Previously I have written a micro-history of ruination and renewal of internet cafes, the recent forced removal of ‘low end population’ in Beijing prompts me to revisit the spatial politics of urban demolition and renewal. Part of this short essay comes directly from the old paper.
Perhaps the truly dangerous classes are not so much the uncivilised ones thought to undermine society from below, but rather the migrants who move at the borders between classes, individuals and groups who develop capabilities within themselves which are useless for the improvement of their material lives and which in fact are liable to make them despise material concerns.
– Proletarian Nights, Jacques Ranciere.
1. ‘Low end population’ is the official abbreviation of ‘population with occupations in the low level industries’. LOW sounds very derogatory, especially in the contested dualism of di duan or low end, gao duan or high end. And of course, nobody wants to be labelled ‘low end population’. Previously the usual designation was low suzhi (quality) population, which was equally stigmatised. Quality is apparently too ambiguous of a term so more economically specific term can probably replace it. And with proliferation of the ‘new’ economy – the complex web of speculative economies of real estate, eCommerce (with its concomitant express delivery industry), and short-lived start-up bubbles (such as the share bikes) – gao duan and di guan become common, if not ubiquitous, adjectives to describe aspects of economic models, occupations, consumption habits, taste, and eventually, people. One of the best examples of this stratification is perhaps lifestyle. Marathons, jogging, regularly going to gyms with exorbitant membership fees, have become symbols of the leisure class or middle class, whose criteria of distinction gradually moves to taste rather than wealth in a vulgar sense.
2. What about low end population, since so many people are fixating on the term? The term itself seems to resist a definition – every time a definition is thrown at it, it bounces it right back. The dualism of urban and rural Hukou is relatively obsolete now and if not completely, it is receding. So low end population can no longer be explicitly associated with hukou. Do you stratify people by occupation? As one story goes, an editor (perhaps also an self-identified intellectual) often goes to an old ragpicker near home and tries to talk to him. In a rather patronising fashion, the editor assumed the ragpicker, who was living in one of those ‘to-be-demolished’ dilapidated site shed with no toilet, was simply making ends met and offered his gesture of ‘kindness’ to this member of the supposedly bottom of the society. Until one day, the editor discovered that the ragpicker went overseas for holiday by talking to the ragpicker’s relative who was replacing him. This got the editor curious since it immediately crushed his entrenched views on the working poor. He was utterly dismayed when he discovered that the ragpicker earned more than half a million yuan per year and his own salary was only 6000 per month. The editor felt ashamed. The point of this story is not to say the working poor are secretly rich. It is how the patronizing (often officially encouraged) attitude towards the urban poor or migrant workers in certain disdained occupations (such as rubbish picking) preemptively shut down any possibility of actual dialogues. The migrant worker is supposed to look like a migrant, talk like an incoherent illiterate, read books like Rich Dad Poor Dad or cheap fantasy novels on their OPPO phones, be only occupied with bread and milk and above all, be poor. So they are deemed silent; if they speak, only the intellectuals speak on their behalf, in solidarity or whatever. And when they are not how they are imagined, the system of discourse just chooses to ignore them.
3. Do you stratify people by taste or lifestyle? The common perception is that the working poor only works to make ends met and therefore they do not have time and energy to enjoy any leisure activities. What about the middle class who celebrates its own elevation by building more exclusive leisure spaces? They are probably bored to death, wandering in the malls, hiding behind the wheels and cruising on the highway, sipping flat white in high-end barista Starbucks, working out in the gym with their personal trainers, snoring in the cinema and theatre and so forth. Habitual insecurity + Controlled thrill + Unrelenting Boredom = Hallmark of the Middle Class. The vulgar class are, instead, full of surprises. Look no further than Kuaishou, Douyu and a plethora of minor video sites/apps. The subaltern performs/speaks by drinking pesticide on livestream, mixologic experiment with beer and worms, ploughing a hill for no purpose other than entertaining the viewership, swallowing a light bulb, and consuming a rat while it’s alive. The intellectuals refuse to see it or are terrified by the destructive plebeian desires. So the di duan or low end can remain ‘low’ from their perspective. The poor must be sanitized, not just in forced removals, but also in its meaning.
4. There is a disparity between the image and reality, theory and practice. This is common sense in China. But there is still a deep-rooted expectation that the ‘people’ shall be ‘served’ by the party state, not necessarily in the vanguard sense but in the sense of hospitality. In this instance, the propaganda machine probably had a brief moment of Freudian slip, that ‘low end population’ appeared, quite glaringly, in yellow characters on those red banners at the demolition site. PR disaster was imminent. The following events are standard procedure – 1. censorship; 2. attempt to remedy the situation by criticising or denying the whole theory of stratified population or defending the ‘low end population’ by listing their contribution to society; 3. blame the residents for illegally occupying the area and causing security risks (especially fire hazards) 4. wait for the rage to recede. 5. demolish the area 6. redevelop 7. gentrify.
5. The fire broke out. It was a man-made disaster. Blame the density. Blame the poor construction. Blame the tangled wires of electricity. Blame the unscrupulous landlords who don’t care about anything except for collecting rents. Blame the stubborn tenants. This is all very familiar. And if you want to go further back, there is Haussmann’s project of slum clearance, which also aimed at moving ‘eyesores and health hazards of poverty out of central Paris and into the suburbs’. But I shall refer to the case of internet cafe and how spatial regulations were enforced after a fire.
A change in management policy is said to have been initiated in the wake of an accidental fire in a Beijing Internet café in 2002 and subsequently in 2003, the central government ordered the local authorities to stop issuing licenses to independent Internet cafés.
– Leisure and power in urban China, Unn Målfrid H. Rolandsen.
Fire is a prelude to the following harsher, more likely enforced regulations upon poorly built houses that used to be the only affordable shelter for the poor. Disaster, especially fire, is desired in this sense, as it razes the undesired and outmoded buildings and renders them ruins. The gentrification of ‘urban villages’, which were known as the residential areas of the rural migrants, represented an overall strategy of sanitizing the urban centre by both cleansing the trash, which includes the architectures and people, and erecting new urban spectacles.
6. It’s predictable that ‘low end population’ will become the new meme just like diaosi (in fact you can already buy the ‘low end population’ t-shirt on taobao); that the middle class is going to claim that, with their kitsch irony, we are also members of the low end population; that more op-eds will be run endlessly debating on the topic until all the rage dissipate into the ocean of shitposts.