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In-depth President Xi’s Second Term: Prospects for Japan-China Relations
The Drive to Clear Beijing’s Slums: Will the Authorities’ Strong-Arm Tactics Work?

Ako Tomoko [Profile]


The drive by President Xi Jinping’s administration to implement its ambitious plans for new urban development has resulted in evictions and other mistreatment of migrant workers from rural areas. Public welfare benefits for low-income people are scant, and internal economic disparities are continuing to widen. One key piece of this picture is the system of hukou, official family registers that have been used to control internal migration.

A Fire in Beijing Is Followed by the Ouster of “Low-End Population”

On November 19, 2017, a major fire swept through Xihongmen, part of the Daxing District in southern Beijing. It broke out in one of the area’s “three-in-one” buildings—edifices combining workshops, storerooms, and living space, where residential units intended for single-family use are illegally rented out to 10–20 people. The densely packed illegal buildings in the area blocked fire engines from approaching the source of the conflagration, which ended up claiming 19 lives.

Subsequently, men in black armed with sledgehammers and clubs forced their way into apartments in Daxing and other districts of the capital with large populations of internal migrants, such as Shunyi and Fengtai. They broke windows, smashed furniture, and drove residents out into the cold with only the clothes on their backs. People who resisted were taken into custody. And the supply of water, electricity, gas, and heat to homes and businesses in the targeted areas was cut off.

On November 10, nine days before the fatal conflagration in Xihongmen, the Beijing public security authorities were rattled by a fire at a warehouse located in the Shunyi district not far from Beijing Capital International Airport. Chinese President Xi Jinping had just completed his summit meeting with US President Donald Trump and was about to fly to Vietnam to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. And Trump flew out of Beijing on the same day. As they departed, both presidents may have seen the smoke from the warehouse fire. Though there were no deaths or injuries, the fire ended up blemishing an important diplomatic occasion for China.

After these two fires, the municipal authorities ordered the prevention of further security-related incidents, and this led to a large-scale, rigorous, coordinated crackdown on the capital’s migrant residents. Online videos showed a meeting where Wang Xianyong, secretary of the party committee of the Fengtai District, issued an impassioned call for a crackdown on three-in-one buildings, using the pithy terms shizhao, langzhao, and kuaizhao. The first, shizhao, referred to mobilization of all public officials to investigate and clear up the situation. Langzhao meant coordinated efforts among law enforcement authorities, “urban management officers” (chengguan, auxiliary personnel whose duties include maintenance of urban security and public health but whose scope of legal authority is unclear), prosecutors, and party propaganda officers to eliminate threats to public safety. And kuaizhao meant that the drive should be launched immediately, without waiting for the issue of official documents or the holding of deliberative sessions. In the course of just a few days this rough-handed campaign reportedly left more than 100,000 people without a roof over their head.

Some Chinese Internet users posted comments and photos likening the men in black (presumably the aforesaid “urban management officers”) who ransacked the residences of internal migrants in Beijing to the Nazi paramilitary troopers who were the main perpetrators of Kristallnacht, the infamous rampage against Jews and their property conducted across Germany on the night of November 9–10, 1938. They suggested that the evictions of Beijing’s “low-end population” (the epithet applied to the migrants) brought to mind the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis.

“Villages in the City”: The Slum-Like Neighborhoods Housing Internal Migrants

The areas inhabited by the targets of the eviction campaign are commonly called chengzhongcun, meaning “[rural] villages in the city,” a seeming contradiction in terms. Some of these “villages” are places where farmland has been expropriated in whole or in part in the course of China’s rapid economic development and urbanization. Others are places where migrants from rural areas have clustered. They are not officially registered as residents of the cities where they live, and the dismal urban villages into which they have gathered can fairly be called slums.

The distinction between officially registered city residents and migrants from rural areas is based on China’s system of household registration. When this system was introduced by the Communist Party of China in 1958, the party leadership thought it was necessary to hold down the prices of agricultural products and promote the welfare of the urban population so as to speed up the accumulation of capital in heavy industry. The hukou system established a legal distinction between city dwellers and rural residents working in agricultural communes, and for many years the latter were strictly prevented from moving into cities. But in the 1980s the agricultural communes were broken up around the country, and subsequently, as demand for urban laborers grew, the ban on movement of rural residents into urban areas was effectively lifted. But the official distinction between urban and rural residents remained in place, and city dwellers with rural hukou came to be called nongmin gong—farmers working in industry. This situation persists to this day. These migrants are not officially registered as residents of the cities where they live, and they are ineligible for many of the social services that municipal citizens receive.

The main hurdles keeping the government from doing away with the hukou system are the large regional differences in social security coverage and the differences between the urban and rural systems of land ownership and registration. Land in China is still considered to be a public asset in principle, but the Land Administration Law of 1986 makes it possible for people to buy and sell the rights to use of urban land. The state continues to hold the title to all urban land, but it can be leased for fixed terms, such as 70 years in the case of residential property. The leases can be renewed, and the leaseholders can sell their rights to others. Under this law, urban real estate has effectively become private property.

The provisions for rural land are different: The land is owned by residents’ collectives, and individual farmers have the right to use particular plots. But they cannot sell or mortgage their rights, and there are strict controls on the use of farmland for nonagricultural purposes. However, the law allows the state to assume ownership of farmland for “public purposes,” and if a collective arranges for the title to its land to be transferred to the state, the land can then be developed for nonagricultural use. Since the definition of “public purposes” is vague, this provision has allowed overdevelopment in many places.

The hukou system is also related to the provision of social security. Children are automatically registered in their parents’ hukou; the source and nature of the social security benefits to which they are entitled are thus determined at birth according to where their parents are registered. And there are extremely great differences from place to place in these benefits. For example, as of 2017 citizens of Shanghai whose family assets and income fell below certain minimums were entitled to a minimum livelihood stipend of 970 yuan (approximately ¥16,000 or $150). But when I visited a village in Hunan and spoke to former miners suffering from pneumoconiosis, I heard that they had received lump payments of several thousand yuan from the mine company but were getting a mere 90 yuan a month in livelihood assistance from the government.

People with rural hukou who have urban jobs can apply through their employers to have their registration transferred to the city where they are working and living. But many municipalities are holding down the growth of their registered population by screening applicants with a system of points based on such indicators as educational level, participation in social insurance plans, contributions to society, home ownership, investments, and tax payments. It is now difficult even for people with white-collar jobs and superior educational credentials to secure registration in cities with increasingly high population density levels.

  • [2018.07.30]

Associate professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo. Born in 1971. Graduated in 1994 from the Osaka University of Foreign Studies, where she majored in Chinese. Received her master’s degree in international development from Nagoya University in 1996 and her doctorate in educational sociology from the University of Hong Kong in 2003. After serving as a researcher at the Embassy of Japan in China, associate professor at Gakushūin Women’s College, and associate professor in the School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University, assumed her present position in 2013. Her specialty is contemporary Chinese studies. Her works include Hinsha o kurau kuni: Chūgoku kakusa shakai kara no keikoku (A Country that Devours the Poor: The Warning from China’s Society of Disparities) and Chō taikoku Chūgoku no yukue 5: Bokkō suru Tami (Where Superpower China Is Heading, no. 5, The Rise of the People).

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