, Beijing, China, Nov 29 – Two dozen police swept through the pitch-black frigid hallways of tenement buildings in a ramshackle neighbourhood of northern Beijing, posting eviction notices on every door with heavy thumps of their fists.
The blunt warning gave residents just six hours to pack up and leave, as part of a city-wide campaign that has thrown throngs of migrant workers onto the freezing streets in recent days.
The harsh tactics have sparked a public outcry, but officials have argued that they are taking people out of unsafe homes in the wake of a fire that killed 19 people including eight children earlier this month.
Bulldozers and diggers have torn down buildings deemed to be fire hazards, reducing swathes of neighbourhoods to rubble.
When Pi Village resident Xiang Shaoping arrived at his home, he found a jarring message on the door.
“If you have not left the premises, moved out and completely emptied the space by 6:00 pm, all your belongings will be considered forfeited, and you will be responsible for all consequences,” read the letter posted around noon on Monday, without an official seal.
Xiang, a construction worker from Sichuan province, paid 700 yuan ($105) a month for his two-room flat — all he could afford as he struggled to support his wife and three children on an income of 4,000 yuan ($600) a month.
He moved there in September after authorities kicked migrants out of his former and more central residence.
“If this house is unfit to live in, you should have told us before we moved in, or not let them build it in the first place,” he said.
“China is saying on the international stage that it’s improved human rights, but do we low-end people have any rights?”
– ‘Act mercilessly’ –
The labour of hundreds of millions of migrants who moved from China’s countryside to its cities has fuelled the economic boom in recent decades, though legally they are not allowed access to social services outside their home towns.
But authorities in overcrowded Beijing have been getting rid of many of them for the past year as they seek to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 and demolish 40 million square metres of illegal structures.
The deadly apartment fire prompted officials to intensify the evictions with a 40-day campaign to clear Beijing of safety threats.
Authorities do not say how many people have been evicted in recent days, but the scope of the operation and demolitions likely affected tens of thousands.
Critics say the campaign pushes for rapid gentrification and targets the “low-end population”, a term used in past official documents. Beijing mayor Cai Qi has denied such intentions.
Online video footage showed Wang Yongxian, the top official of Beijing’s Fengtai district, urging cadres to “act hard, mercilessly, and quickly” and charge those who resist with the crime of “endangering public safety”.
“Demolish what you can demolish today, don’t wait until tomorrow,” he said. “Tonight there could be another fire.”
Last Friday more than 100 scholars, lawyers and artists signed an open letter to authorities protesting at the evictions, calling them a “serious violation of human rights”.
Internet censors have since deleted it as well as photos and comments about the fire’s aftermath.
– ‘I can’t go back’ –
Pi Village is some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the fire’s location, but authorities still shut off water, power and heat there without explanation on the day of the blaze.
Jiang Dengfeng, a supermarket worker from the southwest province of Sichuan, said it was so cold at home she had not been able to bathe in nine days.
“Where I’m from in the countryside, women just stay home. There are no jobs, so I can’t go back,” she said, waiting with three plastic satchels full of belongings for a car to take her to a friend’s house.
Other families loaded washing machines, pots and pans, lamps and chests of drawers into small motorised taxis or piled them in the street.
Rents had more than doubled given the sudden spike in demand, with flats once 700 yuan now going for 1,500 — putting them out of many people’s reach.
Xinjian Village, where the fire took place, was reduced to mounds of concrete, twisted steel and bricks where garment factories, shops and homes once stood.
Rows of police stood guard there, stopping unwanted visitors as diggers clawed the wreckage.
Garment worker Xu Yanjiao said she had only been allowed to collect her possessions from her apartment after her boss bribed a local official.
“With this fire, they found an excuse to kick us out,” she said. She knew four people, including a baby, who perished in the blaze.
Flipping through videos on her phone of plainclothes men harassing her neighbours, she said those caught filming had their phones confiscated and smashed.
“Unlike in the US, we have only one party in China. They face no threat, so they can just treat people however they wish, and you have no outlet whatsoever to protest,” she said.
She and her husband had rented a room in the area but would soon follow their factory south.