In a Beijing suburb, a crane hoists a concrete slab into the sky, removing a roof from a simple brick home that had once sheltered a small migrant family.
Dongsanqi village is the latest community to be demolished under a municipal campaign to dismantle what the city authority says are unsafe dwellings following years of “disorderly” development.
Zhu Xiangzhi, who lived in Dongsanqi with his grandson, has found temporary shelter in a converted welding shop while he looks for a new home and school.
“Everyone is looking for their own place, but I still haven’t found [a place] anywhere,” said the rubbish collector from eastern Anhui province who moved to Beijing 20 years ago.
China’s past three decades of rapid economic development spurred a mass migration of some 280 million workers from rural areas to big cities, many of them taking low-wage jobs in the manufacturing, construction and service sectors.
Unable to secure official residency, which brings with it access to social welfare services and education, migrants found homes in ageing inner city buildings, overcrowded dormitories, basements and even sewers.
Beijing’s municipal government launched a campaign this year to eradicate what it called an “urban disease” of illegal construction and unsafe buildings in the city of nearly 22 million people.
Hutongs, traditional homes built around courtyards in neighborhoods of narrow alleyways, were among the first to be “rectified.” The campaign has since spread to more suburbs.
Some 100 Beijing neighborhoods are to be revamped by 2020, the city government has said. This year it aims to remove 40 million sq m (48 million sq yards) of illegal structures, the equivalent of 5,000 soccer pitches.
The number of migrant workers in Beijing has risen fivefold over the past 18 years, peaking at 8.2 million in 2015. The pace of migration has slowed under a plan to cap Beijing’s population at 23 million by 2020.
City officials, who did not respond to faxed questions from Reuters, have not publicly linked the neighborhood revamp to curbing the influx of migrant labor.
But some migrants say they are being unfairly targeted and have not been given time to find new homes.
“If you have money you go anywhere you want. If you don’t, every inch you move is a struggle,” said Wang Jun, a rubbish collector who moved to Beijing from central Henan province.
Fears the campaign might force migrant workers out of Beijing has raised concerns among some of the city’s residents.
“Has the Beijing government not thought about the consequences? Who would do these lowly jobs? Who would deliver our packages?” according to a post on China’s popular social media platform Weibo.
“Beijingers wouldn’t do them.”
The demolition campaign is also impacting some schools.
Almost one thousand students at a primary school in the south of Beijing were told recently they had to find a new school by autumn. Most of the pupils were from migrant families.
“A lot of these people have already put down roots in this city, and it’s not really possible for them to return to the countryside,” said Zhang Lifan, a respected independent commentator and historian of Beijing.
“But if this round of cleanout movements rips up their roots, then I think from a political point of view this way of trying to keep society stable actually has no benefits.”