BEIJING • They helped power China's dramatic economic rise and toiled in jobs far from home, but China's migrant workers are now finding themselves increasingly unwelcome in the big cities where they live.
The authorities are trying to cap the population explosions in key cities, and people like Mr Lin Huiqing, 50, are being forced to move out.
Mr Lin moved to Beijing to look for work when his children were still in diapers. For the last 18 years, he has seen his family once a year, while spending the rest of his time doing the hard labour most Beijing residents would prefer to avoid.
He is one of hundreds of millions of migrants who moved from the countryside to the cities in a colossal demographic shift that made China's ascent possible.
But last month, Mr Lin was evicted from the village where he lived, on the capital's outskirts, as part of a citywide demolition plan to limit Beijing's population to 23 million by 2020 - a move that could hurt the economy. Said Mr Lin: "If I go home, I have no way to support my wife and kids."
According to the official People's Daily, the city plans to demolish 40 million sq m of "illegal" structures. Many are the homes and shops of low-income migrants like Mr Lin.
When he first arrived in Beijing, Mr Lin and his friends pooled their money and took loans to purchase delivery trucks. He made a living transporting the wares of small-scale shopkeepers and traders, but the moving business has taken a hit after tens of thousands of residents were evicted from old buildings that were condemned.
"Our customers are commoners like us," he said. "With their small businesses shut down, there's no stock for us to move. We're basically unemployed now," he added.
The authorities have said the campaign - which kicked into high gear after a fire in an illegal structure killed 19 last November - is needed to clean up the city once and for all.
But it is also removing vibrant chunks of Beijing's economy, such as retail and small-scale manufacturing, and throwing into chaos other sectors like delivery - the bedrock of the booming e-commerce trade. Relegated to the periphery, migrants have kept China's economy humming, handling the difficult, dirty and sometimes dangerous work that the city's permanent residents would not do.
Urban industries such as construction, domestic work and sanitation are almost completely staffed by migrants.
International and comparative labour expert Eli Friedman, from Cornell University, said China's biggest cities "simply cannot function without migrant workers".
"If every non-local were to be removed from cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, these economic engines for the whole country would completely collapse," he said.
The demolitions have also hit Beijing's retail sector, decimating once affordable mom-and-pop shops, and pushing consumers online or into high-end malls.
Dozens of small-scale community markets have also been forced to close, including the iconic Beijing Zoo market, where hundreds of merchants organised rare street protests against the evictions. Officials said merchants can move their businesses to designated areas in the neighbouring Hebei province.