President Xi’s Second Term: Prospects for Japan-China Relations

The Drive to Clear Beijing’s Slums: Will the Authorities’ Strong-Arm Tactics Work?


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.

Evictions as Part of the Drive to Enhance Core Capital Functions

The campaign by the municipal government to evict internal migrants might look like a sudden move, but in fact it is in line with the ongoing policy of strengthening Beijing’s core functions as the nation’s capital. On the occasion of a 2014 inspection tour of Beijing, President Xi issued a directive to strengthen the core capital functions—national political affairs, culture, international concourse, and science/technology and innovation—and move other functions outside the capital. And at a meeting of the CPC’s Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs called by Xi on February 10, 2015, where responsible officials reported on the state of progress of policy implementation regarding such matters as the National New-Type Urbanization Plan, food security, water issues, energy issues, innovation strategy, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Silk Road Fund, there was also discussion of the plan for collaborative development of Beijing and neighboring Tianjin and Hebei. This plan aims to coordinate industrial, economic, and urbanization policies within the three areas and to address the issues of regional gaps and environmental degradation. It calls for the dispersal and adjustment of the capital’s non-core functions, and an urgent part of the agenda is improvement of conditions not appropriate to the capital city, such as the excessive concentration of population, deterioration of public security, and clustering of low-profit industries.

In 2017 the Beijing municipal government started implementing this plan with a firm hand, forcibly removing illegally constructed buildings and evicting residents. The authorities judged that they would not be able to meet their targets under the plan unless they stepped up the pace of their action. And according to a June 9 story in the People’s Daily, as of the end of April 2017 the city had implemented removals at 2,225 locations covering an area of 16.4 million square meters, 3.8 times the figure for January–April 2016, thereby reaching 76.1% of the target for the year.

Redevelopment of areas occupied by illegal residents has also gotten into full swing. The story in the People’s Daily reported that as of March 8 the authorities had conducted 9,960 legal consultation sessions with residents and had settled or made adjustments in 439 cases.

The coverage in the People’s Daily seems to indicate that the authorities have managed in short order to implement the long-pending agenda of removing illegal edifices and residents. But given the strict controls on media reporting, it would be dangerous to take this positive coverage at face value. The forcible campaign of demolishment and eviction conducted after the November 19 conflagration involved grave violations of human rights and violated China’s own Administrative Compulsion Law, which went into effect in 2012. Article 5 of this law declares, “If the purposes of administration may be achieved by non-compulsory means, no administrative compulsion shall be set or implemented,” and Article 43 stipulates, “Administrative organs shall not force the parties concerned to perform the relevant administrative decisions by such means as cutting off the supply of water, electricity, heating, or gas for the living of residents.”

Properly speaking, removals of this sort should be implemented only after the completion of various preliminary procedures, such as inspection by experts, multifaceted risk evaluation, confirmation of legal provisions, and the holding of hearings, followed by the finding of new homes for those to be displaced and the determination of the amounts of compensation they are to receive. But it seems that in their eagerness to carry out the transfer of non-core functions from the capital, the authorities are skipping such procedures and seeking to speed up the various steps required for implementation. Also, most of the compensation payments and assistance being provided for moving to new locations are going to the urban-registered residents holding rights to land and structures. Virtually none of the rural-registered people with leases to their residences in the urban villages are receiving such compensation.

Narrowing Disparities Is the Only Solution

The urban-registered residents of China’s cities need the help of the rural-registered inhabitants of the urban villages. Who else is going to provide care for the growing population of seniors? Who else is going to assume the duty of taking working parents’ children to and from school and making meals for them? Migrants are also the ones who operate the stands where people get their breakfast, and they do the heavy labor on construction sites and in factories. Even so, the Beijing municipal authorities are unlikely to actively assist them by, for example, building low-rent housing or putting up schools that the children of low-income families can attend.

As noted above, Chinese children are assigned to their parent’s hukou at birth, and their future lives are greatly affected by whether their place of registration is one with good conditions or not. The regional economic disparities within China are continuing to widen, and there is no indication when this situation might be ameliorated. Both farmers and rural-registered migrant workers in cities deserve more generous public support, but there is a firmly established setup of exploitation in place, a setup under which rural migrants are hired and fired at their employers’ convenience and sometimes forcibly evicted from their urban homes.

The reason China’s “villages in the city” have developed as places where the law is flouted is that, given the persistent disparities between regions, there is an endless stream of people who want to better their economic status even if they must break the law to do so. Until the disparities within Chinese society are greatly narrowed, even if the existing urban villages are cleared away, new ones will spring up elsewhere.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 3, 2018. Banner photo: A resident of a Beijing neighborhood largely inhabited by migrants from rural areas passes by the rubble of an illegal building torn down following a fatal conflagration in their slum-like “village in the city.” © Reuters/Aflo.)

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