Over 100 shopkeepers at a popular Beijing market held a rare street protest Friday against what they call unreasonable eviction as the Chinese capital seeks to curb population growth.
The crowd gathered outside the entrance of the Beijing Zoo wholesale market in the west of the city, punching their fists in the air and shouting, “Return our money!”
Rows of police officers encircled the crowd, with some wearing riot gear as the two sides bumped against each other.
Police officers also patrolled inside the market, where many stalls were already shuttered and glass and debris covered floors in sections that were demolished.
Street protests are rare in the Communist-ruled country, especially ones that continue over multiple days, and authorities usually shut them down swiftly.
The merchants say they have been demonstrating since receiving notice a week ago that some sections of the market must clear out by Saturday, and everything must be completely shut down by the end of this month.
Videos some shopkeepers posted on social media showed protesters and police pushing each other on Thursday.
“At least three people got hurt and two went to hospital,” said a protester from neighbouring Hebei province, who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisal.
Most of the shopkeepers are migrants from other parts of the country.
“I have been paying rent on four stalls after signing a 20-year contract for them. We moved to Beijing to support our children and now we have nowhere to go,” said a woman from eastern Zhejiang province, who gave her name as Ye.
Ye and her husband say they have paid more than 300,000 yuan ($44,000) in shop rent and fees since 2012.
“We are not making any big demands. We just want some appropriate compensation,” said the 33-year-old.
“We have all these suitcases and handbags to sell, but don’t even have any place to store them now,” she added.
Several dozen shopkeepers set up camp inside the market Friday afternoon, saying they intended to stay overnight past the deadline for leaving.
“We are sticking to our bottom line, but we know that in such a government, ordinary people can’t win,” said protester Liu Qiang.
The market was built in the mid-1980s and was attracting nearly 100,000 customers daily in 2015, according to the state-owned China Daily.
Plans to close the Beijing Zoo market businesses in order to “reduce traffic congestion and population density” were first announced in 2015, according to the state-owned Beijing Times.
Earlier this year, Beijing announced it would cap its population at 23 million residents by 2020 and aim to “keep it at that level for the long term.”
The capital’s official population is over 21 million, but the figure does not account for the number of unregistered residents.
The local Xicheng district government office did not answer calls from AFP.
Calls to the management of the wholesale market also went unanswered.
In recent months, Beijing has shut down thousands of roadside businesses as part of a city-wide “clean-up” campaign, according to state media reports.
“Unfortunately, the axe has fallen on the migrant workers, who have helped build and put up the modern city skyline, but still have the least say in public affairs,” an editorial from the normally pro-government Global Times said.
Forced evictions have risen significantly in China, becoming one of the greatest source of public discontent, according to Amnesty International.
“The way the government treats people who persist in asserting their rights can often be violent and contravene the government’s own laws and regulations,” Amnesty China researcher William Nee told AFP.
In December, nine residents of the southern Chinese “rebel” village of Wukan were jailed for “disrupting social order” after violent protests against allegedly illegal land grabs.