BEIJING — In his nationwide address to usher in the start of 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he was “seriously concerned” about people living in hardship in his country — those who struggle to find jobs, housing, health care and education for their children. Xi pledged that to “ceaselessly solve those problems remains an unshirkable responsibility for the party and the government.”
But as the year draws to a close, tens of thousands of migrant workers are being tossed out of their homes in the freezing cold and biting winds of the Beijing winter, with little or no notice. It is a mass eviction sparked by a fire in a crammed and unsafe apartment building on Nov. 18 that killed 19 people, but it is part of a broader plan to modernize, beautify and gentrify the Chinese capital as a showcase for the Communist Party.
To many Beijing residents, it's seen as callous and cruel. It also has touched off a rare outpouring of sympathy from the middle class toward the poorer sections of society who form the backbone of China's economy but suffer the blunt end of Communist rule.
Hundreds of volunteers have gathered to help migrant workers with offers of temporary accommodation or assistance in moving their belongings. Others have brought soup or food to the evicted people, or donated warm clothes. Many more have taken to the Internet to declare their anger, sharing videos and photos of migrants thrown out of their homes. And more than 100 scholars, lawyers and artists signed an open letter protesting the evictions.
Even Chinese state-controlled media struggled to justify the evictions, admitting they were carried out too hastily and that local authorities sometimes behaved in a “simplistic and brutal” manner.
But authorities have responded by deleting social media posts and taking down a link allowing people to volunteer their services. A drop-in center to provide temporary accommodation to the evictees was closed by police. In a country where civil society is suspect, any attempt to protect the poor against abuse by the state is seen as potentially subversive.
Wang Minglei, a 43-year-old interior decorator who has lived and worked in Beijing for nearly 15 years, said he felt betrayed after being given just 10 days' notice to leave his home.
“When they needed people to work and build the city, they welcome us,” he said. “Now the construction's almost done, and they want us out.”
Less than a quarter of a mile away, Su Kezhu, 38, packed his belongings into boxes and bags, while his wife, Yang Juan, cooked a final meal in the kitchen of their tiny room in a row of one-story houses. Su came to Beijing to work as a warehouse keeper seven years ago, and the couple left their only child with their parents in Shandong province. But now he feels he has no choice but to admit defeat and go home — because he can't find anywhere affordable to live.
“I don't want to leave Beijing,” he said. “In fact, 90 percent of the people who get kicked out don't want to leave, but there's no place for us.”
Migrant workers doing construction and service jobs are often poorly paid and lack any semblance of workers' rights. Without urban residence permits, they either have to leave their children behind in the villages to be brought up by grandparents, or send them to ill-equipped and crowded schools in the cities, which are sometimes closed down by the authorities.
The open letter signed by intellectuals accused the authorities of failing to reflect on mistakes that led to the deadly fire or making any effort to console the victims. They wrote that officials used the incident as an excuse to conduct the evictions “at lightning speed,” threatening hundreds of thousands of people with homelessness and destitution.
“We think this is a vicious event that is illegal and unconstitutional and seriously abuses human rights,” they wrote.
Ordinary citizens were no less angry.
“This is quite good, let them go back to their home towns and contribute there,” one user sarcastically observed on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. “Let people in the capital look after their own children, deliver parcels, repair the toilets, deliver takeaway food.”
Others took aim at the government and state media for allegedly referring to migrant workers as “low-end population.”
“Lower-class population” in every big city deserves respect, if there are no couriers, no waiters, nannies and real estate agents, street peddlers that you despise, your life would be less convenient,” one said, in a comment deleted by censors but preserved on the freeweibo.com website.
“What is lower class is not the population, it’s the mode of thinking of the government,” another person wrote in a deleted comment.
A link set up by Warm Beijing, a private group aiming to encourage volunteers to come forward and help, was taken offline. The page now displays a message saying that it “may contain sensitive words and has been banned!”
Meanwhile, the Tongzhou Home, a drop-in center for migrant workers, was visited by police after offering evictees the chance to store luggage or stay the night. It was later shuttered.
“I saw there were so many people desperately in need of help, and I just wanted to do something for them,” founder Yang Changhe told the South China Morning Post. He added that police told him he was not allowed to take people in because he was not licensed as a guesthouse or hotel.
State media, while allowing that “transient workers deserve respect,” argued that the evictions were a well-intentioned campaign that had gone awry or been misread.
But some local authorities did appear to reconsider after the public outcry. One township-level administration halted the evictions and allowed people to stay at least until the end of the year, and another offered some temporary accommodation and transport tickets.
Meanwhile, President Xi announced Monday that China should continue to upgrade the country's toilets as part of its “toilet revolution” aimed at developing domestic tourism and improving the quality of life.
Liu Yang contributed to this report.