Essay on Beijing migrants' plight fuels online debate in China

A woman stands outside a rental house in Beijing's Changping district, where several migrant workers were told to move out of their temporary houses in preparation for demolition works.
A woman stands outside a rental house in Beijing's Changping district, where several migrant workers were told to move out of their temporary houses in preparation for demolition works.PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING (Reuters) - A sharply worded essay by an obscure Chinese author on the plight of Beijing's migrants has stirred intense online debate over its polemical style, prompting the ruling Communist Party's official newspaper to accuse him of writing "fantastically".

China has pledged to resolve what it calls "urban sickness", or the pollution, congestion and overcrowding caused by rapid urbanisation, that afflicts its biggest cities.

The essay, titled, "Beijing has 20 million people who are faking lives", by Zhang Wumao, the pen-name used by Zhang Guochen, who is from the central province of Shaanxi, went viral after being posted on his WeChat account on July 23.

It highlighted the tension between "old Beijingers", or those with "hukou" household registrations in the capital, who can own multiple homes, and migrants kept off the property ladder by sky-high prices.

"Beijing is a tumour, no one can control its growth," Zhang wrote, describing the speed of the city's expansion.

Some commentators applauded the essay's sharp critique of Beijing and its portrayal of the migrants' plight, but others derided it as "click-bait", calling it exaggerated.

Hundreds of commentators responded to Zhang's article with essays carrying titles such as "Beijing has 20 million people living real lives" and "Beijingers need a great big hug".

In a commentary last week, the People's Daily said Zhang wrote "fantastically" to stir up emotion and pointed to the numbers that continue to flock to Beijing, despite high living costs.

On the day the commentary was published, Zhang, who is in his mid-30s, appeared to distance himself from the essay, telling the respected Economic Observer hat readers had misunderstood what he meant by "fake" lives and that the essay had lots of "holes".

Zhang told the newspaper he meant the term "fake" to humorously describe the differences between lifestyles in small cities and Beijing.

Zhang's original essay is no longer accessible on WeChat, having violated the regulations of China's Cyberspace Administration, a notice tells users who try to reach it.

WeChat's operator Tencent Holdings could not immediately comment.

Zhang, who published a novel on migrant lives in Beijing in 2011, did not respond to Reuters' emailed request for comment.

Beijing is being integrated with the neighbouring city of Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei, with plans to move downtown government offices to a suburban district.

Measures to revamp the city centre have also hit migrants, such as new population curbs and a drive to clean up the ancient hutong alleyways home to thousands of small migrant businesses.