By the time ‘I Am Fan Yusu’, the micro-memoir of a migrant maid in Beijing, became an overnight sensation earlier in 2017, three years had passed since the migrant worker poet Xu Lizhi had committed suicide in a Foxconn factory at just 24. ‘I swallowed an iron moon, they called it a screw’, he writes in his poem ‘Iron Moon’, the titular piece of Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry. Yet even before the anthology’s publication, Xu’s young life had been submerged in the long-term mechanisation of migrant workers as ‘screws and nails’ within the Chinese labour system, in exchange for economic growth led by labour exports.
Shortly after the publications, a fire claimed the lives of 19 rural migrants in Beijing in November 2017. What followed afterwards was not a security check, but a ruthless clean-up campaign aimed at ‘clearing the low-end population in Beijing’. Only two days were given for rural migrants, many of whom had been living and working in Beijing for years, to leave their homes. One migrant worker told Reuters that ‘he’d rather freeze to death than leave here’; another revealed to Radio Free Asia through telephone that landlords had stopped renting rooms to anyone from outside Beijing. Also targeted for eviction was Picun, a cultural hub for many migrants including Fan, where the NGO ‘Home of Fellow Workers’ was located and literature classes for migrants were conducted (see a sample of an eviction notice here) It became clear that while the touching writings of migrants such as Fan and Xu had gained popular attention, they did not earn empathy from the top leaders.
Chinese rural migrants are a product of uneven geographical development since the reform era of the 1980s. As explained by Hyun Bang Shin (2014) at the London School of Economics and Political Science, economic development in China has been reinforced by and intertwined with both speculative urbanisation and the political suppression of discontent. Urban governments would rather build ‘phantom cities’ to profit from transferring land use-rights to real estate developers, than extending welfare resources to rural regions, as village land is collectively owned by villagers. Both urbanisation and the household registration system have led to rural migrants becoming ‘home diasporas’, for whom both the city and the countryside have become uninhabitable – while capitalism in the former attempts to mechanise them, the shrinking area of arable land and lack of job opportunities in the latter impoverish them. Consequently, they can neither integrate within cities, nor return to agricultural livelihoods – a truly ‘diaspora at home’. In a Reuters interview about the eviction, a migrant said: “I sold my house in the northeast, there is nothing to go back to”, illustrating the plight of many rural migrants.
Forced eviction and home demolition pose everyday threats to rural migrants living in Beijing and other Chinese cities, even though the migrants have been responsible for bringing financial prosperity to the cities. During the 1980s, migrants from Zhejiang province started family-owned garment workshops in Zhejiangcun village, creating some RMB 1.5 billion in revenue for the Fengtai district of Beijing, all the while sustaining themselves with clinics, schools, and other welfare systems that the local government refused to provide. Yet such level of spontaneity and civil organisation eventually led to an all-out clearance campaign of Zhejiangcun in 1995, as its autonomy was perceived to be beyond governmental surveillance.
Despite this continuous suppression of Chinese civil society, both migrant workers and urban citizens have demonstrated a striking competence in safeguarding the ‘right of the city’ – a common human right proposed by Henri Lefebvre that entitles all people to the freedom of shaping public cities through themselves – in saving the city from falling into the hands of political elites. Some Beijing residents opened up their own houses to migrant refugees as temporary shelters. Many business owners volunteered to provide food and jobs for evicted migrants. University intellectuals published open letters online to protest the eviction of rural migrants (see a sample by He Weifang here), while public outrage continued on the Internet. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, one netizen wrote: “then let people in the capital look after their own children, deliver parcels, repair the toilets, deliver takeaway food.”, by recognising the essential role of migrants in urban daily life, he/she ridicules the idea of erasing ‘non-capital functions’.
The government of Beijing currently faces a convergence of an increasingly conscious public, capable of initiating civil society movements, with a highly insecure leadership that aims to clear any potential instability within the capital. What will Beijing become after Xi’s gentrification produces a capital that only performs ‘capital functions’? After all, it is the ‘low-end population’ that constructed the city, and it is the same population that maintains a functioning capital. Perhaps in the future, only a class of elites that is compliant enough will be allowed to live in the Chinese capital, a completely gentrified territory shaped by Xi’s political capital. Yet before that utopia comes into being, how long will gentrification continue to happen before the people withdraw their consent to the process?
 See Xiang (2005) and Zhang (2001).
 See Harvey (2008).
 See also the petition initiated by alumni of Renmin University calling for an end to the brutal eviction (in Chinese), which was banned from WeChat during collecting public signatures: http://wqw2010.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/blog-post_53.html
Harvey, D. (2008) The right to the city. New Left Review (53): 23-40.
Shin, H.B. (2014) Contesting speculative urbanisation and strategising discontents. City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 18(4-5): 509-516.
Xiang, B. (2005) Transcending Boundaries – Zhejiangcun: The Story of a Migrant Village in Beijing. Leiden-Boston: Brill.
Zhang, L. (2001) Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks within China’s Floating Population. Stanford: Stanford University Press
About the Author
Having completed BSc International Relations and MSc China in Comparative Perspective at LSE, Jingyi Wang (Veronica) is to pursue a PhD in Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her research interest includes rural-urban migration, urbanisation at China, contemporary Chinese poetry and anthropology of China. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jingyi-veronica-wang-a316b578