The Gate Debate: Communities, Villages & Crime

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This article was originally posted on china/divide.

When the Asso­ci­ated Press ran a story this past week on Beijing’s newly expanded pol­icy of deal­ing with ris­ing crime rates, I expected that it would gen­er­ate more atten­tion from the West­ern media. I assumed that any­thing with a lede as provoca­tive as this would get a lot of play:

The gov­ern­ment calls it “sealed man­age­ment.” China’s cap­i­tal has started gat­ing and lock­ing some of its lower-income neigh­bor­hoods overnight, with police or secu­rity check­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion papers around the clock, in a throw­back to an older style of control.

Sure, the story popped up in a few blogs, and many news out­lets duti­fully ran the AP story, but I never got the sense that this devel­op­ment was seen by the English-language press as wor­thy of a sec­ond glance or in-depth report­ing. This is even more sur­pris­ing when you con­sider that this new pol­icy has both sup­port­ers and detrac­tors, and it impacts not only our view of China’s eco­nomic “suc­cess story,” but also the direc­tion of future urban­iza­tion. There are also some par­al­lels to West­ern urban policy.

How did we get to this point? The new pol­icy is a response to ris­ing urban crime rates and is based on a project imple­mented dur­ing the Olympics:

Crime has been ris­ing steadily over the past two decades, as China moved from state plan­ning to free mar­kets and Chi­nese once locked into set jobs began mov­ing around the coun­try for work. Vio­lent crime in China jumped 10 per­cent last year, with 5.3 mil­lion reported cases of homi­cide, rob­bery, and rape, the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Social Sci­ences reported in February.

“Sealed man­age­ment” was born in the vil­lage of Laosanyu dur­ing the Bei­jing Olympics in 2008, when the gov­ern­ment was eager to con­trol its migrant pop­u­la­tion. The vil­lage used it again dur­ing the sen­si­tive 60th anniver­sary of Com­mu­nist China last year. Offi­cials then reported the idea to town­ship offi­cials, who decided to make the prac­tice per­ma­nent this year.

The neg­a­tive view, taken by the AP arti­cle and the few other English-language sources I could find, is that Bei­jing is respond­ing to crime by lock­ing up migrant work­ers. In doing so, the implicit assump­tion is that 1) poor migrants are respon­si­ble for the increase in crime; and 2) security/control is the best short-term solu­tion to the problem.

At this point, if you are Amer­i­can and have not been reminded of the cur­rent polit­i­cal shit­storm in Ari­zona over immi­gra­tion pol­icy, you need to read the news­pa­per more often. The FP Pass­port blog makes the asso­ci­a­tion with a ref­er­ence to Arizona’s anti-immigrant governor:

Lest the pad­locks and secu­rity cam­eras pro­vide insuf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion from the arti­fi­cial enemy, the gov­ern­ment has taken an addi­tional cue from Jan Brewer: police patrol the gated neigh­bor­hoods at all hours to check the migrants’ iden­ti­fi­ca­tion papers. Now there’s xeno­pho­bia at its finest.

Echoes of the Ari­zona “Papers, please” law can also be heard in the AP story, which quotes a mem­ber of a vil­lage com­mit­tee, who says that “Guards only check papers if they see any­thing sus­pi­cious.” I assume that if guards were asked what the stan­dard is for sus­pi­cious behav­ior, the most com­mon answer would be a blank stare.

There is an oppos­ing view­point here, although you will not find it in the sparse English-language treat­ment of this story. A quick search of online opin­ion in Chi­nese shows broad sup­port for the “sealed man­age­ment” pol­icy. To the extent that the aver­age China neti­zen is much bet­ter edu­cated and wealth­ier than most migrant work­ers, this opin­ion trend may be sim­ply a func­tion of class.

Be that as it may, sup­port­ers would argue that lock­ing vil­lages at night is roughly equiv­a­lent to many of Beijing’s apart­ment com­plexes, which also have locked gates and secu­rity guards. In other words, there is no major dif­fer­ence between gated vil­lages and gated com­mu­ni­ties, and the new pol­icy is designed for the pro­tec­tion of res­i­dents within these areas as well as for those outside.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there is an impor­tant dif­fer­ence between gated com­mu­ni­ties for the wealthy and gated vil­lages con­tain­ing migrant work­ers. In apart­ment com­plexes with locked gates and secu­rity, res­i­dents may go in and out freely, and non-resident vis­i­tors gen­er­ally can leave at any time. Under the new pol­icy, res­i­dents of gated vil­lages may go in and out freely after hours by show­ing proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The prob­lem is that many peo­ple who live there do not have proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion because they are not bona fide Bei­jing res­i­dents. While they can come and go when they please dur­ing the day, they are stuck, inside or out­side, dur­ing the hours of 11pm to 6am, which serves as a de facto curfew.

Again, sup­port­ers would say that this still ben­e­fits every­one, and that this type of pol­icy has a proven track record:

Gat­ing has been an easy and effec­tive way to con­trol pop­u­la­tion through­out Chi­nese his­tory, said Huang, [a] geog­ra­phy pro­fes­sor. In past cen­turies, some walled cities would impose cur­fews and close their gates overnight.

Gated Community in 1940s Poland

Indeed, walled cities have been pop­u­lar in many nations through­out his­tory for a vari­ety of rea­sons, includ­ing safety from invaders and as a means of con­trol­ling com­merce and tax­a­tion. In most cases, how­ever, walls were orig­i­nally built around entire cities and not just to sur­round spe­cific com­mu­ni­ties. Sup­port­ers of sealed man­age­ment would prob­a­bly not appre­ci­ate the his­tor­i­cal exam­ples one could point to in this regard (the War­saw ghetto comes imme­di­ately to mind.1

Whether you sup­port or oppose the new pol­icy, the prob­lem itself poses addi­tional ques­tions. What is respon­si­ble for the ris­ing crime rate, and is it at all related to China’s rapid growth? Addi­tion­ally, if “sealed man­age­ment” is a short-term secu­rity solu­tion, what will be done in the long term to address the root of the problem?

The larger pol­icy ques­tion here is whether sealed man­age­ment is indeed a short-term solu­tion to a per­ceived emer­gency or if it sug­gests that secu­rity and con­trol has some­how become the pre­ferred method for address­ing social insta­bil­ity, no mat­ter the cause. If this is true, we could see a shift away from gov­ern­ment action designed to tackle poverty and income inequal­ity. In its fail­ure to address these root causes of social unrest, the Col­lec­tive Respon­si­bil­ity blog ulti­mately sees sealed man­age­ment as hav­ing a neg­a­tive long-term impact:

It is an action that is surely being taken with short term secu­rity goals in mind, but as the quoted experts sug­gest, the long term impli­ca­tions of the “Sealed Man­age­ment” pol­icy are likely to only exac­er­bate the under­ly­ing issues that exist. Which will likely do lit­tle to relieve the pres­sures of future insta­bil­ity and secu­rity within the pop­u­la­tion as the feel­ings of iso­la­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion are only rein­forced by poli­cies that sin­gle them out as “the problem”.


  1. Do not inter­pret my ref­er­ence to War­saw (and the photo) as a moral equiv­a­lency argu­ment or that Beijing’s policy is in any way comparable. I was sim­ply point­ing out that there are his­tor­i­cal exam­ples of walled enclosures that cut both ways here.[]


One response on “The Gate Debate: Communities, Villages & Crime

  1. Elizabeth

    Interesting article. thanks. Another gated community might be the “peace walls” of Northern Ireland. I think committing to an actual peace process and confronting the issues causing some of the violence was more successful than building the walls in N. Ireland.