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Lu Ming: Improving Living Standards of the Poor After the Fire in Beijing

Alumni and Public Relations Office 2017-11-27

Local governments in Beijing launched a 40-day campaign on Nov 20 to inspect and eliminate safety hazards in crowded apartments and warehouses, after a fire killed 19 migrant workers and their family members, including eight children, living in a rented residential compound in Daxing District, which also has a refrigerated underground storehouse.

Caixin has learnt that apart from the Daxing district, where the accident has happened, other areas of Beijing including Haidian, Chaoyang ,Tongzhou and Fengtai are also conducting similar pushes to crackdown illegally modified apartments, whose tenants are ordered to move out either in a few days or within a week.

Beijing is likely to see a moving rush and many are concerned about the fate awaiting the evicted residents, most of whom are migrant workers.


Professor Lu Ming from Antai College of Economics and Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University notes that China is heading for a post-industrial society where the service industry would account for more in economic development, and the proportion of consumption services will increase as population grows. 

These type of services will largely congregate in big cities and be provided by migrant workers. And the safety campaign, if led to mass exodus among this group, would certainly be counter-productive. 

Natural population flow caused by industrial upgrade would not result in such controversy, which at the moment centres mainly on whether the policy was imposed uniformly without flexibility and left the tenants little time to adjust.

'Even shanty towns should be protected as long as there is a proper lease and the building is legally built,' said Professor Lu.


Unlike economically induced population shift which is governed by market order with basic procedures and relatively clear rules on compensation and individual rights, evacuating apartments in the name of safety raises doubts, since it is unclear whether the blaze was caused by group renting or inadequate fire protection. The fire itself is not a sufficient reason to completely wipe out collective renting.


It is also necessary to think about how to improve living conditions for the low income group, said Professor Lu. From an economic point of view, dwelling in small area is actually good for both low income workers and the city as a whole. Expanding their residence usually leads to two results: either the workers will be priced out, or they will transfer the added living costs to the prices they charge for their services, i.e. to the consumers.  

The crackdown may reduce fire hazard, but it will not solve the living problems of migrant workers. They will not leave the cities, reckons Professor Lu, as these are where the work is, they will just find somewhere else to live.


In light of this fact, the government should instead pay more attention to lifting their living standards, providing low-rent housing for example. 'In Hong Kong, the government sponsored low-rent housing is rather small and cramped, but it offers shelter to a large number of migrant workers, and forms a community of low-income earners, which reduces the cost of urban dwelling and actually reflects the vibe of the city,' notes Professor Lu.

'The poor have the right to seek a better life, and living in cities with more opportunities and higher income precisely reflects such pursuit,' contends Professor Lu. 'Public policies should cater to the needs of the permanent residents, and providing disadvantaged groups with low-rent or public rental housing is common practice in many cities around the world.'

In mainland China, however, both urban planning and the policy-related high property prices only benefit a small part of the population, most people are still excluded. How to expand the range of such policies, and how to incorporate more migrants into the public service system, is the most pressing demand of the day.


This article (in Chinese) was originally published by Caixin on Nov 24, 2017.