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.
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”.
- Do not interpret my reference to Warsaw (and the photo) as a moral equivalency argument. I was simply pointing out that there are historical examples that cut both ways here. [↩]