When Chinese citizens spoke up

Yan Erjun, 50, a migrant construction worker from Sichuan Province and his wife Zhou Xiaomei, 44, a house cleaner moving their home by carrying bags on his shoulders at Picun Village in Chaoyang District of Beijing on November 27, 2017. Yan and his wife were given a very short notice to move out from their rented apartment in which power supply was cut off. A notice on the midday of November 27 asks all apartments for rent in the village should be cleared off by 6:00PM of the same day. Later the day, the deadline was postponed to December 1, 2017. Picun Village, in the eastern outskirt of Beijing is home some 20,000 migrant workers as it affords relatively cheap accommodation(from 500-1,000rmb/m). Beijing municipality government has launched a 40-day check and rectification of hidden dangers after a fire in Daxing District of Beijing on November 18 claimed 19lives. The municipalty has been criticized of driving out "low-end" population which Beijing Administration of Work Safety denied on Sunday(November 26). .
Yan Erjun, 50, a migrant construction worker from Sichuan Province and his wife Zhou Xiaomei, 44, a house cleaner moving their home by carrying bags on his shoulders at Picun Village in Chaoyang District of Beijing on November 27, 2017. Yan and his wife were given a very short notice to move out from their rented apartment in which power supply was cut off. A notice on the midday of November 27 asks all apartments for rent in the village should be cleared off by 6:00PM of the same day. Later the day, the deadline was postponed to December 1, 2017. Picun Village, in the eastern outskirt of Beijing is home some 20,000 migrant workers as it affords relatively cheap accommodation(from 500-1,000rmb/m). Beijing municipality government has launched a 40-day check and rectification of hidden dangers after a fire in Daxing District of Beijing on November 18 claimed 19lives. The municipalty has been criticized of driving out "low-end" population which Beijing Administration of Work Safety denied on Sunday(November 26). .
Zhou Xiaomei, 44, a house cleaner in Beijing moves her living goods at Picun Village on November 27, 2017 .

Zhou Xiaomei, 44, a house cleaner in Beijing moves her living goods at Picun Village on November 27, 2017 .

Yuanyuan??????s sister Ting Ting, 9, looks at window at their one-room aparment on November 28, 2017 at Picun Village in Beijing. .

Yuanyuan??????s sister Ting Ting, 9, looks at window at their one-room aparment on November 28, 2017 at Picun Village in Beijing. .

Yan Erjun, 50, a migrant construction worker from Sichuan Province and his wife Zhou Xiaomei, 44, a house cleaner moving their home by carrying bags on his shoulders at Picun Village in Chaoyang District of Beijing on November 27, 2017. Yan and his wife were given a very short notice to move out from their rented apartment in which power supply was cut off. A notice on the midday of November 27 asks all apartments for rent in the village should be cleared off by 6:00PM of the same day. Later the day, the deadline was postponed to December 1, 2017. Picun Village, in the eastern outskirt of Beijing is home some 20,000 migrant workers as it affords relatively cheap accommodation(from 500-1,000rmb/m). Beijing municipality government has launched a 40-day check and rectification of hidden dangers after a fire in Daxing District of Beijing on November 18 claimed 19lives. The municipalty has been criticized of driving out "low-end" population which Beijing Administration of Work Safety denied on Sunday(November 26). .

Yan Erjun, 50, a migrant construction worker from Sichuan Province and his wife Zhou Xiaomei, 44, a house cleaner moving their home by carrying bags on his shoulders at Picun Village in Chaoyang District of Beijing on November 27, 2017. Yan and his wife were given a very short notice to move out from their rented apartment in which power supply was cut off. A notice on the midday of November 27 asks all apartments for rent in the village should be cleared off by 6:00PM of the same day. Later the day, the deadline was postponed to December 1, 2017. Picun Village, in the eastern outskirt of Beijing is home some 20,000 migrant workers as it affords relatively cheap accommodation(from 500-1,000rmb/m). Beijing municipality government has launched a 40-day check and rectification of hidden dangers after a fire in Daxing District of Beijing on November 18 claimed 19lives. The municipalty has been criticized of driving out "low-end" population which Beijing Administration of Work Safety denied on Sunday(November 26). .

Xu Yuanyuan, 7, doing her math homework by accounting her fingers at grim candle light on November 27, 2017 at Picun Village in Beijing. .

Xu Yuanyuan, 7, doing her math homework by accounting her fingers at grim candle light on November 27, 2017 at Picun Village in Beijing. .

tenants continue to move out from Picun Village on November 28, 2017 migrant workers get evicted in?? Beijingtenants continue to move out from Picun Village on November 28, 2017

tenants continue to move out from Picun Village on November 28, 2017 migrant workers get evicted in?? Beijingtenants continue to move out from Picun Village on November 28, 2017

Tenants continue to move out from Picun Village on November 28, 2017. .

Tenants continue to move out from Picun Village on November 28, 2017. .

The Xu siblings were at home in the dark on Tuesday, sisters Yuanyuan and Tingting struggling to do their maths homework by candlelight. Brother Zhihan, four, wrapped in a padded jacket and blanket, was distressed that his face was cold.

The electricity to the family's 10-square-metre rented room was abruptly cut a week ago. It was the day after fire swept through another crowded apartment block in the suburb of Daxing, killing 19 people.

Shocked by the death toll, Beijing's mayor, Cai Qi, ordered an urgent campaign of fire safety inspections across the city of 22 million. Within a week, whole blocks of buildings that failed the checks were being demolished.

Tens of thousands of "migrant workers", who have moved to the capital from distant provinces and make up more than a third of Beijing's population, were evicted onto the streets in sub-zero night temperatures. Some had as little as 24 hours' notice.

Tenants of condemned buildings in Picun village, near the airport, were given until 6.30pm on Tuesday to go.

But the Xu children's grandfather explained their dilemma: the family can't leave Beijing until the school year finishes.

The ripple effect of the mass evictions has swept the city - fashionable restaurants without waiters, airport ground staff and security personnel left homeless, online shopping blocked as Beijing delivery services are disrupted by distribution warehouses suddenly bulldozed.

But another wave has also built. The pitiful sight of so many migrants bundling their worldly possessions - a TV, doona, appliances - and tramping the cold streets has fuelled outrage online.

Neighbourhood video shot on smartphones showed the evicted elderly, families and small business owners left with nothing. Images of migrants sleeping rough have gone viral.

An online petition of 100 intellectuals accused the Beijing government of using the fire as an excuse to rid the city of the migrants and denigrating them as "low-end population".

In a rare development, the national media, including broadcaster CCTV and the China Daily newspaper, took up the criticism of the city government. China Daily editorialised that the fire safety campaign had gone "awry", the sudden evictions were "harsh", and transient workers should be treated with respect.

Cai Qi appeared to soften his stance in the wake of the public outcry, saying more time would be allowed. State media urged temporary accommodation be found.

But what has made this week extraordinary in Beijing is the second wave of online discontent.

Allegations of abuse at a private childcare centre, which first emerged online, saw children pulled out of class amid prominent news reporting of parents' accusations that they had found needle marks on toddlers and that children were being forced to swallow pills to make them sleep.

What circulated online was more chilling - a claim that a military unit had been preying on the children. The story spread like wildfire through WeChat, to the extent that the Chinese military issued a denial, without detailing what they were denying.

Tennis star Li Na was among the celebrities to later apologise for repeating the claim on social media, in an authoritarian nation where penalties for spreading rumours online are severe.

Beijing had a "fake news" crisis. In response, to quell panic among parents, the education department sacked officials and said closed-circuit cameras must be installed in every room.

A 22-year-old childcare worker was arrested. But another person was arrested for fabricating the sex-ring story, and a mother publicly apologised for falsely implicating the PLA unit, confessing she had repeated a rumour on WeChat.

The Global Times newspaper first editorialised that the kindergarten incident showed the importance of giving hard factual information to prevent social media hysteria filling a void.

By week's end, a police investigation had swiftly concluded there was evidence of needle injuries to the children, but no evidence of pills or sexual abuse.

The police report failed to dispel public suspicions and, in turn, the state-owned newspaper was sceptical of the finding. It backed the "strong online reaction", not the official story..

"If a government has strong credibility" the public will focus on the conclusions of an investigation, the newspaper wrote. "Regrettably the credibility of most local governments hasn't reached the level the internet expects."

The paper called for the police to hold a press conference and dispel public concern.

Manya Koetse runs the social media monitor What's on Weibo, and tracked the tactics used by internet users to dodge Chinese censors, who had attempted to stifle debate by blocking key words such as the name of the childcare centre.

Koeste reckons the censors lost the battle as discussions snowballed.

"The reason it has become so buzzed is that there actually is a large window of space to discuss these topics," she says.

"One netizen on Weibo said about the Beijing evacuations, 'If it wasn't for the internet, we would have never even known about this.'"

The China Media Project's co-director David Bandurski said the migrant eviction and kindergarten stories have been fascinating because the past five years have been "so quiet".

"Before the Xi Jinping era, we tended to see media pushing quite often, even as censorship could be relentless, to report important aspects of breaking stories. But media control overall under Xi has been far stricter than in the past," he said.

Although he believed both stories were starting to be reined in by week's end, it was still "encouraging, by our very low Xi Jinping standards, to see that not all of the oxygen has been sucked out of Chinese journalism".

Where a "story has gotten away from the leadership" it was typical to see more state voices "piling on and joining the push for justice," he said.

"China's news controls are not so effective that they can just turn off the tap once a story is flowing. Doing that can have quite a negative blowback in the face of very real public anger."

On the more lurid elements of the childcare story, he notes every country is grappling with "fake news", but "lack of access to reliable information creates fear and panic and tends to make people look for information wherever they can find it".

In China, people have long turned to the internet simply because its "unofficial" status was seen as a virtue.

"But in many cases, it's a battle against official fake news - meaning propaganda - and fake news," he says.

This story When Chinese citizens spoke up first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.