Police reaction to migrant’s death highlights social tensions in Beijing

27 June 2019

Two years ago, the southern city of Zengcheng descended into chaos as migrant workers overturned police cars, set fires and smashed windows in three days of rioting in the city’s factory district.

The Zengcheng disturbances were ignited when supermarket security guards reportedly beat-up a pregnant woman from Sichuan as they tried to clear a group of migrant hawkers away from the supermarket entrance.

So it is perhaps understandable that police in Beijing reacted the way they did this week when Yuan Liya, a young migrant woman from Anhui, fell to her death from the fourth floor of the Jingwen market in southern Beijing, and rumours started circulating that she had been raped by security guards at the market before being thrown to her death.

As several hundred fellow migrants from Anhui staged a protest demanding a proper investigation into Yuan’s death on Wednesday 8 May, police descended in force and helicopters circled above to make sure the protest did not get out of hand. The lockdown around the Jingwen market continued Thursday with journalists counting at least 20 buses, each carrying 50 officers stationed in the area in case of trouble. As one observer noted on Weibo, “there is no one congregating here, just the cops.” (没有人聚集,只有警察聚集)

In order to prevent the spread of rumours online, Yuan’s full name and the name of the market were quickly censored on Weibo. Media outlets were ordered to only report the official version of events issued by the public security bureau, namely that Yuan had committed suicide. The police issued another statement Thursday explicitly denying that Yuan had been poisoned, raped or attacked prior to her death. Later, a 28-year-old woman was arrested for spreading rumours about Yuan’s death.

The extreme reaction of the authorities can partly be explained by the fact the incident took place in the national capital, where everything is more sensitive and even the smallest disturbance is viewed as a threat to stability. However the fact that the tragedy involved a young migrant must have exacerbated the authorities’ fears of a mass disturbance.

In the last few years, the Beijing government has made it harder and harder for new migrants to settle in the city and made little effort to improve the lives of migrants already established there.

Migrant communities on the outskirts of the city have been bulldozed to make way for luxury housing and commercial developments, migrant schools have been closed down and parents complain that they have been unable to find places for their children in the public school system. Many of those migrant villages that remain have been walled and gated and are subject to regular police patrols in a bid to separate as much as possible the migrant population from Beijing’s residents.

It is virtually impossible for migrant workers to get a Beijing residence card these days unless they have amassed a vast fortune through business dealings. Even non-native graduates from Beijing’s universities are now being excluded. In the past, graduates who got a job in the capital could apply for residency but now under a new rule announced by the Beijing authorities on 4 May, any graduate over 24-years-old and masters students over 27-years-old will no longer be eligible to apply. Officials openly admitted the regulation was introduced specifically to prevent migrants from settling in the city.

The primary concern of the Beijing authorities seems to be to limit and control the migrant population of the capital. The massive police deployment around the Jingwen market clearly reflects fears of a backlash against the city’s anti-migrant policies but it also serves to reinforce the authorities’ message to migrants that “this is not your city.”

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