03 December 2017

Beijing needs a new Jane Jacobs

The Beijing municipal government has touched off a pretty significant firestorm of online criticism by evicting entire communities of migrant workers from their homes (substandard makeshift apartments, one of which recently burned down in a fire, causing a number of deaths) in the Daxing district in the south of Beijing, and sending them literally packing during some of the coldest months of the year. The criticism is coming not only from left-wing (in the Chinese sense) commentators and public intellectuals such as Hu Xijin and Sima Nan who have been generally supportive of the government in the past, but also from Beijing’s middle class (which has in the past been fairly indifferent toward the concerns of the migrant workers).

This well-justified outrage has been exacerbated by some fairly callous language used by Beijing’s city authorities designating the migrant workers as ‘diduan renkou’ (低端人口, literally ‘low-end population’). This smacks fairly heavily of the regional and œconomic prejudice that inland Chinese people have faced for a long time from the residents of the great metropolises of the coast. But seeing it in official documentation has given this discrimination a kind of reality for many, to whom it had been previously a matter of intellectual concern.

But – let’s be clear about what this actually is. This is an urban renewal drive, very similar to the sort carried out in Pittsburgh in the 1950s or the sort carried out in New York under the management of Robert Moses. (And to judge from the Beijing authorities’ attitudes, they took his infamous ‘meat ax’ quote to heart.) As with the mid-20th century American slum-clearing urban renewal projects, the end goal is to establish higher property values and spark investment. The means for achieving it are similar – the working-class population is evicted, their homes are seized under eminent domain law and then demolished. And of course, the people who suffer most are precisely the working-class people least able to defend or speak up for themselves – those without a Beijing hukou.

My wife, a mainland Chinese who has a degree in public administration and who has studied the housing problem in great detail, was deeply horrified by this story and thinks that the government behaved cruelly toward the workers. More importantly, though, she thinks that there are at least two necessary (but not sufficient) conditions that have to be met before the migrant workers’ problems can be solved. She says that the government has to start either building public housing projects or directly subsidising low-income workers’ rent checks, so that they wouldn’t have to live in these kinds of illegal and unsafe buildings to begin with. And, as a union (and former CCP) member herself, she says that there has to be some kind of organisation for migrant workers, beyond that of the ACFTU. She’s doubtful about even the efficacy of the last, in part because she fears that automotion will be replacing many of these migrant workers’ jobs in the future at any rate, and because she is uncertain about the long-term œconomic effects for migrant labourers from becoming organised.

To be clear, I agree with my wife completely, on all counts – including the point about housing subsidies and unionisation being necessary but not sufficient conditions for a dignified life on the part of migrant workers in Beijing or other major cities. I suspect that the ghost of Robert Moses has to be exorcised from the municipal government planning offices. To be fair, I’ve felt this way for a long time – at least since I was in Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics. But this recent, brutal pressure on migrant workers gives the question a new-found urgency. Beijing needs fewer spiritual adepts of Robert Moses, and far more of Jane Jacobs and Fei Xiaotong.

Even then, though, Beijing was home to any number of ‘strips of chaos’ with their own ‘weird wisdom’ that a modern-day Jane Jacobs would be able to understand, appreciate and – hopefully – defend tooth-and-claw. That having been said, it’s all too possible to caricature Jacobs and domesticate her into a ‘small-is-beautiful’ petite-bourgeois idealist (which she certainly wasn’t, any more than Grace Lee Boggs was). Jacobs herself would emphasise, repeatedly and without hesitation, that the answers to these problems have to be somewhat collective in nature, and that we can’t fall back on neoliberal ideological dogmas or mealy-mouthed pieties about a ‘rule of law’ which, anyway, too often serves the interests of the same developers that profit from these slum-clearing urban renewal boondoggles. The ‘dark age’ that Jacobs warned about can be seen already in the rubble of Daxing, though China has not yet solidified around the kind of neoliberal dogmas that made it possible.

To that effect, then, the voices of outrage currently issuing from the Chinese hard left – those of Sima Nan and Hu Xijin, among others – are every bit as needed as the ‘third-force’ voices. Between them, they might yet conceive another, hopefully equally-radical Jane Jacobs to speak on behalf of China’s cities and the ordinary people, absolutely including inland migrants and newcomers, who have come to live there.

No comments:

Post a Comment