China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2017/Dec

Marginalised migrants

Since his first official visit outside Rome in July 2013 to Lampedusa, the small Mediterranean island between Italy and the North African coast, one of the main entry points for refugees into the European Union, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his particular concern for the lamentable situation of the many migrants and refugees fleeing from war, persecution, natural disasters and poverty.

Undeniably, the migrant community is counted among the poor with whom Pope Francis is most concerned.

In his message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees in August this year, he stressed the great responsibility of all believers and people of good will to respond to the many challenges of contemporary migration with generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight, each according to their own abilities.

He employed four verbs to expand on what he considers a proper response towards migrants and refugees: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.

However, in reality many migrant workers are often regarded as needed, but unwanted, cheap, but exploitable. Their jobs are usually dirty, dangerous and demeaning. In many countries, they are an invisible population demographic; not at the top of any policy maker’s agenda. They are often made the scapegoat when crises occur.

Ruthless eviction in Beijing

This phenomenon can also be seen in China where migrant workers are referred to as diduan renkou (low-end people) by the media and certain district level government documents.

On November 18, after a fire killed 19 people in the village of Xinjiancun, part of the southern suburb of Daxing in Beijing, the city government ordered a 40-day campaign to demolish thousands of unauthorised houses and evict the migrant workers occupying these illegal structures.

Hundreds of thousands of were expelled and the unlicenced markets for low-end consumer goods, delivery companies, retail shops and small factories in which many of the migrants worked, were also shut down.

The execution of the campaign has been efficient and ruthless, clearing almost the whole neighbourhood. Many migrants lost their homes within a few days or even a few hours.

In other villages in the northern belt of Beijing, power and heating were cut off to buildings despite the freezing weather and evicted tenants were given no resettlement plans and no compensation. Some have been forced to sleep on the streets.

The scenes of these outrageous acts were posted and circulated on social media, provoking criticism from conscientious intellectuals in China as well as the media in Hong Kong and the world, calling the eviction campaign “a serious violation of human rights.”

On social media, some local residents also condemned the brutal action with many asking how such inhumane evictions could possibly promote the harmonious and beautiful China which the government has been trying to promote.

Some said that while it was right to remove unsafe structures and electric wiring, it would have been better to improve the safety level of the workers’ homes and work places rather than evict them, or at least give them adequate time to pack and move to another place – especially in such cold weather.

Some local people offered shelter and food to those rendered homeless, but were warned and stopped by local officials. We can see sympathy and concern from ordinary people, but not from government officials.

Discrimination against rural migrants

Some commentators asked why the migrant workers did not resist? Among the various reasons, the major ones are the lack of residential status due to the (hukou) household registration system.

The hukou is designed to control internal movement. Migrant workers who live outside the area where their hukou is registered cannot enjoy many of the rights afforded to local residents.

In the larger metropolises in particular, local governments, employers and others commonly discriminate against migrants, limiting their employment to a narrow range of poorly paid, menial jobs, providing migrant workers with none of the job security or welfare benefits extended to local urban workers.

Migrants are often characterised as a vast and filthy mob of ignorant outsiders who pour blindly into the cities, bringing dirt, disorder and crime resulting in long-running tension between the two groups.

With the expansion of the urban economy and China’s entry into the global market, came a huge demand for unskilled and cost-effective labour, providing opportunities for people from rural areas to work in the cities.

The population of nongmingong – or rural labourers – increased accordingly. The trend reflects the uneven development and resource allocation between urban and rural areas that lies at the root of workers migrating to the city.

Although the Chinese government has gradually reformed the household registration system and has called on cities to accept more migrants as permanent residents, the main beneficiaries of these policies are the well-educated migrants.

In Beijing, rapid development increased problems like traffic jams, limited resources, air pollution and a deteriorating social order. The government plans to improve the situation and turn the capital into a livable international city, keeping its population, which stood at 21.7 million in 2016, to 23 million by 2020 onwards.

In order to achieve this, Beijing recently launched a series of campaigns to force people and non-capital functions out of the city.

These include strictly controlling the increase of housing units, shutting down markets for low-end consumer goods and raising the entry bar for children of non-native residents seeking an education.

In the hands of municipal authorities, especially when accidents like the Daxing fire occur, these measures have turned into a campaign to evict migrants, rather than improve their working and living environment.

Thus, migrant workers are the vulnerable living at the margins of the city. They are unable to gain genuine support from the urban residents. Neither do they dare to resist in the face of forced eviction, as they are not native residents and their basic rights are therefore not respected.

Encounter with the suffering face of Christ

The many suffering faces of Beijing’s migrant workers remind me of the message of Pope Francis on the first World Day of the Poor (November 19) in which he pointed out that poverty challenges us through faces marked by suffering, marginalisation, oppression and violence.

Poverty has the face of women, men and children exploited by people with power and money, and social structures. From the ill-treated bodies of Chinese migrant workers, we can also encounter Christ if we are aware of the situation.

Monsignor Geno Sylva, from the Pontifical Council for the Promotion for New Evangelisation, pointed out that the World Day of the Poor is so beautiful because it is about reciprocity, giving and receiving.

Migrant workers in China who labour in low-end service jobs are described by local officials from Beijing’s districts as low-end people, reflecting the mentality of those who define a person only by their work. To the officials, those who have high academic qualifications and professional jobs are high-quality people. This is a highly discriminatory attitude and behaviour.

However, in Catholic social thought, different jobs and sectors are neither high nor low. Each job has its value and each worker has a role in contributing to society. Government officials in Beijing and other cities should respect differences and diversity in the city, as well as value different kinds of work.

As Pope John Paul II stated in his social encyclical, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens), work confirms the profound identity of men and women created in the image and likeness of God, and labour has an intrinsic priority over capital.

Thus, no matter what kind of job people have, the worker enjoys their dignity and basic rights. The human person is the measure of the dignity of work. Thus, Chinese migrant workers should not be insulted or deprived of their basic rights in the cities where they work.

In fact, economic activity should serve the human person, not vice versa. Basic rights, such as the right to housing and safe working conditions should be secured. In order to welcome and protect migrants and to help them integrate into society, we must be sensitive to their needs and to the injustices that are often their cause.

As Pope Francis puts it, we need a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life. This is especially true for the central and local authorities who formulate and implement policies.

The treatment of migrant workers in China reveals the helplessness of the underprivileged and marginalised at a time of city renewal and economic development.

To put the Church’s teachings on human dignity and migrant workers’ rights into practice in the short and long run, it is important to offer migrant workers adequate and dignified accommodation, or at least enough time for them to arrange their departure; affirming their ability and recognising their contribution through just remuneration; and upholding their rights through reforming the household registration system and improving city planning.

The Lunar New Year is coming. It is a time when migrant workers will go back home for family reunions. They need both material and spiritual support.

We should remember their contribution during the process of urban and economic development and give them their due and show concern. Treating all people with dignity and striving for the common good should always be the basic goal of a society.