Beijing’s Summer of Slavery: A Dark Side to Hutong Life

Residents and expatriates inside one of Beijing’s last unspoiled hutongs or traditional alleyways, are being stunned by the exposure of slave-like working conditions and violent attacks on laborers at a construction site in their usually calm neighborhood. Wudaoying is a retreat for expats and the urban elite with its row of restaurants including the Vineyard Cafe and Argo, hangouts like the Sand Pebbles taco pub and Vanguard live house, cafes L’s and Miss Zhao’s, and the Natookee bicycle rental shop run by a loony band of street jugglers. These boutique establishments are operated by pioneering entrepreneurs and dedicated service staff, each aiming for a niche business catering to loyal customers. The newest teahouse in the neighborhood, however, is breaking all the unspoken rules of this laid-back community.

A team of 42 carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians at No.45 say they’ve been cheated as well as physically beaten and choked by the property owners. Xu Xian-jin, one of the protesting workers, raised his shirt to show a long red welt on his back, inflicted by the stick-wielding father of his boss during a tussle over unpaid back wages. The workers haven’t been paid since work started in late April.

“When we complained, the boss shouted at us to get out of town immediately or face arrest by the police,” said worker Zhou Zhi-yun. The migrant workers, subsisting on empty promises and starvation rations for three months, each lack even the hundred yuan needed to buy a train ticket back to their homes in Liaoning, Hunan, Jiangsu, Sichuan and Gansu. Those willing to leave are unable to travel because their employer confiscated their identity cards on the day of hire.

Along these quiet lanes between Lama Temple and the leafy shrine to Confucius, the violence and protest banners have left residents and visitors shaking their heads in astonishment. Such things might happen in the dusty industrial zones of Wuhan, Foshan or Shenyang, but this is the nation’s capital and it’s the 90th anniversary of a ruling party that was founded to defend working people.

A Well-Worn Scam

Yang Dan, owner of the Jia Beijing Hotel Group, called in the local police to cite the workers for “disturbing the peace”, even though the property adjoins a park and empty lots that are without close neighbors to disturb. At the local Labor Bureau office, the owner denied any blame for the wage dispute, accusing in turn a building contractor named Xie Chun-hua of absconding with some 380,000 yuan in deposits for materials and labor. When later contacted over the phone about his current business dealings, Yang responded: “Talk to my lawyer.”

The workers counter the owner’s claim, saying that Xia, a manager with the Pengde Jianshe construction company, is known to have engaged in similar capers at other construction sites. His repeated disappearing acts indicate that his role was deliberately concocted to enable property owners to defraud workers. The policemen’s readiness to accept the dubious story of a runaway contractor only adds to the notoriety of Beijing Municipal Government, a hotbed for bribery, kickbacks and public dishonesty.

The business relationship between Yang and the contractor doesn’t alter the legal responsibility of the property owner to pay wages, considering it was he, not they, who signed on as party to the fraudulent and possibly fictitious deal. Property development and sweatshop industries across China are rife with trickery to take advantage of impoverished migrant workers, who have no recourse under an anti-labor legal system other than to protest and launch wildcat strikes.

The contrast between the 90th anniversary festivities at Tiananmen Square and the plight of the Wudaoying laborers is a telling sign of the alienated third-generation elite that spurns their grandparents’ dedication to the cause of the poor and oppressed.

After a weekend of outdoor rallies, the sullen laborers were forced back to their jobs under threat of police detention. Uniformed security guards now patrol outside, effectively making the work site a slave-labor camp in the heart of Beijing. Despite the intimidation and appearance of harmony, the tapping of stonemasons’ hammers is often disrupted by fits of quarreling, hotheaded shoving and other acts of defiance – a fitting tribute to the working-class heroes who convened in Shanghai’s French Concession 90 years ago.

Gamblers and Criminals

The workers’ situation down the street is being watched with trepidation by the local entrepreneurs since they could be next in line for elimination. A local shopkeeper whispered the project owner is “a shady character with powerful backing from a network of people.” In plain language, that means organized crime conniving with corrupt city officials.

One cafe owner said that the city approved the construction of a teahouse on the site, located along a row of similar such establishments outside the No.5 Line Yonghegong Station. Teahouse Lane is already suffering excessive competition, since its anonymous clientele of mahjong and poker gamblers is shrinking because players can easily fly to Macau for bigger stakes. One such tea room recently converted into a lounge bar after so many tourists balked at the 600 yuan price for a pot of hot water.

The workers contend that the structure is actually an unregistered hotel, built with the intention of stealing business from the local youth hostel. A quick look at the reception desk and bedrooms verifies their claim. China’s tourism sector is now plagued with a spate of new lodges claiming the “youth hostel” cachet, although not paying official membership fees to the International Youth Hostel Association nor following any of the rules of the YHA. Aboard trains and inside backpacker cafes, young foreigners and Chinese college students on vacation are complaining about being cheated out of promises of hot showers, hit with extra charges, routinely suffer unsanitary toilets and sometimes denied pillows and sheets for their bunks.

While many Beijingers have expressed dismay at the demolition of traditional neighborhoods to make space for office towers, the rising threat to the relaxed lifestyle of city dwellers is coming from inside the hutongs with the tawdry commercialism that has turned former havens like Bell and Drum Tower alley into a garish carnival.

In the summer swelter, once-tranquil and hip Beijing is joining Shanghai and Guangzhou on the list of the world’s most suffocating, noisy, overpriced and unlivable cities – in short, unfit as a global tourist destination.  The reemergence of ruthless exploitation, landlordism and police bullying – on top of price-gouging, illegal gambling and drug peddling – have added the distinct fragrances of organized crime and old-fashioned reaction over the stench of social rot.

Yoichi Shimatsu is Editor at large of April Media, and the article is assisted by Qu Dabing who is an eco-tourism organizer.

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