BEIJING (Reuters) - Liu Yang is among tens of thousands of migrant workers who scour Beijing bins for sellable scraps. But he won’t be recycling any trash in August as Beijing’s garbage pickers are being pushed out of town.
A relentless campaign by Beijing to present a sanitized, modern city to millions of Olympic Games visitors has led to a government shut down of scores of garbage recycling centers that provide these migrant workers with an income.
As the Olympics approach, the number of garbage pickers has visibly dropped across Beijing including at Qianbajia, a recycling station where about 200 households live among towering piles of plastic, building materials and scrap metals.
Almost half of the tenants have left for home provinces. Yang and his young family were still hoping to stay in the dank room next to reeking piles of trash where they have made a home.
“The rent is cheap here,” said Liu breezily, picking up his one-year-old daughter as a three-wheeled cart loaded with cardboard squeezed by in the muddy alley outside his house.
Qianbajia is among the dozens of urban recycling stations being shut down for the Games, effectively cutting off the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Beijing’s temporary workers who eke out a living from the city’s cast-offs.
Most of the city’s more than 170,000 rubbish collectors will have left before the August 8 opening ceremony — a necessary measure to guarantee the health and safety of Games visitors, according to Wang Weiping, a Beijing government adviser.
Wang, one of Beijing’s foremost experts on the city’s recycling industry, submitted a report recommending officials “convince” the collectors to return to their home provinces for the duration of the Olympics.
The workers process up to a third of Beijing’s trash and have a “positive effect” on society, but most have criminal records, leave second-hand environmental pollution, and pose a health threat, Wang said.
“According to our studies, more than 70 percent have contracted infectious diseases, such as dysentery, hepatitis and typhoid, and can easily infect others in the city,” Wang said.
“I hope these people can temporarily sacrifice their interests and go home and then come back after the Olympics ... Their losses won’t be that great.”
The call to sacrifice individual interests became increasingly shrill in the months leading up to the four-yearly sporting extravaganza.
It has seen Beijing drivers give up their cars on alternate days from July 20 to improve air quality and unclog roads, and poor farmers in neighboring Hebei province surrender water to bolster the capital’s stocks in case of shortages.
Scrap traders and recyclers, faced with a diminishing pool of rubbish collectors to do business with, grumble of lost profits and fear that their suppliers may not come back after the Games.
“How can you sell, if you’ve got nothing to buy?” said Wang Yuping, a small scrap trader near one of Beijing’s Olympic soccer venues.
“There’s no talk of compensation. We’re just common people. What good would complaining do?” she asked.
Security authorities in Beijing, which expects half a million foreign visitors and about 30,000 journalists during the Games period, have stepped up efforts to ensure those with complaints are kept well out of the public eye.
“There is a large scale mobilization to put under control and monitor every individual deemed to be a potential threat, whether that be convicted felons, petitioners, or people entangled in litigation,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
“All sorts of vulnerable people, such as recyclers, unfortunately fall within this wide net,” Bequelin said.
Rights groups and activists say the sweep has also taken in the homeless and the mentally ill, along with beggars, hawkers and prostitutes.
Zhang Shihe, a Beijing blogger, documented the fate of about 30 homeless people who lived in cobbled-together shelters near Tiananmen Square, and survived on pocket change from selling plastic bottles foraged from bins around the vast plaza.
“The authorities pulled down their homes on three separate occasions this year,” Zhang said.
Barred from returning to Tiananmen to collect scrap, they were now scattered around Beijing’s outer suburbs, some surviving on the charity of Chinese Internet users, Zhang said.
The Olympic security crackdown is no surprise to Zhang, who saw the homeless shoo-ed from the city centre during the National People’s Congress in March, the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
As swift and ruthless as the campaigns may be, they never last much longer than after the last V.I.P. leaves town, Zhang said.
“This government loves face ... They clean up the city to welcome the guests. Once the guests are gone, who has time to keep managing this problem? The homeless will come back to collect bottles at Tiananmen once the Olympics are over.”
Back in Qianbajia, Liu said his wife would also return from her family’s farm in about two months and rejoin him in the city.
He was neither angry nor disappointed with the authorities, who have dubbed the Games the “People’s Olympics.”
“It would be nice if she could be here during the Games...
but what can I say?” he shrugged. “We’re just used to it.”
Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jerry Norton