Beijing evictions leave migrant workers in limbo as winter deepens

A migrant worker in a low-cost dormitory that has been cut off from electricity and water supply in Beijing on Nov 28, 2017.
A migrant worker in a low-cost dormitory that has been cut off from electricity and water supply in Beijing on Nov 28, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Winter is bringing a frigid existence and an uncertain future for migrant workers in Beijing deprived of electricity and heating as they resist a month-long campaign to evict them from the city's urban villages.

A deadly fire in a hamlet of ramshackle dwellings on the capital's southern fringes last month prompted a fire safety blitz by the authorities, forcing thousands of the workers out of homes and businesses.

But not everyone has left, and a handful of holdouts are preparing for tough times as temperatures plunge below freezing.

"There's no electricity when we're coming home. We can't see where we're going," said Feng, a migrant worker hailing from the south-western province of Sichuan, pointing to a pile of blankets.

Feng, who was willing to reveal only his surname, had been renting a room in a shared apartment block built and run by migrants in Picun, a village in north-east Beijing, until the authorities cut off their power and ordered everyone to leave.

"I sold my house in the north-east, there is nothing to go back to," said another worker, Wang Liping, who said she paid 200,000 yuan (S$40,760) to buy part of the apartment block where migrants like Feng rent rooms for a few hundred yuan each month.

"I'd rather freeze to death than leave here," added Wang, who is refusing to leave despite efforts to remove her.

The evictions have sparked unusually direct criticism from China's intellectuals, students and journalists, who say the government is unfairly targeting the vulnerable underclass.

"Originally it was just a fire, but they used the fire as an excuse to force people young and old onto the streets in the middle of the coldest days of winter," independent political commentator Zhang Lifan told Reuters.

But the city could not do without migrants, Cai Qi, the city's Communist Party chief and a close ally of President Xi Jinping, said during a visit to the migrants this week, in a bid to allay the fears.

The capital's need for cheap labour has attracted thousands of workers, even though they are denied official residency permits because of government curbs on internal migration.

Migrant enclaves have grown into full-fledged communities today, from clusters of shanty towns. Picun, one of the most developed, has its own literature society and houses numerous aspiring artists and musicians.

One young couple living by torchlight in their block said they were considering going to Tangshan, a steel-producing hub in their home province of Hebei, but after 10 years of living in Beijing, they would miss the lifestyle.

"To be honest, if it wasn't for all the migrants, Beijing wouldn't be any better than any other city," the woman, who is surnamed Xiang, told Reuters.