Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has hit out at the demolition of his studio at an art park in Beijing, saying it has been targeted as part of a program of gentrification that has seen thousands of migrant workers in the capital forcibly evicted from their homes in recent months.
Ai posted video of mechanical diggers smashing in the windows of his Zuoyou studio at Beijing's Caochangdi Art Park in the eastern district of Chaoyang on Aug. 3, his main creative base.
"Farewell," Ai wrote in an Instagram post, before posted photos of the mechanical digger starting to demolish the walls. "Today, they started to demolish my studio Zuoyou in Beijing with no precaution, which I have had as my main studio since 2006."
In an interview with RFA, Ai said he was only informed of the demolition work at around noon on Friday, after it had begun.
"I was really shocked, because we still had another two weeks until we were scheduled to move out, and no notice was given in advance whatsoever," he said. "The first thing we saw was the mechanical diggers destroying the windows."
While Ai said he had planned to move out of the space, removal work hadn't been completed.
"We still had a lot of my works and some equipment on the premises," he said.
Ai said he didn't know the precise reason for the sudden move by the authorities.
"There are economic reasons, and there are political reasons," he said. "But all these reasons boil down to the same thing: the utter contempt of those in power towards the individual."
"At the very least, we have seen that the way in which power operates here is extremely heavy-handed," he said.
'Coordinated growth' policy
The demolition of Ai's studio comes amid a renewed demolition and gentrification campaign by Beijing's city government.
Authorities say they cleared some 40 million square meters (430,560,000 square feet) of "illegal constructions" from the city last year, and have forcibly evicted thousands of migrant workers from out of town.
The city government is pursuing a "coordinated growth" policy in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei urban area, and has cited the city's hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics as the main motivation for the policy, which includes capping Beijing's resident population at 23 million by 2020.
In the southern district of Daxing, where 19 people, eight of them children, died when a blaze ripped through an apartment building at a factory on Nov. 18, 2017, the authorities renewed a crackdown on July 5, targeting industrial and logistics warehouses, former agricultural properties remodeled and rented as residential apartments, and "older buildings" as potential fire or safety hazards.
Government documents seen by RFA last November called on 10 government departments including police and firefighters to work together to identify hazardous enterprises and “premises inhabited by low-income groups” in the crackdown.
Ai's studio was located in a Stalinist-style industrial district full of disused factory spaces, and had attracted artists in a manner similar to the city's Songzhuang Artists' Village, where artists have repeatedly been targeted for eviction by the authorities in recent years.
Sources said the area has been earmarked for redevelopment by the city government, however.
'Low-income population' targeted
A Beijing-based artist surnamed Liang said he wasn't surprised by the demolition of Ai's studio.
"I didn't think this was surprising, because property prices are many times higher than before, so I can totally see why they would do this," Liang said.
"As an international celebrity, Ai Weiwei doesn't have it too bad," he said. "If he wasn't, they would have demolished it a long time ago."
Ai said he believes migrant worker and the "low-income population" are being treated similarly to him under the current system.
"As the national capital, Beijing has a huge demand for people from out of town," Ai said. "The migrant population has propped up Beijing's development for the past 30 years, but now, for various reasons, they are clearing them out."
"I don't count as a migrant worker, but my studio is being treated the same way they are treating the migrant population," he said.
Ai has been targeted by the authorities before.
He was detained and held in a secret location for 81 days in 2011, prompting an international outcry. His company was later hit with a U.S. $2.4 million "tax evasion" fine.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.