December 20, 2017

Beijing’s Mass Evictions Threaten Artists

BEIJING, CHINA—On November 18, after a Beijing tenement housing migrant workers caught fire and killed nineteen people, authorities began cracking down on the vulnerable community, evicting people from their homes and then razing the buildings, leaving tens of thousands of families destitute, according to Lisa Movius of the Art Newspaper. Among those at risk are many artists, who began moving into the migrant communities as gentrification pushed them out of their residences. According to the Financial Times, the campaign aims to level around 430 square feet of “illegal housing”—the biggest citywide demolition effort since the city hosted the 2008 Olympics.

Migrant workers come from across China and make up nearly half of Beijing’s population, officially estimated at 21.7 million. There are millions more undocumented migrants, but only those who come from means are able to legally secure access to social services and residency permits. While Beijing is a financially thriving city, evidenced by its new apartment buildings, museums, and galleries, and it is the migrant workers who maintain the city’s upkeep through low-paid labor. Their communities are also inextricably linked to its arts economy. A gallery director in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “Artists are suffering the ‘collateral damage’ in the whole thing . . . The reason artists are suffering is that most of the studios are geographically next to the ‘slums’ where the migrant workers have been living. . .Studio villages are not only a place you work (and sometimes live), but also [offer the] possibility of sharing resources: shippers, logistics, gallery, and museum visitors.”

The metropolis is now planning to reduce its six downtown districts by 15 percent in order to cap the number of residents there (23 million by 2020), and will continue to displace thousands of people. Last spring, thousands of artists were displaced when the artists’ village Heiqiao, located in Chaoyang the district, near the 798 arts district, was demolished. In March, several studios were also demolished in Songzhuang, the largest artist colony in China, which led to a demonstration of more than a hundred artists. More recently, the tearing down of a migrant village called Feijiacun—which houses the Red Gate Residency program for artists, and is located near the 798 Art District in Beijing—caused street protests. Many believe the mass evictions are occurring so that developers can purchase valuable real estate.

In addition to the loss of housing and studio space, artists who have attempted to document the government’s purge of what it calls the ”low-end population” are being persecuted. Hua Yong, a Chinese artist who has been filming the mass evictions and protests against the government’s actions, was arrested on Saturday, December 16. According to the New York Times, the artist was detained on the suspicion of “gathering the masses to disturb traffic order.” While he was released on bail two days later, police can continue to investigate the activist for up to a year. He will most likely be monitored and face restrictions on his ability to travel and speak publicly. Hua is one of the most prominent figures publicly calling out the Chinese government’s actions.

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