Olympic construction will send Beijing poor packing

BEIJING Wed May 16, 2007 9:15am EDT

A general view shows the construction site of the National Olympic Stadium (R), also known as the 'Bird's Nest', and the National Aquatics Centre, known as the 'Water Cube', in Beijing May 14, 2007. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

A general view shows the construction site of the National Olympic Stadium (R), also known as the 'Bird's Nest', and the National Aquatics Centre, known as the 'Water Cube', in Beijing May 14, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Reinhard Krause

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Threatened with eviction but desperate not to leave, the residents of a derelict corner of China's capital cling to their crumbling homes like haggard castaways on a surging tide.

By day, the heart of the Guandong Dian slum neighborhood teems with poor migrant workers buying cheap food and slurping hand-pulled noodles at stalls. By night, prostitutes whisper at passersby from doorways.

Its reeking alleyways and grey-brick huts lie in the shadows of luxury apartments and shimmering office blocks at the fringe of Beijing's brand new central business district.

But not for long.

"By the end of this year, all of this will be gone," said snack vendor Wang Jinglong, waving a worn hand over a grimy streetscape of open-air butchers and fruitsellers.

"People like me who rent and own stalls will have to find another place."

Guandong Dian, soon to be cleared to make way for an office block and a wider road, is one of dozens of crumbling shanty-towns pockmarking Beijing that have been earmarked for demolition prior to 2008 when the city hosts the Olympic Games.

Having survived the city's relentless modernization drive, local authorities are determined the shanty-towns -- home to many of the millions of migrant workers flooding into Beijing to find employment -- won't survive to tarnish the showcase capital's image during the Olympics.

Branding them "illegal urban villages", town planners demolished 55 of them in 2006, and started clearing another 25 as part of the city's "beautification" work.

Authorities are spending $40 billion to upgrade Beijing's creaky public transport system, build event venues and shift heavy industrial polluters far from city limits in line with a pledge to the International Olympic Committee to unclog congested roads and reduce air pollution for the games.

GRINDING POVERTY

In a city of glittering skyscrapers, the shanty-towns are inconvenient reminders of grinding poverty in China's heartland.

"There are at least 1,000 of us here," said Wang, who once farmed a small plot in his home province of Henan, but now ekes out a living selling slices of "thousand layer cake" from a hand-wheeled cart in Xiangjun Nanli.

"Most of us are from outside of Beijing, from all over the country," said Wang, one of about four million migrant workers who live in Beijing but are not counted in its official population of 15 million.

Tens of thousands more arrive every year to wait at tables, work on construction sites or in the homes of the nouveau riche.

The dire poverty in China's heartland has created a drama played between government officials determined to rid the city of its urban underclass, and migrant workers equally determined not to leave.

For the poor people of Guandong Dian, the drama involves an obstacle course to basic rights including housing and healthcare.

Every day after waking up in an unheated room with a leaky roof, Wang wheels his cart past foul-smelling drains that quickly overflow when it rains.

Wang makes about 800 yuan ($100) a month from selling snacks. He can't afford to see a doctor if he gets sick and doesn't receive health care subsidies that Beijing locals enjoy.

He hasn't seen his five-year-old daughter, whom he left in Henan with his mother, in over a year.

Neighboring residents sneer at the Guandong Dian district and see no harm in it being bulldozed and its residents scattered to distant suburbs.

But for Wang, the crowded neighborhood sustains his small business and provides a life-line for his family back home.

"Sure, it's tough here, but I can make more than twice as much here as I can at home."

Beijing Olympic officials have denied reports that migrant workers will be expelled, although they have pledged to clear beggars and peddlers like Wang from the inner city.

"I don't know where I'll go," Wang said as he shrugged and dug his knife into a batch of freshly-cooked cake.

"But I won't be leaving the city."

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