by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
IT IS AN unfortunate fact to note that tragedies such as the death of 19 migrants in a fire in Beijing’s Daxing District are nothing unusual. Such events have happened before in China, as observed in a similar fire that took place in Beijing in 2011 as well as in the county-level city of Changshu earlier this year. While viewed, of course, as tragedies, these do not usually lead to large-scale outrage against the government.
What has been provoking of a large amount of public outrage in China, however, is large-scale clearing of migrant workers from Beijing after the fire. The Beijing city government previously had plans to clear migrant workers from Beijing, given plans to maintain the city population at 23 million by 2020 in order to prevent overcrowding. It seems that the Beijing city government may have decided to use the fire in Daxing as a way to justify actions it had already planned to take to clear migrant workers living in Beijing. It is difficult to ascertain how many have been cleared thus far. It is thought that one hundred thousand workers may have been cleared thus far, with rumors on the Internet sometimes even wildly speculating that up to 3 million individuals have been evicted from Beijing. Some families were reportedly given only fifteen minutes to clear out all of their belongings.
And government rhetoric has been shocking many for China, with the discovery that the Beijing city government referred to the clearing of migrant workers living in poverty and unsafe conditions as the clearing of “low-end populations” (低端人口). This would be ironic phraseology for a government which refers to itself as a socialist government and which still claims to be adhere to something called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but has generally been a term unusually provoking of outrage. While the Chinese government recently vowed to realize a “moderately prosperous society” as a form of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” at its 19th National Congress, meaning a society which is primarily middle class in nature, evidently this includes a willingness to uproot the lives of members of the working class altogether. This phraseology has been observed on government banners with slogans printed on them of the type frequently seen in urban landscapes in China, as well as in official government statements.
This discourse regarding “low-end populations” does not appear to be new, also having appeared in past statements by Beijing party secretary Cai Qi and state publications going back to 2010, but it seems to have escaped public notice until now. Yet in reaction to what appears to the Chinese government’s war on the poor, Chinese citizens have taken to referring to themselves as members of China’s “low-end population.” Apart from Chinese citizens on Facebook, which is blocked in China, changing their profile pictures to include the phrase “low-end population” using a frame which actually originated from within Taiwan, after winning the Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary in Taiwan for her film “Inmates,” director Ma Li would take to the stage to declare herself a member of China’s “low-end population.”
In general, outrage government crackdowns and cover-ups after China’s 19th National Congress are on the rise. At the same time as outrage against government eviction of migrant workers in Daxing, a scandal has broken out regarding the Red Yellow Blue New World Kindergarten, a Beijing kindergarten. Based on reports by parents that their children had described being given pills, possibly being injected with anesthesia, and what sounds like sexual assault, it is alleged that the kindergarten may have allowed for child molesters to molest students.
What has led to outrage, however, has been clear censorship of the incident by the Chinese government, Chinese police claiming that parents were lying about these allegations, and detention of individuals for “spreading false rumors.” It is alleged that among the child molesters were military or police personnel, which may be the reason for a cover-up, seeing as the owner of the kindergarten is the wife of a decommissioned officer. The Chinese government is again accused of going out of its way to defend vested interests even when such actions are unequivocally wrong. Given the sensitive matter of child molestation, this has been a case particularly provoking of outrage.
Though not directly related, combined, both the Red Yellow Blue Kindergarten case and the eviction of migrant workers in Daxing may be reflective of growing anger against government political censorship and unaccountable actions by the government, then. Perhaps after the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s ascension to a political position of power previously only held by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, we are seeing the first major crisis of the Xi regime.
It may be too premature to make any hasty conclusions regarding this, but outrage within China is growing, and this will prove an important development to pay attention to. Future developments remains to be seen.