (US$151) if he wanted to stay in Beijing. Li Yi’s only other option was to return home to Hubei Province in central China to look for work.
Li Hutu came to Beijing from his hometown in Henan Province in 1994 and used to own two car repair shops in Fengtai District in southern Beijing. This August, one of his shops was ordered to be demolished by the government. On November 22, he received another notice from the government to relocate his second within three days. Over the past two decades, he has made enough money to pay for his two children to attend university. But this time, he told the reporter that he was planning to go home. “I might stay with my elderly parents for a while before I start looking for other opportunities,” he said.
One of Li Hutu’s frequent customers complained in the still-standing workshop on November 23: “All the car repair shops in the neighborhood are to be demolished within days, and now if I want to get my car fixed, I’ll have to drive to places at least 10 kilometers away.”
The target of the Beijing government this year is to cap the number of permanent residents at 22 million, and cut by three percent the total population in the six main downtown districts. Additionally, over 500 polluting manufacturing companies have been closed and over 40 million square meters of illegal construction demolished. Around 17,000 businesses operating without legal licenses were shut down.
The closure or relocation of storehouses and wholesale markets to outside the city has also continued. On November 24, 2017, NewsChina went to a wholesale textile market in Fengtai District in southern Beijing. All the stores were cleared out. By the market’s main entrance, an office remained open. According to an employee there, the company that owns Cangzhou International Textile Market in Hebei Province had come to seek potential tenants as soon as they heard the news of Beijing’s new campaign to relocate the wholesale industry. 
Yin Yuzhang, a manager at Hongmen Shoe Market in Fengtai District, told the reporter that the market has reduced the number of stores from 840 to less than 400. The market plans for a future upgrade and renovation and aims to keep the number of stores to fewer than 420. According to Yin, the shoe store operators that left the market have mostly left Beijing, with some moving to neighboring Tianjin or Shijiazhuang in Hebei. He also admitted that some have quit the shoe business altogether.
Looking at the tires strewn across the floor of his garage, Li Hutu was worried about his uncertain future. With only three days’ warning, he said, it was impossible to move everything out and make a plan for his future.