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Life behind the wall

We talk to migrant workers whose livelihoods are being bricked up

'There’s no point just moving somewhere else in Beijing – it’s the whole country. We’re going to have to go back to our hometown,' Mrs Yang tells me in her now gloomy restaurant at the bottom of a residential block in east Beijing. What was once the front door is now bricked up to a high window, and what was once a side door is fully bricked up. Entry is through an internal corridor into the building that no passersby would find.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 2.08.05 PMThere’s no glass in the window because 'they’re still deciding whether they want to knock this whole extension down to here,' she says as she steps to the inner doorway that marks the side of the original building. 'Or whether we have to leave entirely. We’ve been here over ten years and we’ll find out in ten days.' Business is down to a third of what it was and they’ve laid off the second chef and waitress meaning it’s just her and her husband. 'We’ve got kids back home and need to pay for them so if we can’t make any money here, we’ll have to go back.' As she sweeps the debris of the lunchtime rush off the floor, she says: 'But the chengguan [neighbourhood enforcers] can come at any point and take the fridge, freezer, cooking equipment – how much would that cost to put back? We’d just have to leave.'

'Of course we’re not licensed, but they won’t let us go through the licensing process either. We can’t do anything – we’re just ordinary people.' Other eateries nearby have already given up and a stall-holder at the neighbourhood vegetable market says their sales are also down as the restaurants have cut back on supplies. 'But they won’t shut us down – where would people buy vegetables?'

Yang’s restaurant is one of thousands of businesses in the capital caught up in the stricter enforcement of existing planning regulations: businesses like Yang’s, which are located in spaces designated for residential use only, are on the receiving end of a swift and comprehensive crackdown

'They don’t want 'low-end' any more now that they’re building a high-tech, high-end city,’ Mrs Qiu a corner shop keeper tells me through her window that was once a door near a ridiculous Chaoyang shopping mall. Her trade has fallen 70 percent since she was bricked up. 'The rent has dropped too, though. The landlord has been hit. He’ll have to rebuild the shop into a flat and get a permit to rent it for people to live in. I don’t know what to do. I just want to get my daughter through school, but all the other migrants are leaving.' The daughter is now annoying her little brother or sister so their mother lifts the baby to the window. 'They’re going to shut everything down then open their own shops.'

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A nail bar in Chaoyang is as yet unscathed, the shops nearby all bricked up. 'We’re not in a residential building, but they still want us all out,' the manager Mr Xu tells me. 'We’re trying hongbao instead. The officials call us up and say how much it is – for a unit this big it’s 1,000RMB for now. It’s a lot, but moving would be a real hassle so I might have to go home.'

And across town in Xicheng, which is aiming for a population decrease of 13 percent in the next five years, a tobacco and liquor store has reemerged from a row of shops that was totally bricked up and even repainted, including a branch of Hao Linju. 'Trade has nearly dried up as there’s no passing trade, only my old regulars. Good thing some of them like to drink,' the fifty-something Mr Shen says, smoking, as one of the old regulars sitting in the shop lights up his next cigarette and another regular points out where the door used to be.

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