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'A heartbreaking place:' Beijing's migrant workers forced to leave

© Simina Mistreanu/dpa

Beijing is driving out large numbers of migrant workers in the name of safety, and demolishing their homes and workplaces. Although they have lived through this before, many are no longer able to see themselves at home in China’s capital.

Beijing (dpa) – Chen examines the rubble that used to be the homes of several migrant worker families on the southern outskirts of Beijing. From among pieces of glass, knocked-down walls, items of clothing and stray shoes, he picks out a flattened cardboard box.

He places it on top of his tuk-tuk along with more cardboard he gathered that day to sell for recycling, searching for value in a mountain of loss.

"I'm only doing this for a couple of days while I figure out what’s next," he says. "I'll keep looking for places to live in Beijing. If I can't find one, I'll go somewhere else. China is big."

The 50-year-old factory worker’s home has been demolished in the current government-led mass eviction of migrant workers.

Hundreds of residents of Xinjian village, a Beijing suburb that houses garment factories and apartment buildings, have seen their homes and workplaces razed to the ground overnight. They were left to carry what little they had without a clue of what to do next.

An apartment fire which killed 19 people in the village earlier this month led to the evictions, which are part of a citywide 40-day "safety campaign" meant to remove tenants from buildings deemed unsafe.

Migrant workers who live in similar compounds across the city also expect to be cleared out. The campaign has drawn widespread criticism, but the government is pushing ahead.​

"The migrant workers contribute greatly to the city's well-functioning," says social commentator Murong Xuecun. "Pushing them out will have bad consequences for the economy. But I think the government is willing to accept that because it's part of their plan."

Murong believes Beijing will eventually edge out its middle class and become a place that functions solely as a capital.

"Their plan is to make Beijing a city like Pyongyang – a platform for showing, not for living," he said.

Despite the trauma, the developments are nothing new. Beijing’s economy has expanded on the backs of millions of migrant men and women. Recently, however, the city has pushed out workers by gradually closing factories, wholesale markets and warehouses.

The government is erecting a new city south of Beijing, called Xiong’an, for those who can’t afford to live in China’s capital.

But for some, it’s too little, too late.

A 32-year-old man who wished to remain anonymous told dpa his family's factory had been in Beijing for more than 20 years.

"Authorities drove us away from the second ring road to the third ring road, then to fourth, then to the fifth," he says, referring to Beijing's concentric highways that start at the city centre.

The man is loading equipment from his family’s garment factory onto trucks headed to Jiangsu province. The factory is rushing to move 100 employees to the eastern province at an expense of 1.5 million yuan (227,000 dollars) without any government compensation, he says.

"We are heart-broken. Beijing has no room for us to develop. Some people said the government is building a new industrial base ... but we will not move there because they will eventually drive us away again."

Among those moving to Jiangsu is 20-year-old factory worker Xiao Liu. Originally from Shandong province, she doesn’t want to return to Beijing in the future. She stares and smiles absently, standing a few metres away from the moving truck.

"How do I feel about this?" she says. "I don’t know how to express it."

Her confusion and apparent resignation are shared by many in Xinjian village, where among dozens interviewed by dpa, only a group of landowners expressed anger.

An employee of a moving company in his 50s loads a family’s belongings onto his tuk-tuk with a half-smile on his face. The soon-to-be-demolished streets around him resemble a war zone of shattered store signs and windows and piles of rubbish.

The man has been evicted and hasn’t been able to find a room larger than about the size of a bed.

"Next, I will go back to my hometown and never return," he says.

"Because Beijing is a heartbreaking place, isn’t it?" says a woman nearby.

"Yes, it is."

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