Can Beijing Justify the Mass Eviction of Migrant Workers After the Deadly Fire?
Vol. 39 Associate Editor
In his New Year’s address this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his heart was “most dearly attached” to people who still live in hardship—those who are faced with difficulties in employment, children’s education, medical care and housing. Xi assured that “ceaselessly solving these problems remains an unshirkable responsibility for the party and the government.” However, after a deadly fire on November 18, which claimed 19 lives at a residential-industrial compound in Daxing, a south Beijing suburb, the city authorities evicted thousands of tenants, mostly migrant workers, from their homes. The eviction was under an immediately-launched 40-day campaign of demolishing illegal construction and maintaining urban safety. The campaign swept the whole city in a few days. Multiple districts or villages issued notices, demanding that residents move out within an extremely short period without any compensation.  There were multiple videos posted online showing groups of local policemen forcing people to relocate, huge crowds dragging bags and packages along the streets, and bulldozers tearing down buildings. In fact, the city’s authorities have been planning to get rid of these migrant workers for months. In September 2017, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council has set a 23 million population limit for Beijing. Although this plan didn’t clarify exactly how to control the population, multiple documents released earlier by the municipal government specified that those less-educated, low income people—or so-called “low-end population”—are the main group of people the city will seek to get rid of. The mass eviction has caused an outpouring of criticism from the middle class. On November 24, more than 100 Chinese intellectuals signed a petition urging the top Chinese authorities to immediately stop the eviction, which they called “vicious conduct that breaks the law and the Constitution and seriously tramples on human rights.” The right to adequate housing and protection from forced evictions has received near universal acceptance as a fundamental human right. Many international conventions to which China is a party have recognized such a right, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Generally in international law, the right to adequate housing is not absolute, and States may restrict this right for legitimate purposes by proportionate means. For example, article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits limitations to the right to freedom of movement and freedom to choose residence if the limitations “are provided by law, and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.” The Beijing government alleged that the mass eviction is justified on the ground of protecting the city’s safety. In a two-day investigation after the fire, the fire protection department found 9,497 places of hidden danger, where some hundreds lived in a small factory building with privately-owned wires were intertwined together like spider webs. Nevertheless, the real problem with the mass eviction lies in the proportionality requirement of the government measures. General Comment No. 7 of the ESCR Committee provides comprehensive procedures required before and after a state carries out forced evictions. Among those implicated are: (a) an opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected; (b) adequate and reasonable notice for all affected persons prior to the scheduled date of eviction; (c) information on the proposed evictions, and . . . alternative purpose for which the land or housing is to be used, to be made available in reasonable time to all those affected; . . . (f) evictions not to take place in particularly bad weather or at night unless the affected persons consent otherwise; (g) provisions of legal remedies; and (h) provision, where possible, of legal aid to persons who are in need of it to seek redress from the courts; [and] evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. A 2007 report by Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur also listed procedural requirements prior to evictions: (a) appropriate notice to all potentially affected persons that eviction is being considered and that there will be public hearings on the proposed plans and alternatives; (b) effective dissemination by the authorities of relevant information in advance, including land records and proposed comprehensive resettlement plans specifically addressing efforts to protect vulnerable groups; (c) a reasonable time period for public review of, comment on, and/or objection to the proposed plan; (d) opportunities and efforts to facilitate the provision of legal, technical and other advice to affected persons about their rights and options; and (e) holding of public hearing(s) that provide(s) affected persons and their advocates with opportunities to challenge the eviction decision and/or to present alternative proposals and to articulate their demands and development priorities.  The mass eviction happened in Beijing after the November 19 fire showed that few of these procedural requirements were met. Local authorities ordered unconditional eviction within a few days, without any transitional measures or relief and relocation plans. Clearly, the government has not provided those affected an “opportunity for genuine consultation” prior to the eviction. During the eviction, the local authorities adopted strong-armed enforcement including shutting down water and electricity supply. Such administrative actions are blatant infringement of basic human rights of freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment. They even violated the Chinese internal law. Article 43 of the Administrative Compulsion Law provides an absolute prohibition on administrative actions that “[a]dministrative organs shall not force the parties concerned to perform the relevant administrative decisions by such means as cutting off the supply of water, electricity, heating or gas for the living of residents.” After the eviction, the government not only failed to provide secure and safe access to basic shelter and essential supplies, it also shut down the private aids provided by civil organizations in the name of unlicensed housing. The government’s true aim behind the campaign thus seems suspicious here—does Beijing want to ensure migrant workers safety, or actually just to get rid of these “low-end”? In this regard, Beijing has failed to eliminate or reduce discriminations that sustain or exacerbate existing inequalities that adversely affect marginalized and vulnerable groups. The mass eviction campaign has been implemented in a discriminatory manner, and further marginalized those living in poverty. For these reasons, Beijing is hard to justify its mass eviction operation under its international human right duties.
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Vol. 39 Online Editor: Julie Gulledge