CHINA

Olympics are no treat for Beijing’s illegal workers

For most inhabitants of Beijing, the long-awaited Olympics are a unique opportunity for rejoicing and pride. Yet for the city's numerous illegal workers, the Games are tantamount to a threat of expulsion.

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Photo: Kevin German

For most inhabitants of Beijing, the long-awaited Olympics are a unique opportunity for rejoicing and pride. Yet for the city's numerous illegal workers, the Games are tantamount to a threat of expulsion.

One of our Observers in the Chinese capital stumbled upon the arrest of a street hawker. Though he was himself handled roughly by the police, he managed to take a few pictures and post them on his blog.

With crowds of street hawkers a familiar site in the streets of Beijing, this man's arrest probably had something to do with the ongoing crackdown on illegal workers. About one quarter of the city's population does not hold the residence permits required to live in the Chinese capital. While authorities used to turn a blind-eye on these illegal workers, this is no longer the case during major events such as the Olympics.

Pictures of the arrest

 

 

 

Photos: Kevin German

"Whenever a major event occurs,(...) there will be a new round-up."

Jean-François Huchet is in charge of the Hong Kong-based French Centre for Studies on Contemporary China (CEFC).

I don't know in what context these pictures were taken, so it's difficult to comment on them and determine why this salesman was arrested and not another.

For the past two months, Chinese police have been evacuating anyone caught without a hukou, the residence permit granted to the city's inhabitants at birth. If a Chinese citizen is born in a region deemed to be rural, he is not allowed to hold the hukou required to reside in Beijing.

Some people from the countryside can benefit from a temporary permit if they're working on a specific project. Over the past year, this has been particularly the case with construction workers drafted in to build hotels and Olympic sites. Yet, once the permit expires, these temporary migrants are required to return home or face the threat of expulsion. With the Olympics approaching, local authorities went so far as to expel foreign students.

The street hawkers we see in the pictures may not qualify as residents, which could explain why one of them was arrested. If that's the case, the migrant was sent to a detention centre. This phenomenon has been widely criticised by international human rights groups of late.

This system is partly a fiction since all major Chinese cities host a fluctuating migrant population. Out of Beijing's 9 to 10 million inhabitants, between 2 and 3 million do not hold a full residence permit. This population is mostly located in the poorer neighbourhoods, as many of them live on petty jobs.

There will be more tolerance and less controls once the Olympics are over. Indeed, in normal times this population plays an important social role by taking the jobs local residents are unwilling to perform, as is the case in certain trades and small services such as housecleaning. Hence, they are set to return.

Still, whenever a major event occurs, such as a congress of the Chinese Communist Party, there will be a new round-up."