Imagine if the Hong Kong authorities suddenly decided to evict tens of thousands of low-income Hong Kong workers, and their families, from their homes and onto the streets, under the pretense of enforcing building safety codes. While such a scenario would be unimaginable here, that is exactly what has been happening in Beijing over the last few weeks.

After a deadly fire killed 19 people in a low-income neighborhood in Beijing on November 18, the authorities almost immediately embarked on a 40-day campaign to tear down unsafe buildings in outlying neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of building residents were forcibly evicted, with some reportedly given as little as 15 minutes to move out. These people were “migrant workers” or “low-end population”, as state documents disdainfully called them, hailing from other provinces across mainland China and responsible for much of the manual and low-income work in Beijing.

migrant workers beijing
Migrant workers at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium in 2007. File photo: Flickr/Dominic Lüdin.

When I lived in Beijing a couple of years ago, the majority of wait staff in the places I ate came from out of town. The people who cut my hair were not Beijingers but came from Shandong, Hunan, and Inner Mongolia. The guy who ran the fruit and vegetable stall in my apartment compound was from Shandong. Even most of my Chinese colleagues at my workplace were from outside of Beijing.

Migrant workers, who make up about one-third of Beijing’s population of beyond 20 million, are the ones who make the city run. Migrant workers built the subways and skyscrapers in Beijing. They also deliver packages and food boxes all over the city, ensuring that e-commerce and fast delivery services keep booming. And even a lot of white-collar professionals like my colleagues and IT workers, are migrant workers, some of whom found themselves caught up in the evictions, as a recent New York Times article reported.

The Beijing authorities have been trying to control the population, and many believe the evictions are a crude way of getting rid of the poorest residents. The authorities deny this and have claimed they were enforcing regulations against illegal and unsafe structures, which just happened to be where many of the poorest migrant workers lived.

Beijing is not alone in relying on large numbers of migrant workers – many other prosperous cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen also reap the rewards of their labour . The factories in the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas that churn out goods for the world are also predominantly staffed by migrant workers. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), as of 2016, 282 million rural migrant workers worked in Chinese cities, making up 35 percent of the workforce.

All Chinese possess “hukou” or residence permit linked to a specific village, town or city they come from. These hukous allow holders access to services only in their hometowns. However, there is a vast gulf in resources between cities. For example Beijing and Shanghai hukou holders can access social, educational and medical services that are far superior to those in smaller cities and rural areas. It is very hard for migrant workers to obtain a hukou from the city they work in, meaning they cannot access  medical, education and other services. Combined with low wages, this forces many of them to rent the cheapest accommodations available, which are often old, cramped, and unsafe.

Migrant workers in Beijing belonged to a severely disadvantaged group even before the threat of eviction at a moment’s notice arose.

Not surprisingly, the evictions weren’t allowed to be independently reported or discussed online, much less criticized. Chinese media carried sanitized official reports, while online social media posts about the evictions were deleted or censored. Wechat, often lauded as the face of China’s cutting-edge technological innovation, blocked the term “low-end population,” preventing messages with that phrase from being transmitted in group chats and user feeds.

Nevertheless, a lot of Chinese were angered by the ruthlessness of the evictions. Rare dissent has seen intellectuals publish an open letter criticizing the evictions and small street protests break out in those areas where the evictions took place. Even still, this will very likely not have any effect on the authorities other than to harden their resolve.

This regime has absolutely no qualms about clamping down on broad swathes of society without any regard for the law or human rights. Migrant workers’ role in keeping Beijing running wasn’t enough to spare them from being the latest victims of yet another widespread crackdown from the state. In recent years those affected have included NGOs, lawyers, journalists, and Christians.

But while those other groups can be ignored by most of the Chinese populace, cracking down on migrant workers impacts almost the entirety of society.

There is no doubt that China, under Xi Jinping, has become more powerful domestically and more influential overseas. But events like the Beijing mass evictions show that behind this power is continuous repression and exploitation of its own people. This isn’t power to respect, but power to fear and scorn.

Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.