Beijing shuts down roadside shop-front businesses, at expense of migrant workers

By Li Hong Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/10 22:23:39

The municipal government of Beijing has kicked off a city-wide "clean-up" campaign, bringing down illicit shop-fronts and constructions with bulldozers, electric saws and sledgehammers.

Businesses are given from five to 15 days to rectify unapproved construction before "the authorities enforce mandatory demolition with no obligation to compensate for possible losses," according to government notices put up on the walls.

As a result, thousands of small businesses - including barbershops, clothing stores, snack bars and small restaurants - along modern driveways and ancient inner-city hutong alleyways, have been shut down.

With newly bricked-up walls and restored property facades, city passageways are becoming tidier and more tranquil, winning the approval of some permanent Beijing residents who have long grumbled about the ragged outsiders - mostly farmers and peddlers from all across the huge country - who made their city jammed, noisy and somehow less grand.

Nevertheless, the clean-up has led to more than 170,000 migrant workers losing their jobs and a place to make a living, according to a local newspaper report. Some had leased the shops for as many as 10 years, running their small business to support a big family dwelling in Beijing.

As a consequence, for the majority of these now jobless people, only one bleak choice faces them: getting packed and going home to the desolate countryside.

Weary-eyed and helpless, one middle-aged migrant couple were spotted squatting on a street corner in Hujialou Beili of Chaoyang district, as a bulldozer tore their shop down. They don't know what they should do next. What they do know is that they are no longer welcome in the capital city.

In the past two years, we have heard lots of government instructions that Beijing has "taken on too many urban functions that are not essential to the capital" - an implicit way to say this megacity of 22 million is too crowded. With more wealthy people coming in, the local government feels enormous pressure to cool rising housing prices and ease the strained public services.

Unfortunately, the axe has fallen on the migrant workers, who have helped build and put up the modern city skyline, but still have the least say in public affairs. With the clean-up, city decision-makers have shown the door to this very unprivileged group of people.

It is unfair and unethical to blame Beijing's air pollution, water shortage, traffic jams, and all other urban ailments on migrant workers. The administrative demarcation of permanent residences and temporary construction is utterly discriminatory toward them.

Some critics say that city officials who decided to obliterate the shop-fronts are actually clearing up all hidden city hazards - fire risks, prostitution and drug-trafficking - and removing a blot on their record.

From another perspective, not all Beijing residents, the elderly in particular, would feel comfortable with the sudden loss of the hustle and bustle of street life. It is surreal to force all the grannies to go to the dazzling modern shopping malls if they just want to buy some bean curd or noodles for lunch.

The most appealing part of the city is about to disappear. What city planners and officials don't seem to realize is that there are shopping malls all around the world.

A unique, cultural and community contribution won't come from huge, shiny malls, but from many of the shop-fronts being closed down.

The author is an editor with the Global Times.

Posted in: INSIDER'S EYE

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