Adding Insult to Injury: Beijing’s Evictions and the Discourse of “Low-End Population”

Lu Bu
Translation by Ignatius Wu

“They are indeed ‘low-end labor-power,’ but who isn’t?
(他們就是低端勞動力,但誰不是呢?)

Nearly a week has passed since the deadly fire at Jufuyuan (“Gathering of Good Fortune”) apartments in Beijing’s Daxing District on November 18. Though the bodies are not even cold yet, the city of Beijing has initiated a total clearing out of its migrant population.

Jufuyuan, located in the Xihongmen neighborhood of Daxing District, was a typical residential area for migrant workers outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road. 400-or-so migrant workers were crammed into a small building of three stories, one of which was occupied by shops. They slept in bunk beds with an average living space of perhaps one or two square meters each. Every day, facing a nasty and chaotic environment with freezing winters, scorching summers, and overcrowded toilets, they lived inhuman (不是人过) lives, hidden from view.

This fire not only took 19 lives but also marked the destruction of millions more as yet another wave of evictions swept the periphery of Beijing.

[Video removed by censors. Caption: “After the fire, the police negotiate with a migrant worker about moving that same night.” — Trans.]

They cannot really be expelled from the city

Since the early 1980s, when the first batch of migrant workers entered Beijing in a phenomenon given the derogatory label “blind flow” (盲流),[1] evictions have never stopped. To use a popular expression, the process of pushing out the migrant population is a classic example of successfully utilizing “the two hands:” the “visible hand” of state policy and the “invisible hand” of the market. By strengthening regulation and increasing housing prices and rents, both hands harden and tighten their grips. Migrants can only gradually move to farther out, cheaper places and live in more overcrowded houses.

In red from top to bottom: Tian’anmen; Zhejiang Village in the 1980s; Zhejiang Village in the1990s; the fire of 2011; the fire of 2017. – Trans.

For many observers, “Zhejiang Village”[2] has become a synonym for “filthy, chaotic and substandard” (脏乱差) ever since its establishment in Beijing. Of course, they would not pay attention to the fact that because of the existence of these workers, commodities have diversified, prices have lowered, the variety of breakfast people can buy from street stalls has increased, and household and utility services have improved in quality. As early as 1993, a municipal People’s Congress representative claimed that Zhejiang Village had become not only a center for over-reproduction in defiance of the One-Child Policy but also a base for organized crime. In this account, homicide and robbery occurred there regularly, and when taxis entered Zhejiang Village, the drivers not only failed to receive payment but were also robbed. Immediately, the faces of Beijing’s citizens blanched in terror as they called for the village’s complete demolition and the deportation of its residents back to Wenzhou.

Later, Zhejiang Village was pushed from the Third to the Fourth Ring Road, and eventually on out to the Fifth.

On the early morning of April 25th, 2011, a massive fire occurred in a garment-processing factory in Village Three, Nanxiao Street in Jiugong Town of Daxing District. Eighteen lives were lost in that fire. That fire and the recent one were of a similar nature. Six years later, history has repeated itself and the village is now being pushed out from the Fifth Ring Road to the Sixth.

More notably, what happened after the fire six years ago was no different from what is happening now or what happened thirty years ago: eviction.

Screenshot of old news report about the eviction of migrant workers after the 2011 fire in Jiugong. – Trans.

Have these menacing eviction campaigns, so widely condemned every time, actually removed people? No.

As the fires of eviction and demolition burn from the Fifth Ring Road to the Sixth, we do not know where it will go next.

Industrial upgrading cannot get rid of low-end workers

Constant expulsion was obviously not a solution, so someone came up with a cure: accelerate urban industrial upgrading. This means converting cheap, labor-intensive industries into high-tech, intelligent industries that have no need for low-end labor-power.

However, countless studies have already shown this cannot be done. In such a highly modernized city, the social qualities of the division of labor determine that the so-called “high-end personnel” (高端人士)—here defined as those who work in high-tech industries and receive relatively high incomes—require the labor input and coordination of low-tech workers. Moreover, as industry upgrades and becomes more labor-intensive, the more complex the division of labor becomes and the more so-called “low-end” labor is absorbed.[3]

Food delivery is one concrete example. Decades ago, when industrial development was far from its current level and the division of labor was less complex, people had to cook for themselves after work, so the demand for a low-end workforce such as professional cooks was less important. As industries have evolved, the work of technological developers has become more and more busy. Having no time to cook for themselves, they depend on restaurants for meals, so the demand for workers such as cooks and servers has grown. In recent years, urban white-collar workers have become so busy that they do not even have the time to patiently eat a meal at a restaurant, so the food delivery industry has exploded. Regarding the demand for labor, this industry requires not only cooks and service staff, but also a vast army of delivery workers, and this, in turn, has stimulated constant growth in the numbers of personnel required for the sales and maintenance of electric bicycles as well.

Some have argued that artificial intelligence might be able to resolve this issue [i.e. industrial upgrading’s need for new types of “low-end labor-power” such as the delivery of food and parcels]. This does not work out in practice, however. After this year’s “Singles Day” Countdown Gala,[4] the number of parcel deliveries exploded. A.I. can provide sorting and transportation for large-scale delivery, but it fails at the last mile. When the parcels move from the transfer center (中转站) to the hands of the receiver, they require delivery workers to read the labels and deliver them to the door. The sudden increase of workload caused overloads in the courier transfer centers next to residential communities. In fact, the more the work approaches “the front line,” requiring direct interaction with consumers, the more that work requires human labor instead of machine service.

Lu Ming, professor of Economics at Shanghai Jiaotong University, used data released by the US government to calculate that every high-tech industry job requires the allocation of 5 jobs from other industries, of which 2 are skilled service jobs (such as physicians and lawyers), while the other 3 are concentrated in consumer service industries (such as sales clerks and restaurant servers). Compared to this kind of high-end industry, manufacturing’s driving force for employment is relatively weak: a single manufacturing job creates only 1.6 local service jobs. In other words, high-tech industries cannot exist in isolation. Their very operation relies on the service of more low-level industries. 

The larger the city is and the greater need for upgrade it has, the more basic service personnel (or in other words, the “low-end employment population”) it requires. This is an inescapable fact.

In Ireland there was such an example: the more “low-end” the employed population was, the more connected it was to urban development. In 1970, upper-middle tier (中高端) employees of Irish banks went on strike for six months, but the economy was not only unfazed, it even grew. During a sanitation workers’ strike in New York, by contrast, before a week was out the residents complained, “we can’t stand it anymore!”

Can you imagine a Beijing without breakfast stalls, cleaners or delivery workers? Without “low-end” people, life simply cannot be “high-end.”

As long as it’s “labor-power,” it’s low-end

While it is not known when the degrading term “low-end population” entered popular discourse, it is obvious that the term was created by self-declared “high-end” elites. Nowadays, however, many people in Beijing probably cannot even decide whether they are “high-end” or “low-end.” There is a saying that “the anxiety of Beijing’s middle class explodes once every three months, each time giving rise to endless commentaries in the media.” Facing physical and spiritual attacks such as insane work hours, expensive mortgages, a cold emotional environment, and even the risk of sexual assault and abuse of their children, the non-low-end masses live in hardship as well.

Article that went viral four months ago: “Beijing, Where 20 Million People Pretend To Live”

Yesterday morning, shortly after the article “They’re People, Not Low-End Labor-Power” had exclaimed, “Regardless of income or social stratum, the tenants of Jufuyuan were just as human as the white-collar middle class in high-rise office buildings,” the news about the RYB Kindergarten [sexual abuse scandal] broke, showing that the self-labeled “pretending-to-live” white-collar middle class also face violent assault from this unjust world—exactly like the “low-end workforce.”

The “996 system” of overtime [in which employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week overtime with no compensation], their hair constantly falling out, stricken by insomnia and endless anxiety, time to spend with their families becoming ever scarcer, and even concerns about whether their children are being abused at school… these are the everyday lives of the “upper-middle tiers” of the workforce.

Perhaps this kind of life is much better than living their days precariously, being chased away in the cold winds of winter, meeting their children just once or twice a year, worried about potential fires in cramped apartments shared by multiple households. It is undeniable, however, that in this rapidly modernizing society, everyone is sacrificed to the same logic that recruits and dismisses labor-power with a mere flick of the wrist, making full use of us to minimize costs, maximize profit and increase the market’s efficiency.

It thus seems that we are not human but clearly tools of production, like screws. The difference between “low-end” and “high-end” is merely that between two types of screws with different uses in the production process.

The term “low-end labor-power,” although harsh, is undisguised and directly states the truth. Nowadays, however, even low-end labor-power is unwanted. The screws are simply thrown away, so the pretension of human warmth seems to be even more superfluous.

No society with a conscience would tolerate such disrespect for people. A socialist society would not tolerate such disrespect for workers and for labor itself.

The most basic respect would be to guarantee safe and productive lives for workers: to guarantee clothing, food, shelter and transportation, ensuring their safety and acknowledging the fruits of their labor, rather than kicking them out of their underground hovels on freezing winter nights. Beyond that, they need appropriate infrastructure for living and working.

All of these guarantees are only adequate for a low-end worker. After all, the existence of labor-power is imperative in guaranteeing the normal operation of a modern city. These workers, having left behind their rural homes along with their families and children, are already the desperate product of unbalanced and inadequate social development. After all this, how can they also be denied the right even to live?

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