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Around a dozen uniformed police stood impassively, shoulder to shoulder, at dusk in Beijing, their faces half covered by masks in the wintry November mist. It was an image that went viral in China because they were guarding piles of wreckage, all that was left of buildings that were once home to thousands of rural migrants in the Chinese capital. The devastation was not caused by an earthquake or explosion but was the result of a hasty demolition operation that resulted in the forced eviction of many members of Beijing’s migrant worker population. Along with the buildings, the demolition campaign also shook the foundations of the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy and dealt a blow to the image of Beijing party secretary Cai Qi, a protégé of President Xi Jinping with a reputation as a smooth social media operator, just six months into the job.

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Videos of police kicking open the doors of flats and photographs of migrant workers sleeping on the streets after their flats were torn down also went viral, and overseas scholars accused the party, which prides itself as the protector of the proletariat, of practising social Darwinism.

On December 10, UN Human Rights Day, the bitterness turned into scattered protests across Beijing, with hundreds of people, mostly rural migrants, chanting slogans complaining about human rights violations.

The protests coincided with the first South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing, where the Chinese authorities sought to rally international support for their own human rights narrative and advance a “China solution” for global human rights governance.

Beijing wants to cap its population – 21.7 million in 2015 – at 23 million from 2020 as it tries to turn the sprawling, overcrowded capital into a liveable, international city with cleaner air.

It has been trying to reduce its “low-end ” sectors since 2014 by pushing out unwanted factories, schools and wholesale markets, but the evictions were accelerated following a fire in the south of the city that claimed 19 lives on November 18. Cai became the focus of criticism after videos of a speech he made a day after the fire were leaked online.

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