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Pushing Out Of Migrant Laborers Sparks Controversy In China


Now we have an update on the largest mass migration in human history. It's the flow of hundreds of millions of Chinese into big cities. They powered China's factories, but the government of Beijing wants many to go back. Authorities consider that giant city too crowded, and they've been nudging people to leave. A few weeks ago on this program, we met migrant workers' children who must attend special schools, some of which are shut down. Now, a big fire has become an occasion to evict migrants from a particular part of Beijing. NPR's Anthony Kuhn went there and found migrants being thrown out.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Two women in dusty clothes are carrying a heavy, wooden wardrobe out of their home and onto the street where they load it onto a cart. Authorities have given migrant laborers in this town on the city's southern fringes just days to clear out before they shut off all electricity and water. One of the women speaks up. She asks to remain anonymous because she's afraid the government will punish her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) This is too unfair to us common folk. We've suffered too much. After all the years we've worked here, we have to throw everything away and return home.

KUHN: She comes from a poor part of northern China's Hunan province. She's been in the capital for over a decade selling building materials and decorating homes. Last month, a fire in this district killed 19 people. After that, the Beijing municipal government gave districts until the end of this month to demolish illegal and unsafe housing. But the woman sees that as just an excuse to kick people out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through interpreter) If they just fixed up the fire exits, there shouldn't be any hazards to people living here. They're just being unfair to migrants.

KUHN: The woman salvages a few last odds and ends and stuffs them into plastic bags. She loads them onto her scooter and rides off into the freezing streets strewn with discarded clothes and rubble. Down the street, the township government plays a recorded message. It says the urban redevelopment will benefit everyone and asks residents to cooperate. The government's grand plan is to cap Beijing's population at 23 million and move non-essential industries out of the city. The recent fire seems to have just sped up the process. Municipal officials declined to be interviewed.

It's unclear how many migrants will be evicted. Beijing has about 8 million of them. Yi Fuxian is a population expert at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He argues that the mass evictions aren't really necessary because the Beijing migrant population has already peaked.

YI FUXIAN: (Through interpreter) Even if the government didn't drive them out, the flow of migrants will eventually reverse itself.

KUHN: Migrants are already leaving Beijing because it's too expensive, he says, and their hometowns in the hinterland have started to get factory jobs, high-speed rail and Internet. If the migrants leave, he says, Beijing could end up looking like China's rust belt. Beijing's population is aging, and migrants now account for more than half of residents between the ages of 20 and 39.

YI: (Through interpreter) This is the most glorious age in Beijing's history. If you stay in Beijing for another decade, you will witness the city's decline.

KUHN: Chinese intellectuals have petitioned the government to halt the evictions, calling them a violation of human rights. Even some state media have criticized the campaign. What angers many, says Yi Fuxian, is that the government has called migrants a low-end population - basically implying that they're inferior quality human beings.

YI: (Through interpreter) China didn't just say this. They actually wrote it into government documents. This is absurd.

KUHN: On the street, I met another migrant woman who is struggling to stay in Beijing. She also asked for anonymity. Like many migrants, she gets angry when she remembers the theme song of the Beijing Olympics nearly a decade ago. It was called "Beijing Welcomes You."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Through interpreter) In 2008, Beijing welcomed us. Last year, they started to show us migrants the door. This year, they're trying to kick us out altogether.

KUHN: On Chinese social media, criticism of the eviction of migrants has been heavily censored, including the term low-end population.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.