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SPF China Observer

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SPF China Observer


No.6 2018/06/12

【SPF China Observer】
Will the Xi Jinping Administration’s Uncompromising Urban Redevelopment Project Succeed?
“Urban villages” (villages in the city) = The fate of lawless zones absent of “citizens”

Tomoko Ako (Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo)

The people of Anjialou who lived on a mountain of garbage

 “They seem to also be targeting Anjialou for an inspection and redevelopment.”
 Anjialou, in the Jiangtai area of the Chaoyang District of Beijing, is where migrant workers reside and make a living by collecting waste and other refuse. I travel here from time to time, but according to a friend in Beijing, mass inspections were carried out in areas where migrant workers and other laborers reside following a large fire in Xihongmen Town, an area in Daxing in the south of Beijing, on November 19, 2017, and Anjialou was one of those areas targeted.
 The increasing number of illegally-renovated buildings in Xihongmen and its narrow roads due to the renovations prevented fire engines from quickly approaching the source of the fire, resulting in a catastrophe in which 19 people died. Following the fire, forced evictions were carried out over a broad area that included the Haidian District, Chaoyang District, Tongzhou District, Changping District, Shunyi District, Fengtai District, and Daxing District. In some areas, people dressed in black entered buildings without permission, indiscriminately broke windows and furniture, and shut off the water, electricity, gas, and heating of shops and homes, forcing those who lived and worked there into the cold streets with only the clothes on their backs. [1] Information about the violence in Anjialou has not been made public. That said, Anjialou is in the middle of a big city, about one kilometer east from the Yansha Youyi Shopping City and the Kempinski Hotel (right next to the Liangmaqiao subway station), and about 15 minutes on foot from the Japanese Embassy. It is expected to be redeveloped sooner or later.
  I last visited Anjialou in 2016, but during the visit, I saw mountains of waste in various places and people separating it into metal, plastic, paper, glass, scrap iron, and other categories. In China, recycling is not widely done by the government as it is in Japan. However, there are people everywhere who pick up the waste themselves, separate it, and then sell it to make a living. According to the Hong Kong Internet media company Initium, Beijing has over 10 large-scale waste disposal sites, but there are few places where one can apply to get a business license, so the separation of garbage is being done in harsh conditions. [2] There are more than one hundred thousand people involved in waste collection in these places, and it has been calculated that these people save the government several hundred million yuan per year in garbage disposal costs. [3] However, because the waste contains toxic substances, there are concerns about the health effects on the people separating the garbage. Also, is it really necessary to secure a garbage separation site in Anjialou, a prominent Beijing area with high real estate prices? Redevelopment is no easy task given the high price of land. It is believed that the reason why people continue to collect waste in Anjialou is due to the frequent opposition by local residents who want garbage collection facilities built elsewhere and the government, which has been unable to smoothly develop its garbage disposal operations.

The space of urban villages

 Districts like Anjialou in Beijing that have been targeted for redevelopment are called “chéngzhōngcūn” in China. The characters that make up the word can be literally translated as “village in a city,” a phrase full of contradictions. As a result of rapid urbanization leading to the full or partial expropriation of arable land, there are densely-populated, formerly rural districts surrounded by urban development and inhabited by non-citizens (non-resident population who do not have a family register for the area) cut off by redevelopment projects, and these districts have squalid environments that can be called slums.
 The distinction between “citizen” and “non-citizen” is made based on the family register system unique to China. The family register system was introduced in 1958, but at that time, the Chinese government thought that it was necessary to suppress agricultural prices and favor the welfare of urban residents in order to accelerate the accumulation of capital in the heavy industry sector. The family register system severely restricted migration from rural areas to cities by separating people into farmers and urban residents. However, the people’s communes were disbanded in China in the 1980s, which subsequently increased the demand for labor in urban areas and effectively ended restrictions on movement. However, the framework of the urban family register (non-agricultural family register) and rural family register (agricultural family register) still remained, and people who held a rural family register and worked in urban areas came to be called “mingong,” or migrant workers. Mingong are not “citizens” in cities and cannot receive many of the social services enjoyed by “citizens.”
 The reason why the Chinese government cannot completely abolish the family register system is primarily due to the large regional disparities in social security and the different forms of land ownership and registration methods in urban and rural areas. Although China maintains the official socialist precept of public ownership of the land, while the state owns the land in urban areas according to the Land Administration Law (established in 1986), usage rights circulate in the market, so landowners can buy and sell them freely. These usage rights are similar to the fixed-term land leasehold in Japan that is contracted for a fixed term (for example, 70 years for residential land), and can be extended by renewing the contract or by reselling it. In other words, land in urban areas is practically privatized in the sense that usage rights can be freely traded. On the other hand, the use of land in rural areas is strictly controlled by the collective of a village, called “jiti” in Chinese, which owns the land, and although farmers have land management rights they cannot sell or mortgage them. However, if there is a “public purpose,” the government can expropriate the land and develop it as non-agricultural land after conducting the necessary procedures to transfer ownership from the collective to the government, but since the definition of “public purpose” is ambiguous, development has been haphazard in many areas. [4]
 Family registers are also connected to social security. They are passed on from parents to their children. The kind of social security a citizen receives and in what region is determined when they are born. The regional disparities in social security are staggering. For example, in Shanghai, as of 2017, if the assets (cash and deposits) of a family of three is 30,000 yuan or less per person, or 33,000 yuan or less per person in a family of two or fewer members, they own no real estate other than their home or do not own a car, [5] and if the monthly family income per person is lower than the minimum standard of living during the same period in the same city, a person can receive the same 970 yuan in social insurance. On the other hand, when I visited a rural village in Hunan Province in 2016, former coal miners suffering from black lung disease told me they were only paid a solatium of several thousand yuan from the company operating the coal mine, while the government paid public assistance worth a mere 90 yuan per month.
 The procedure to transfer a family register can be done through the company a person is employed by, but many cities have adopted point systems based on factors such as academic background, subscription to social insurance, social contributions, home ownership, investments, and tax payments that suppress the increase of the population holding urban family registers. Currently, it is difficult to transfer to overcrowded cities even if one has a white-collar education.

When I visited the urban village of Anjialou left behind in the middle of a big city, there were simple houses like barracks and rows of houses that looked like they were about to collapse, and surveillance cameras were installed on many of the aging condominiums and apartments. I wondered if some people made a living from street stalls? There were a lot of motorcycles and trailers on which a stall could be hitched. There were public toilets located here and there, which meant that many homes did not have toilets. A foul smell emanated from the garbage storage beside the public toilets. Public services such as garbage disposal and wastewater treatment are lacking in the urban village because the people who live here do not have a Beijing family register.
 There were many cars parked in the vacant lots of Anjialou. Wondering who owned them, I noticed a sign that says, “Park here for 10 yuan per day.” Beyond Anjialou are rows of skyscrapers made up of offices, luxury apartments, and luxury hotels. It probably costs many more times to park there than it does here. It is sights such as this that spread across this urban village where the rich and the poor join hands in a curious way.
 Anjialou is located right next to the Japanese Embassy, but none of embassy staff acquainted with  the auther knew of the place. In order to get to Anjialou from the embassy, you have to enter a narrow street from the main road, but it is still so close that you think you would notice it as you walk by it when you leave the office for lunch. What I did not notice was that Anjialou is surrounded by a high wall and is not visible from the outside. There are iron gates at several of the entrances to the village and they are mostly left open, but unless you have something specific to do there, you would not think to enter. Besides, who would imagine that a landscape of mountains of garbage lay beyond the high fence?
 Prices in Anjialou are very cheap, and the chicken and vegetable hotpot set I ordered at a small cafeteria was 48 yuan. In comparison, the coffee I ordered at a coffee shop about 10 minutes on foot from Anjialou was 45 yuan, more expensive than in Japan. On the streets of Anjialou, there are posters saying, “We pay top prices for long hair.” I frequently saw such posters during my surveys in rural areas, but this was the first time to see one in Beijing. People in urban areas do not grow their hair and sell it for extra money. The poster tells you that low-income people live here.

The relocation and adjustment of “non-essential functions of the capital”

 Beijing’s drastic measures in November seem to have suddenly come about because of the large fire but are actually an extension of a series of policies to strengthen the “essential functions of the capital.” When President Xi Jinping inspected Beijing in 2014, he directed that politics, culture, international exchange, science and technology, and innovation be strengthened as essential functions of the capital, and that the other functions be relocated. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Integration Plan was also discussed at the ninth meeting of the Central Leading Small Group for Financial and Economic Affairs held by President Xi Jinping on February 10, 2015. The plan is to coordinate and adjust the industries, economies, and urbanization in three regions, as well as to solve regional disparities and environmental problems. But an urgent matter is the “relocation of all non-essential functions of the capital,” which will help relieve problems such as excessive population concentration, deteriorating safety, and accumulation of low-profit industries. [6]
 In 2017, Beijing started to take forceful measures to relocate and adjust “non-essential functions of the capital.” Because the goals of the plan cannot be achieved if done slowly, it was decided that illegal buildings and other structures were to be forcibly torn down and the people living there evicted under the slogan “Zhěngzhì kāi qiáng dǎ dòng”, or “tearing down walls and digging holes.” According to the June 9, 2017 People’s Daily, Beijing carried out its “tearing down walls and digging holes” at 12,255 locations (16.409 million square meters or 3.8 times that done during the same period in 2016) by the end of April that year, and it is said that 76.1% of the plan has been completed for this fiscal year. [7]
 The “shantytown renovation” (redevelopment of the squatter districts) is in full swing. The same People’s Daily article reported that by March 8, 2017 adjustments resulted in a total of 9,960 people who had legal consultations, and that 439 cases were resolved. [8] According to the Qianlong news network which reports information on Beijing, Wangtan (approximately 46 hectares just outside the South 2nd Ring Road) in the Dongcheng District was designated as a redevelopment area in 1992, but because of its relation as a protected traditional area and problems with procuring funds, the redevelopment did not go ahead. In the meantime, the number of unregistered houses and illegal alterations increased, the roads became narrower, and it became an area home to families with disabilities (1,259 homes, 22.6%), families with sick people (769 homes, 13.81%), and low-income families (237 homes, 4.25%). The living conditions are poor, with 4,922 unregistered homes (86%), a floorspace per home of 22.19 square meters, an average of 3.61 occupants, and a space of six square meters per person. Initially, it appeared that the goal of “100 days or less” was set in anticipation of the time to negotiate evictions and relocations by the time work started, but according to an article in the People’s Daily, this area had 6,413 households (a family registry population of over 20,000 people) with a Beijing family registry and 5,700 households who live through rental and other agreements. The redevelopment resulted in 5,693 households moving and was completed in just eight days, with over 75% of residents signing contracts. [9]
 As mentioned above, government media reported that in a short period of time, the tearing down of buildings and the resettlement of residents, which had been pending issues for several years, was complete. However, given that information is strictly controlled, it is dangerous to accept these forward-looking reports at face value. In fact, the evictions and relocations after the major fire constitute serious human rights violations, and also violate the provisions of the “Administrative Mandatory Law” that the Chinese government enacted in 2012. Article 5 of the law states that “If administrative management aims can be achieved by non-compulsive means, compulsive means must not be adopted.” Furthermore, Article 43 stipulates that “Administrative organs must not force residents to abide by relevant administrative decisions by stopping the supply of water, electricity, heat, fuel, and other utilities that are necessary for their lives.” Generally, the decision to secure a place of relocation and pay compensation to evicted persons is supposed to happen after going through a series of processes, such as verification by experts, multi-aspect risk assessments, confirmation of legal aspects, and holding of public hearings, but it is highly likely that policies that strengthen the relocation of non-essential capital functions sped up various tasks to eliminate these procedures and to achieve the goals. Also, support for the majority of compensation for evictions and relocation is for people with urban family registers who have land and real estate rights and does not include most of the non-resident population living in the urban village who have signed rental agreements with a landlord.


 In Anjialou, I saw the strange “cooperation” between the rich and the poor, but the reality is that the people of Beijing live with the help of migrant workers. Who will take care of the elderly in urban areas where the population is graying? Who will send children to school pick them up and prepare their meals on behalf of working parents? It is the migrant worker who also massages tired bodies. They are the ones who prepare breakfast for the public from their stalls and from whom people buy their fruits and sweets. Construction sites and factories would not be able to survive without migrant workers. However, the government of Beijing will not actively provide public housing and schools for migrant workers.
 The family register is handed down from parents, and the lives of those who have a family register with good conditions and those with a family register in a bad area are vastly different. Regional economic disparities continue to grow, with no prospects for solving inequality. In fact, more public aid can be given to migrant workers. However, they are conveniently used as a cheap labor force, and are forcibly evicted when it is necessary to control population growth and improve the scenery and sanitary conditions. In this way, the structure of exploiting them has become entrenched.
 Why has a blind eye been turned to the development of urban villages? It is because of the reality that the inequality between those with vested interests and others cannot easily be solved, and that there is no end to people who want to get rich even if it means breaking the law. As long as the inequality in Chinese society does not shrink to a large extent, it seems that even if forcibly evicted, the lawless zones of urban villages absent of “citizens” will spring up like mushrooms.

(Dated Jun 2, 2018)

1 “‘Beijing “Eviction’:” 11张图带你看懂‘低端人口’ 清退行動,” Initium Media, December 1, 2017.
[]((Accessed June 3, 2018)

2 Zhao Han, “20 Years of Scavenging in Beijing: Your Capital, My Waste Capital,” Initium, September 14, 2016
[] (Accessed: June 3, 2018)


4When companies and individuals acquire the rights to expropriated land, they pay transfer taxes and various other taxes to local governments. According to the enforcement of the “tax sharing system” (1994) clarifying the allocation of central and regional tax revenue sources, when most of these were incorporated into local finances, the local government diverted a large amount of agricultural land to non-agricultural land.

5For houses, one or two can be owned if the total area is less than the average living space of residents of the same city. Refer to “2017上海低保每月多少钱” (Accessed December 2, 2017).

6 In 2015, Beijing announced plans to limit the population of the city to 23 million by 2020, and in 2017 presented its strict control over the scale of the city in the “Beijing Urban Master Plan (2016-2035).” The population of Beijing in 2017 was 21.7 million (a 0.1% decrease compared to the previous year), falling for the first time in 20 years (refer to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics for statistical data on Beijing).

7 贺勇, “北京動员社会参与“疏解整治促提昇”专项行動整治开墻打洞 拆除违法建筑,” People’s Daily, June 9, 2017.


9 [人勤春来早”系列报道] 两万余望坛居民下月可签约选房,”, February 22, 2017

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