When I launched this blog in October with a paean to the illuminations of Beijing, I had no idea that I was writing an elegy to a facet of the city that would soon be stripped away by government decree. But now the signs are tumbling, and every few days I notice another one gone. The name labelling a local business or apartment complex blinks out, and another segment of the skyline becomes, literally, anonymous. And, presumably, somewhere out there in the outskirts of the city, a vast graveyard of dead luminescence keeps growing.
“Somewhere out there” is a place most of us rarely have to visit. Beijing becomes a very different place beyond the fifth ring road, and residents of the urban centre generally choose not to devote too much thought to the world beyond the threshold of Mobike functionality. But that changed in late November, when a fire on the outskirts of the city provided a pretext for mass evictions and the bulldozing of entire districts. Tens of thousands of migrant workers were made homeless in a matter of hours, at a time of year when the temperature often drops well below zero overnight. There was an immediate outcry on social media, the cruelty of the crackdown puncturing the indifference that sometimes feels like a necessary protective carapace. The government response was to scrub the internet of references to the bureaucratic euphemism “低端人口”(dīduān rénkǒu: “low-end population“) which had been used to describe the couriers, cooks, and construction workers whom they deny targeting. Your message will never reach its intended recipients if you mention the word in a WeChat group. Despite a brief attempt to ironically reclaim the phrase, “低端人口” soon met the same fate as the flashing LED sign for a seafood restaurant I used to be able to see from my window.
Words can be made to disappear, from roofs as well as from websites. But the spaces they leave behind can be just as significant.