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Beijing’s Campaign to Level “Illegal Structures” Displaces Migrants, Threatens Artists

The municipal government is carrying out mass evictions as it prepares to level some 430 million square feet of illegal housing.

After a fire killed 19 people in an overcrowded Beijing apartment building on November 18, the municipal government launched a 40-day campaign to crack down on “illegal structures” and reduce the city’s “low-end population” (低端人口). Tens of thousands of tenants, mostly migrant laborers and small business owners, are being forced to relocate on very short notice, usually no more than a day or two, and sometimes as little as 15 minutes. A total of 430 million square feet of illegal dwellings are to be bulldozed by the end of this year, according to the Financial Times, making it the biggest citywide demolition effort since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although no immediate statistics are available, the impact of this enormous mass eviction of many tenants of the “low-end population” — whose households are registered in provinces and therefore not entitled to public services in Beijing — is felt instantaneously, as food delivery and courier services are now paralyzed.

Among the structures deemed illegal and unsafe are many artists’ newly built studios on the northeast peripheries of the city, where the forever-expanding urban agglomerate meets shrinking rural land. In this liminal space of informal development, even the well-off artists, many of whom live in upscale suburbs, continue to navigate the city’s unofficial economy in pursuit of large and flexible studio spaces with cheaper rent. They are members of Beijing’s enormous informal population, which includes all tenants whose status and/or employment situations are not officially recognized, regardless of their income levels. The informal developments where these populations generally live and work are not only unregulated but also uncharted. Such transitional zones have given birth to the “urban-rural-fringe” (城鄉結合), a new buzzword in China’s urbanism lexicon.

The municipal government’s 40-day campaign should not come as a surprise. The city announced two years ago that it planned to reduce its population by 15%, to 23 million, by 2020; minimize the land zoned for construction; and expand parks and gardens to mitigate the negative effects of its rapid urbanization. Measures such as shutting down factories, closing schools for migrant children, and eradicating informal enterprises are part of a broad effort to cure the “urban diseases.” In 2016, Heiqiao, a colossal, decade-old artists’ village situated on the northeast corner of the city in Chaoyang district and near the 798 Art District, was leveled. Displaced artists moved their studios farther out, to remote places in Shunyi District near the airport, but the new studios are also situated in a legal gray area where the legitimacy of properties is questionable, and rights of tenants are not protected. Earlier this year, some artists I spoke to, including Song Kun, found their rents doubled within a few months, while others, including Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, and Liao Guohe, to name a few, faced eviction again due to precarious property conditions.

Possessions belonging to evicted residents (photo provided by artist who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation)
Possessions belonging to evicted residents (photo provided by artist who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation)

In Beijing, as elsewhere, waves of gentrification campaigns coupled with deregulation in planning systematically displace the most vulnerable populations and ensure that no informal tenants are permanent — be they migrant laborers making meager wages or successful artists receiving rich collectors in their studios. International development scholar Ananya Roy argues that informality is an idiom of planning itself:

By informality I mean a state of deregulation, one where the ownership, use, and purpose of land cannot be fixed and mapped according to any prescribed set of regulations or the law. In deed, here the law itself is rendered open-ended and subject to multiple interpretations and interests.

In other words, informality is an intentional mode of the state and “planning is not an antidote to informality,” as Roy puts it, but a code to camouflage the profit-driven reality of razing certain neighborhoods and converting them into commodities when the capital opportunity matures for speculation.

Studios and Informality

Forced eviction and relocation has been a common occurrence in Beijing since the 1990s, when the first artists’ villages — Yuanming Yuan Artists’ Village (1990–95) and the East Village (1992–94) — sprouted in desolate areas and then quickly dispersed under the pressures of gentrification. Developers, who are widely believed to connive with local authorities, have displaced a massive number of tenants throughout the city by force with little or no compensation. For artists, the clashes with developers escalated in 2010, when about 100 masked men with iron rods were allegedly sent by developers to raid the artists’ colonies of Zheng Yang and 008, where artists had been resisting a redevelopment plan to bulldoze their studios to make way for a large-scale residential project in which the municipal government had invested. Several artists were badly injured in the raid, and the violence of that incident is by no means unique. What has been happening in Beijing is very similar to the way artists are enmeshed in the gentrification process in other cities, just on a much bigger scale. Artists on urban-rural borders are cast as foot soldiers for developers’ urbanizing programs and financial schemes. Despite often enjoying middle- or upper-middle-class status, artists are typically just as vulnerable to displacement as migrant workers and low-income dwellers.

Artist Liang Yuanwei posted on JOIN, a social media platform, photos of her new studio completed this year (left), and the studio being packed up for the temporary evacuation during the 40-day campaign (right). (screenshot by the author via JOIN)
Artist Liang Yuanwei posted on WeChat, a social media platform, photos of her new studio completed this year (left), and the studio being packed up for the temporary evacuation during the 40-day campaign (right). (screenshot by the author via WeChat)

Artist Liang Yuanwei describes her studio as an “ivory tower” on the bleak urban-rural-fringes. But even ivory towers and artists who see themselves as members of the city’s elite cannot escape the sweeping 40-day campaign; she and other artists reported that authorities knocked on doors to perform fire safety inspections and asked them to evacuate their new studio in Shunyi District. “I wonder what kind of wrongdoing we have committed to deserve displacement,” Liang said on social media. “My family has lived in Beijing for over six decades. I have been educated in prestigious schools, and visited by the richest of the rich and the most celebrated public figures. Because of my hard work, I have risen to prominence. But I don’t think Beijing resents only migrants and the ‘low-end’ population.”

When asked to comment on the campaign, most artists wish to remain anonymous. One Beijing artist who publicly documented the evictions, the painter Hua Yong, has since fled the country, according to the New York Times. While nearly all of them are concerned about the outcome of the crackdown and sympathetic with the misfortunes of those who are less fortunate, one admits that he was aware of the dubious legal standing of his studio when he moved in, and another considers the gentrification campaign harsh but necessary.

Indeed, since the campaign began, in contrast to the rough dispersal of migrant workers and in spite of rumors of possible demolitions, no permanent eviction or violence against artists in Chaoyang, Shunyi, and Tongzhou districts has been reported. As one artist remarks, “Maybe we [artists] no longer are posted as threats to the state.” For the time being, it is a waiting game. Many landlords have turned off water and power to force artists out until the campaign is over. Some artists sneak into their studios at night and stay away during the day as they work to meet exhibition deadlines.

Many artists in Beijing choose to establish their studios in informal areas so they can pay cheap rents for commodious spaces and maximize their profit margins. Unfortunately, too few consider what they could be doing to redress the detrimental socio-political impacts of the gentrification process — in which they’re instrumental — instead willfully participating in a vast class reconfiguration driven by the urbanization of contemporary China.

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