Out in the cold: Housing activist Ni Yulan feels the pain of the thousands forced from their homes in Beijing

Beijing’s bitter cold winter is no time to be outside for long. Yet, in freezing temperatures tens of thousands of migrant workers now find themselves homeless.

Many were only given a few hours’ notice before their homes were demolished and their livelihoods destroyed. They have often moved to Beijing from other regions of China, and lack access to services. Over the years, they have built up homes, factories and small shops in the city’s dense urban sprawl – many of which have been torn down by the authorities in recent weeks.Officials argue the buildings are unsafe, and have used a recent fire as justification to carry out the biggest forced eviction operation in Beijing since the 2008 Olympics.

Housing rights activist Ni Yulan, understands the horror migrant workers in Beijing now face. The former lawyer had to witness the demolition of her family home shortly before the Beijing Olympic Games.

She has faced nearly 20 years of harassment, evictions, and surveillance for championing housing rights. The police once tortured her so brutally, she was left with broken feet, smashed kneecaps and confined to a wheelchair for life. Here she shares her thoughts on the latest wave of forced evictions.

This picture taken on November 27, 2017 shows people leaving their homes after receiving eviction notices on the outskirts of Beijing. This picture taken on November 27, 2017 shows people leaving their homes after receiving eviction notices on the outskirts of Beijing.
People leaving their homes on the outskirts of Beijing, after receiving eviction notices, in a photo taken on November 27, 2017.


I was also homeless once
Ni Yulan

"I am angry. The migrant workers lives were difficult in the first place and now they will suffer even greater hardship. Many will struggle to survive. The authorities have once again shown how heartless they are. They smashed people’s personal belongings during the evictions. Some people were only given a few days to pack up everything. The authorities simply don’t care what happens to them.

The people targeted are demeaned as the ‘low end population’ – mostly rural poor who migrated to Beijing. These people are the backbone of our city, doing the jobs most local urbanites no longer consider. They are self-reliant people who serve the citizens of Beijing and have done a great deal to benefit society. Without them, it will be difficult for Beijing people to go about their daily lives.  

I feel their torment, as my family was also forced out by strangers. In April this year, 20 or 30 men dressed all in black came to my house, stamped on my husband’s head and forcibly dragged my daughter out of the yard. My family was violently driven out of our home. I have reoccurring nightmares about what they did to us. It causes me severe psychological pain.

Some migrants will have no option but to sleep under bridges and in underground passages to survive. I had to sleep in these passages, it is tough. It is even harder now as the authorities have installed gates in underground passages. The gates are locked at 8pm each day, even when it is snowing and windy in winter, in order to keep the homeless from staying there overnight."

Housing rights activist Ni Yulan in China sitting in a wheelchair with her belongings. Housing rights activist Ni Yulan in China sitting in a wheelchair with her belongings.
China housing rights activist Ni Yulan and her husband Dong Jiqing forcibly evicted from their newly-rented house in April 2017. Since then, they have been camping out, moving from place to place, in Beijing, relying on their supporters to provide them with food and other necessities.

They are definitely targeting migrant workers

From what I’ve seen, they are definitely targeting migrant workers, but the forced evictions didn’t start with the recent Daxing fire, but it has been used as cover to ramp up the operation.

Since April, there has been a calculated clearance campaign. My daughter lives in the city inside the second ring road, where every day we see people who are trying to make a living - clothes sellers, snack sellers and restaurant owners - being forced out.

Back in October, when it was already quite cold, a delivery person told us that he was kicked out of his home and was sleeping in his car.

We are very grateful to migrants workers. Ever since we were expelled from our home, we’ve frequented small restaurants and shops run by migrants. They are relatively affordable and helped us get by. It feels like our fate is linked with theirs and I feel terrible for them.

The mass clearance has rippled across the city. It reached as far as the city’s edge with increasing intensity. It started off a little more civilized, I witnessed the expulsion of migrants by Huguo Temple inside the second ring road. Notices were posted, asking them to move out in a month. It’s worse now, with hardly any notice given and with more violence. Many people have been injured by the clearance gangs. It is hard to comprehend why they would treat people this way.

Isn’t the government right to demolish illegal buildings?

Many of these buildings have been there for more than 10 years, so why are they doing this now? They claim the buildings are illegal, but at the time of construction, they knew there would be no fire exits. They built them for migrant residents in order to make money, and the government collected taxes.

If they were so concerned with safety why didn’t they insist on putting fire exits in before? It would have been impossible to construct these buildings without approval by relevant government departments first. Now people’s property has been damaged, some have lost everything. Instead of speaking up for the people the government is repressing them.  

The government has a responsibility to fix this and stop the forced evictions, whether they want to or not. They should find homes for these people elsewhere and at least give them a shelter, so that they do not have to live on the streets.

Instead they are smashing people’s belongings, with violence and verbal abuse, to speed up the process of forcing people out. They don’t allow you to stay, even for a minute. It is a horrible situation that violates people’s rights under Chinese law.

Ni Yulan’s current situation:

Despite winning international awards for her courageous work defending housing rights, Ni Yulan has faced nearly 20 years of harassment, evictions, and surveillance.

The Chinese authorities often crack down on high-profile human rights defenders during the holiday periods. They think the international community is distracted. Show them you are still watching.

Ni Yulan deserves to have a home. We must act now – sign your name and demand the harassment of Ni Yulan stops immediately.