A new police taskforce will target open-air barbecues, burning trash, and dusty roads—minor pollution sources associated with the city’s most marginalized residents.
In Beijing, winter smog has become a world-famous spectacle. Increased energy demands, wind patterns, and a reliance on coal all work together to create some of the most poisonous air in the world.
Over the past few years, Beijing has taken a number of steps to combating the smog—from transitioning coal power plants to natural gas to restricting when cars can use city roads. But at the beginning of the year, officials announced a new initiative to target other, perhaps negligible contributors to smog. A new police taskforce will target open-air barbecues, burning trash, and dusty roads.
It’s hard to imagine that shutting down food vendors would do much to clear Beijing’s air. Some research shows that most of the pollution doesn’t even come from the city center itself, but gets carried into Beijing by nearby coal-burning regions, such as Hebei and Shanxi.
Instead, the city could be using smog as justification to crack down on rural migrants, who are often the ones running street vending shops and living in areas with lower standards of infrastructure.
China’s urban centers have a long history of discriminating against the hundreds of millions of migrants that move in to find work. Beginning in 1958, the central government instituted an internal passport system (“hukou”) that split the country’s population between rural and urban citizens. At first, the hukou system set up tight bureaucratic restrictions that prevented citizens from moving freely throughout the country. But during economic reform, the system was relaxed to allow rural farmers to migrate to the country’s eastern manufacturing centers for factory jobs. While migrants are allowed to move more freely today, rural hukou holders in the city continue to live without access to welfare, public housing, healthcare, or education. The hukou system has been labeled as one of the foundational causes for urban-rural inequality. Migrants also face considerable societal stigma and forced substandard living conditions.
Using smog as cover, Beijing might use its pollution crisis as a way to justify heightened police presence in and around its migrant communities. Recent research has shed light on how other cities have used larger societal ills to implement similar practices of police harassment.
For example, in the mid-2000s, Guangzhou banned motorcycle taxis within the city limits. Motorcycle taxis are an often flexible, low-cost form of transportation that are popular among rural migrants, and fill the gaps of the city’s disconnected living and workplaces.
Junxi Qian, a social and cultural geographer at the University of Hong Kong, researched how the municipal government used fears of crime and disorder to build a narrative about how motorbike taxis were detrimental to a modern image of the city. By analyzing news reports and interviewing law enforcement officials, Qian mapped out how the motorbike, once a symbol of modernity only ten years prior, had been transformed into a symbol of backwards lawlessness.
“Motorcycle riders were portrayed as more vulnerable to injury or death in clashes with vehicles built with stronger physical structures such as cars and trucks,” wrote Qian. “Such representations also scrutinized closely the assumed ‘under-controllability’ of motorcycles due to their smaller weight, mechanical uncertainty and lack of technological sophistication.”
News reports also labeled motorbikes as technology that empowered petty theft, by allowing thieves to snatch purses and handbags from pedestrians. As the city was working to attract foreign capital, motorbikes became known as counterproductive to cultivating the image of a modern city.
“While the Chinese police in the Maoist era were primarily concerned with oppression of anti-revolutionaries and class enemies, their overriding mission in the reform era is to secure a stable and ordered social environment for achieving economic prosperity,” Qian wrote. “The complicity between the police and developmentalism renders it seemingly inevitable that the priority of police actions is largely placed on ensuring the propertied classes to comfortably and safely enjoy the fruits of economic growth, while interests of the have-nots are often ignored.”
And in 2010, while Shanghai was preparing for its World Expo, Chinese journalist Gao Yubing wrote in the New York Times about the city’s war on pajamas. To create a more cosmopolitan atmosphere—a more refined urban image—the city would be pushing against the common practice of wearing pajamas out in public.
“Catchy red signs reading ‘Pajamas don’t go out of the door; be a civilized resident for the Expo’ are posted throughout the city,” Yubing wrote. “Volunteer ‘pajama policemen’ patrol the neighborhoods, telling pajama wearers to go home and change. Celebrities and socialites appear on TV to promote the idea that sleepwear in public is ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized.’”
In 2015, Tony Roshan Samara, the Director of Land Use and Housing at Urban Habitat, used this example to show how cities are constantly setting standards for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and how those standards often leave migrants as targets.
Samara wrote in a 2012 paper:
Although the implementation of these efforts is highly uneven across cities as well as within them, generally speaking they consist of both destructive and creative moments, of clearing the old to make way for the new. They are also guided by a particular vision of the city and city life with the power to influence all aspects of what is meant by the urban, from the built environment to the institutions and methods of governance, to the appropriate conduct of the citizen-inhabitant.
We don’t know yet how these new “anti-smog policies” will affect Beijing’s migrant communities. Cities, both inside and outside China, have a long history of using larger social problems to justify targeting the vulnerable. Combating smog will require much tougher decisions among China’s energy producers, with far more resources at their disposal than rural migrants.