Aggressive Chinese eviction methods fuel anger among residents forced from rented homes
Fear and cold stalk the streets of Feijia, a north-eastern suburb of Beijing that is to be largely demolished on Friday, leaving hundreds of migrant families potentially homeless in winter.
Leaflets scattered across Feijia’s main street depict photos of masked thugs armed with clubs, pressuring residents to leave. Recent protests have attracted the attention of authorities, and residents speak in hushed voices and with fearful eyes as temperatures this week dipped as low as -7C overnight.
Most residents have only one week’s notice to find new housing — an increasingly difficult prospect in the pricey, global city of Beijing. “We don’t know what we will do, it’s too expensive to move,” said one grandmother with a family of seven, including two children, who live in two rented rooms in Feijia.
However, some residents are not moving on but rather fighting back. This presents Chinese authorities with a thorny problem it was hoping to avoid: a rare spate of public protests it may struggle to rein in without further inflaming public opinion.
At the weekend hundreds of people gathered in the streets of Feijia to protest against the evictions, chanting “violent evictions are a violation of human rights”. The protesters were dispersed within a few hours by public security officers.
But they won some respite and some of the demolitions scheduled for December 11 were delayed a few days.
A protest poster with the words `Violent evictions are a violation of human rights!` depicting security officials who allegedly intimidated Feijia Village residents with baseball bats.
“Tenants’ rents and deposits need to be paid back by the landlords. But the landlords need to get the money from the government,” said the owner of a noodle shop near the apartments who declined to give his name, saying that the landlords had organised the demonstration.
But their tenants are the ones who are most vulnerable, and many residents showed the FT photos of gangs of thugs roaming the streets in recent days, breaking windows in an effort to evict residents.
“How can these people be considered human? To think that our country and the party have come to these sorts of methods to scare people,” said a protester surnamed Yu, who came to Feijia from Hebei province to work in construction.
Housing demolitions are a fact of life in modern China — compensation is paid and people move on. But Feijia is a home to mainly rural migrants, a foothold in Beijing where many work in service jobs.
Authorities insist the evictions are a response to safety concerns after a fire in a southern district killed 19 people in late November. Beijing authorities subsequently mounted a push to complete mass safety inspections and tear down illegal housing.
Such homes are often the only ones available to the poorest of Beijing’s millions of rural migrants who come to the capital to work, often in menial jobs.
The protest’s chief mobilisers were landlords who built two- or three-storey apartments without official building permits, but who are seeking compensation before their properties are torn down.
While Feijia’s protests were relatively small, any demonstration in China’s capital is a rare occurrence.
The Feijia protests have been amplified by social media, with residents’ smartphone videos of the protests shared on WeChat, China’s big social network.
Feijia village’s security bureau said they were “unclear” about the protests but pointed to public notices mandating 40 days of safety inspections. Meanwhile, smaller on-and-off protests organised through social media in Pi village, another migrant settlement, have resulted in a delay to demolitions of some buildings. Pi village is home to a non-profit organisation run by migrant workers and which operates a school for migrant children that narrowly avoided demolition in 2011. As the scope of Beijing demolitions widens, everyone from young professionals to shop owners have been pushed out of rental homes.
One of the closest “urban villages” — a euphemism for informal settlements — to Beijing’s downtown, Feijia has attracted young artists because of its low rents. The south side of the village had already been gradually demolished over the past five years to make way for new construction, but the rate of evictions accelerated this month.
“The past month has been stressful as we’ve been trying to keep up with demolition rumours,” says Jennifer Lindsay, residency director at Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery. She manages several studios that host Chinese and foreign artists in Feijia, and is unsure of how many studios will remain standing once the demolitions conclude.
Of the 60 or so artists who had studios in Feijia, only 30 remained as of this week, many of whom say they plan to stay beyond Friday’s mandated eviction date rather than forfeit their workspace.
“This is a huge blow to us, with some having no choice but to leave their artist profession,” says Rex, a Chinese video artist who plans to stay on in Feijia. He says he has paid Rmb400,000 ($60,000) over the past three years to renovate his Feijia studio but was served an eviction notice last week. “Everyone is seeing the blood and sweat they poured into this place go up in flames.”
Photo on front page: Hundreds of residents gathered in Beijing`s Feijia Village this week to protest eviction processes they said were unfair and violent. Source: Financial Times.