A legion of bomb shelter hoteliers emerged from subterranean Beijing on Thursday to protest against government plans to eradicate the city’s cheapest accommodation.
Thousands of air-raid basements have been turned into dosshouses for migrant workers and the so-called “ant tribe” of unemployed graduates. Municipal authorities say the clearout is for health and safety, but critics say it may be designed to move a poor inner-city population.
Plans for a permanent shift have upset entrepreneurs who have rented out the spaces for decades. Hundreds of thickly-dressed hostel owners braved freezing winds to rally in Chaoyang Park and hand out leaflets that criticized the authorities for ruining their livelihoods and failing to pay adequate compensation.
“This is shocking and incomprehensible to everyone in our business,” the petition in the name of Civil Air Defense Shelter Industry Workers said. “It’s a mistake to tell everyone to leave on such short notice. We have invested a great deal of money and have strictly followed regulations.”
One demonstrator, who gave only the surname Fang, said he had invested about 800,000 yuan (US$121,350) on refurbishments.
“I am deep in debt. Nobody gets rich in this business ... we stand to lose almost everything,” he said.
Beijing is riddled with air-raid shelters, a legacy of Cold War hostilities. A network of tunnels stretches from the central government district of Zhongnanhai to the countryside near the Great Wall. More common, however, are the isolated shelters below housing blocks. Thousands have been turned into hostels offering bed-sized rooms for as little as 100 yuan per month. For millions of housemaids, laborers, waitresses and taxi drivers, it is the only affordable accommodation in a city where property prices have more than doubled in two years.
“This is all people like me can manage. I tried to rent a place above the ground but it cost nearly all my salary,” said Xiao Lin, a migrant from Hubei who earns 1,200 yuan per month at a nearby Korean restaurant. “If they ask us to leave, the only thing I can do is go back to my hometown.”
Her 10m2 room has space for a bed, some boxes and a computer, but it is clean and well-lit. Toilets and washrooms are shared with the other 97 guests.
The manager, who gave only her surname Li, said she was told this month that all the guests must leave by Jan. 10.
“It’s a shame,” she said. “In the past, officials from the civil defense bureau praised our contribution to the city because we make otherwise empty spaces profitable.”
The head of the municipal civil defense bureau, Wang Yongxin, has said that over the next six months to a year, accommodation in shelters will be phased out because the residents pose a security risk and sometimes create a disturbance.
He said: “Civil defense shelters will become public facilities to meet the demand for parking and places for public activities.”
The ministry of housing has issued regulations prohibiting the rent of basements for accommodation. Many hostels have been in business since the 1970s. Given the short notice and frequent failure of the authorities to implement policy, it looks unlikely that the evacuation will go to schedule. Guests will need new accommodation — probably in the suburbs.
Fang said the demonstrators’ strategy could change.
“We decided to be peaceful this time and put our faith in the government, but if nothing happens ... it’s possible there will be more radical action,” he said.
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