Nineteen people – mostly migrant workers from rural parts of China – died when a fire broke out in an apartment building in a Beijing suburb on November 18. After the tragedy, Beijing authorities launched a mass operation to demolish dangerous buildings in the city. This sent many migrant workers – many of whom live in buildings that don't meet safety regulations – scrambling to pack up and leave before their homes were bulldozed.

The deadly fire took place in Daxing – a suburb located to the south of Beijing – that is home to many labourers from rural China who came to the city to work. Most live in poor conditions.

In total, 19 people died and eight were hospitalised after the fire. Most of the victims were migrant workers.

Local media reported that the building fell short of safety standards, with residents crammed together in tiny apartments. Firefighters concluded that the fire probably started in the basement, where a giant freezer was being built.

Police arrested 18 people in connection to the tragedy, including seven apartment managers, seven electricians and four maintenace workers. Police reported that none of the electricians or workers were qualified.

"Many migrant workers went back to their hometowns or villages"

Lu Haitao (not his real name) is our Observer in Beijing.

After the fire, Cai Qi, Beijing’s communist party secretary [Editor’s note: Cai Qi is also the city’s mayor], announced a 40-day operation to identify and demolish all illegal structures and apartment buildings that didn't meet safety standards.

Everything happened really fast. In Daxing, some shopkeepers were told to leave before 5am. By 9am, teams had already arrived to demolish the buildings. Shops were closed very quickly.

Residents of these buildings were often given between three and five days to pack their belongings and leave. Authorities said they would not be responsible for any belongings lost once the demolition started.


These police officers asked residents to leave. "Just let us stay here tonight," the residents pleaded. "You can cut the electricity first. Then it will be safe, right?" The police officers reply, "Leave before 8 o'clock tomorrow morning."

Some residents were forced to leave their apartments quickly.

"Look, all of the doors [of the apartments] were sealed up", says the man filming this video..

On November 23, our Observer spoke with a waitress at a restaurant in Daxing who lost her apartment in the demolition campaign. This is what she said:

They told us that the water and electricity would be cut on November 25. But, in reality, it was actually cut a few days before that. I had to leave my apartment and I don’t have anywhere else to go. I also lost money because I had already paid rent for the next month and no one will reimburse me for that. I already contacted a few other landlords, but the price of apartments is going up so many people have decided to return to their home villages.

Many migrant workers had to scramble to gather their belongings together before their buildings were demolished.


Our Observer said it is now difficult for migrant workers to find affordable housing.

The price of rentals and hotels went up because many people suddenly found themselves homeless and looking for a new place to sleep. Some ended up sleeping in the street.


Some migrant workers have decided to return to their home villages.

Many don’t have anywhere to go.

To the best of my knowledge, the people who had to leave haven’t been given any kind of compensation. Only the people who lived in the building that caught on fire were rehoused. That was reported by official media, but I don’t even know if that’s true.

In Daxing, there are lots of small factories and workshops and it’s home to many migrants who find cheap apartments there. They don’t earn much money to begin with and they also send a chunk of their salaries to their families back in the village.


This isn’t the first time that migrant workers have perished in an apartment building fire. In 2011, a similar tragedy took place when an illegal clothing factory in Nanxiaojie caught on fire, leaving 18 workers dead and another 23 injured.
 
Article written with
Chloé Lauvergnier

Chloé Lauvergnier , Journaliste francophone