Christmas with migrants in Beijing – Alec Ash
‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all was calm. Shops were shuttered, homes were locked; the streets were full of lights and the sound of jingles. A winter chill hung in the air, and after a year of hard work, men and women of the village dragged luggage over the frost-bitten tarmac – going home for the holidays.
Yet these migrant workers, on the outskirts of Beijing, were not celebrating Christmas. It was not a holiday in China, and they did not want to go home, nor to shutter their shops and lock their doors. The lights were from police cars patrolling the streets, jingling their alarm bells, making it clear there was no other choice than to leave.
Feijia village is some 20 kilometres outside of the city centre, just off the expressway to Beijing’s dragon-scaled international airport. Stamped onto a steel archway at its entrance, its name translates, if one is overly literal, to “expense home.” It is anything but: these villages within the capital’s outer limits are favored by migrants who come to work and live for small change, saving their renminbi for family back home or to start their own businesses. Off the central strip, box apartments tessellate inside low buildings, the facades decorated with duvets and sheets hung out to air before being bundled up when the urban villagers move out.
It was down this central strip, on December 10, that hundreds of villagers marched to protest a round of evictions by the government, chanting the words of their unfurled banner: “Violent evictions suppress human rights”. By coincidence, it was UN Human Rights Day. Their evictions were the continuation of a 40-day campaign to clean up the fringes of the city, after a fire in the southern suburb of Daxing in November had killed nineteen people. But demolishing unsafe structures was an excuse for what Beijing’s municipal authorities, under the leadership of ambitious Party Secretary Cai Qi, really wanted: to clear out members of the “low-end population,” as official documents insultingly described migrants, from the outskirts of the city that they had built, into the winter cold.
Feijia was just a cog in the machine, caught in the gears that are turning to transform Beijing from the living animal it has always been into a metallic, shiny apparatus that pleases the city municipality and the hair-dyes in Zhongnanhai. I had witnessed it closer to home in my own hutong, where all of the migrant-run shops had been cleared out in the last eight months, sanitizing the alleyways, bricking up bars, tearing down the old grey walls that characterized the neighborhood and pasting centimeter-thick tiles over them to give the illusion of brickwork, with small high windows in the name of an ersatz historicism. This campaign was gutting Beijing, and Feijia was its long arm.
I dropped by Feijia two weeks after the protests, to have a peek at the aftermath of the protests. It happened to be Christmas Eve, and I was en route to the airport to spend the holidays in Hong Kong. My driver was a Beijinger born and bred, and I asked what he thought of the migrant clearances. “Beijingers are very welcoming,” said Brother Shu, “it’s just that there are too many outsiders.” He blamed a roster of the city’s problems on them, from traffic to bad manners – even the smog from factories surrounding the capital. It’s a common attitude, as the city bifurcates socially.
The first thing we saw as we pulled into Feijia was a conspiracy of public security officers, eight bao’an guards, the city’s true enforcers beyond the police. While Brother Shu waited for me around a corner, I snuck in underneath the archway, my winter cap pulled low and scarf riding high. Inside, it was a ghost town. Shops were shut or already empty husks, cleared out right down to the fittings. Many homes were still occupied, but this was a village that had lost its fight, not that anyone expected a different outcome. One mother and daughter were dragging their suitcases to the curb as I passed them. The Party had put its foot down; the party was over.
Mrs. Wang, a fifty-something year old from Sichuan in western China, was walking to the market to buy vegetables when I approached her. She had moved into Feijia three years ago, earning some 5000 yuan a month working as a cleaning lady in Beijing. Feijia, an hour out of the city by bus, was the only place she could afford to live at 700 yuan a month. Now, with less than a week’s notice, she was told she had to move, informed by a cookie-cutter A4 piece of paper plastered on her door, as it was for all of her neighbors. She planned to look for a different neighborhood in Beijing which was as cheap and convenient. If that didn’t pan out, she would return to Sichuan. In the meantime, she was soon to be homeless in the minus-seven degrees celsius nights.
“Beijing used to welcome us here,” Wang said. I thought of the 2008 Olympic slogan: Beijing huanying nin, Beijing welcomes you. “Now that has changed.” We had looped back to a central square I had passed earlier: the vegetable market where she had been heading. But there were no vegetables, and no market. All of the vendors had cleared out in the days before. It was pristine and empty.
Feijia was lucky to have its infrastructure intact. In the south of the city, the suburb of Xinjian had been reduced to rubble, resembling what the New York Times characterized as a “war zone.” Nearer to Feijia, in the same shadow of planes landing overhead, was the village of Picun, also prey to mass evictions over the last weeks. It was in this village, in April, that migrant Fan Yusu wrote a viral essay lamenting the lackluster lives of those living on the edge of the capital. “My life is a book that’s unbearable to read,” it begins, “and fate has made the binding very clumsy.”
As I left Mrs. Wang, a bao’an was walking besides me, doing his rounds. I was on the way out, so I figured I would strike up a conversation. He was taciturn, but didn’t buy it when I feigned dumbness to ask why there was such a security presence. “Haven’t you been reading the news?” He was from Hunan: a migrant sent to evict migrants.
I turned the corner and walked to where my car waited. Out of the corner of my ear, I could hear the guard rejoin his thicket of colleagues by the gate, and the word waiguoren – foreigner – drifted over the chill air. Then, zhua nage waiguoren – catch the foreigner.
I quickened my step, wary of being hauled in and missing my flight. Glancing behind, a single guard, who couldn’t have been over 19, was power walking towards me, looking faintly embarrassed. For the next twenty meters, we were caught in the world’s laziest chase, as I pretended not to leg it for my car, and he pretended not to be running to catch me. As I got in the passenger seat and told my confused driver to get the hell out of there, I could see my languid friend in the rear-view mirror chasing us half-heartedly, before giving up with what I could have sworn was an expression of palpable relief.
Speeding onto the expressway, I passed propaganda signs on the edges of the village: “Promote scientific development, Advance harmonious society.” Ready to flee the country, I replayed in my mind the last words Mrs. Wang told me before we parted. I had wished her a happy Christmas eve, which in Chinese translates, poetically, as Festival of Peace. She just scoffed, and turned aside with a biting reply.
“What peace?” ∎