The Gate Debate: Communities, Villages & Crime

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.

Beijing Gated Village (Photo: Associated Press)

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.

Migrant Housing (Photo: Foreign Policy)

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. I was simply pointing out that there are historical examples that cut both ways here. []


Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  • Some HTML can be used to format your comment.
  • Add a picture to your comments with Gravatar.
  • Please be civil. Comments may be moderated.
  1. Jones

    I think this website should change it’s name from ChinaDivide to GoddamnedWesternJournalists.

    However, more to the point, I’d attribute the growing crime rate to, of course, income gap. I base this on the very well-known large gap between the rich and the poor in China and related trends in other nations involving an income gap and rises in crime rates. Not the crime rate itself, just the rise. Bigger the gap, the bigger the crime rate gets.

    Sealing up the poorer migrant workers might work, but it’s at the expense of PR. Then again, if MOST Chinese actually do support it (even if just class-based reasons), then I guess there isn’t that big of a deal. Sure, some journalists might compare it to the Poland-circa-1940 photo above, but in the end this doesn’t really actually affect China that much at all. It would be told and then forgotten by all those except for the migrant workers. I doubt it’d be enough for a slight against them to really start any sort of riot. I’d like to think it’s temporary in lieu of any fast-acting economic solutions.

  2. King Tubby

    Stan. Great piece, but you are muddying the waters with your reference to the Jewish ghetto uprising and the following general Polish Warsaw uprising in 1944. (References on request.) Not needed to make a good point about contemporary trends in Western society. Must cogitate.

    • Warsaw reference was a bit of a risk – it’s always inflammatory. Wasn’t trying to use it as a comparison. Just trying to say that if one wants to use history to justify the policy, detractors have plenty of ammo on their side as well.

      • King Tubby

        Okay. Warsaw was about racial Reich policies. (And believe me, the Poles were every bit as disgusting as the Nazis….cf my past posts).

        I may be wrong as I have not had time to go thru your op piece in detail and then have a coffee, this is about selling household security plus safe rooms, in an amped up environment of ***non-security*** Those bloody Columbians/Guatamalians are coming over the fence.

        In China it goes without saying….the $ divide noted by Jones.

      • Bin Wang

        Godwin’s Law Stan!

  3. Bin Wang

    Well, Larry the Cucumber (of VeggieTales fame) once sang a song about the Gated Community. So perhaps it’s merely the difference between isolating the rich from the rest v. isolating the poor from the rest. But somehow it’s worse for a society to lower unsavory elements than it is for a society to elevate particularly savory ones. Probably because the upper-class can still leave their gated communities and country clubs and rub elbows with the masses if they want the plebian experience … whereas these poor migrant workers are, literally, locked-in at night.

    But socio-economic divides, with a liberal sprinkling of race, do a decent job of it too in the U.S., even if without the actual lock and key. Like Chris Rock said, every town got 2 malls (you got your white mall and the mall white people used to go to) and there’s nothing quite so close to heaven on earth as a white supermarket (compare Whole Foods to Winn Dixie and I rest my case).

    • Jones

      Good job adding race to your economic comparison between the US and China. Now we’re having a racism conversation. Why do you and Chris Rock think that white people aren’t poor like the non-whites? I assume you’re still, at least, talking about income here since that seems to be the topic. Right?

    • Bin Wang

      Easy dude, I said socio-economic divides, with a liberal sprinkling of race. I know plenty of white folks are poor too, believe me.

      My point is the similarities/differences between “pricing out the riff-raff” which occurs pretty frequently in this country (i.e., the gated community, the private school, etc.) and the topic of this article. Of course in China it’s not motivated by race, it’s a matter of urban v. rural, or rich v. poor. In the U.S., it’s also rich v. poor, but to the extent you still have your projects, your black neighborhoods, etc., the racial element runs through the issues as well. It’s probably more complicated here, resolving the issues between rich and poor, because of the racial variable which does not exist in the Chinese equation. That’s all I’m saying.

  4. song of the article,

    a classic, classic child人‘s song

    going on a Lion hunt, am not afraid!
    going to catch me a BIG Lion,


    Oh look! what is that?

    There is a Gate ahead!
    Cant go over it
    Cant go under it
    Cant go around it
    Gotta go through it!


    • King Tubby

      Since you have taken on this Freddie Mercury personna, you are one lost avator. It sort of ruins my breakfast. Get your act together, okay. BE NORMAL.

  5. Jay

    Well, as somebody who doesn’t like anybody who doesn’t have any business to snoop around my house, I would think this isn’t a big deal.
    At the same time, this kind of clamp down is nothing new, nothing special. Arizona was mentioned. I think a fixed policy with fixed check points is much better (less worse?) than the kind of unpleasantness that is being implemented in so many other places. Racial profiling anybody?
    Example: I had the misfortune of being in Rotterdam (in the formerly tolerant country of Holland) not too long ago and got caught in a razzia. I was walking in their downtown, minding my own business, when the street was suddenly blocked off on either side by what looked like SWAT. I had to endure a pat down and was handled rather roughly, maybe because I couldn’t understand WTF they were saying. I needed to show my ID and was fined when I couldn’t. I only had a photocopy of my passport in my wallet, which is usually okay in China, but not in Holland. I tried to explain that my passport was in the hotel safe, but that didn’t help. I was still lucky, I saw a bunch of guys who were beaten and roughly thrown into a paddywagon. Later I had the whole thing explained to me, and apparently these razzias are common, targeted at Maroccans and other minorities, but they just search everyone, with the added bonus of copping fines for not carrying ID, which lots of people don’t. Apparently you can also have your door kicked in (no warrant required) by local council people, if you happen to not be home, and they like to go through your stuff. So I was told.
    But it gets better. I left Rottereffingdam for Antwerp a few days later, and got caught in another random police check. No, they were not doing a manhunt, just normal police brutality. This was on the A16 motorway. All cars were shunted onto a service station and checked for everything and then some. Where was I going? Why? Could they see my ID? I nearly got manhandled and fined again until I was able to explain that my passport was in my bag in the boot of the rental. Which they thoroughly searched as well. All my clothes in a big heap. Had to blow into their breathalizer. Got a pat down. More questions. Then a thankyou and after some twenty minutes I was on my merry way again. Here too were various people being herded into police vans and what looked like several others getting fined for something or other. IMHO China’s PSB isn’t doing too badly, considering…

  6. Simon Ningbo

    I would have thought that the poor are not only more likely to commit, but also more likely to be a victim of crime ? I must admit, I don’t really understand how this is supposed to lower crime, exactly how large are these gated communities ?

    • Good point, and I’m not sure what the reasoning is here. Non-residents are the ones committing crimes? If so, they don’t do bad things near where they live?

  7. Goodness

    Why stop there? How about a nice tall chain link fence and moat all around China?

    God I wonder how bad it would be if a fire broke out inside one of these gated communities. Some enterprising young Chinese entrepreneur should open up a bolt cutter store.

  8. Stan, correct my limited understanding of Beijing’s history, but during the Qing, wasn’t the city designed to be divided into sections of which were routinely locked at sunset?

    • I think so, but I’m not an expert either. Certainly Beijing was a walled city — I’m just not sure when that infrastructure stopped being utilized for security reasons.

  9. King Tubby

    For what its worth by way of perspective. Seven years in China and never stopped once for ID, so Jay makes a good concluding point. (However, a cop once tried to pull me over when returning from Metro, but I gave him the finger and left him in the dust as I had a faster scooter….scooter Wild Ones I know.)

    About 15 years ago here in Australia the govt tried to introduce a national identity card, and it was rejected OUTRIGHT as an inpingement on the liberties of the subject.

    Govts however never give up. Presently trying to sleaze in a medicare/health card which will serve the same function….Mucho privacy concerns, so its future is by no means guaranteed.

    If govt tried to have a street sweep of the type described below, we would get close to civil war. At the mo, the best officialdom can ask for is your drivers licence….most people have one.

    When it comes to walking the street, day or night, China shapes up pretty okay…esp compared to bloody Switzerland.

    • Jones

      National ID card…good…I’ve been meaning to ask this question which, now that KT has mentioned it, is a tiny bit on topic, but then again not really. How different is having a national ID to having a Driver’s License and a Social Security number? Anyone?

      • An ID card must be carried at all times, you can be punished for not carrying it. A driving license in the UK doesn’t even necessarily have your photo on it (I have one of the old green paper ones), nor does a social security number include a photo of your or your biometrics (at least, UK national insurance numbers do not come with this data).

        Essentially, it is the element of compulsion that people object to, especially where people pride themselves as coming from a place in which people never have to answer to anyone as to what they are doing so long as it is within the confines of the law.

  10. King Tubby

    Apologies for my prior off the cuff responses. This is the post I should have made to a piece which can be approached fruitfully from the many different perspectives already outlined by Stan.

    I see gated communities and townships as essentially a **pre modern* reponse to contemporary govt concerns to manage and control populations in an urban environment. Control and management can be interpreted widely or narrowly, according to the govt in question. Gating manages communities and classes and it is there macro focussed and not particularly selective or individualised: doesnt meet the needs of hyper security aware govts.

    All governments today have an insatiable desire to aggregate information on individuals (China) or citizens (the West), be it in the form of national ID cards, drivers licences or some other mirco chipped document. Its a question of what they can get away with. In Oz, having failed to push thru a national ID card, they are trying to slease thru with an eHealth card and also leaving a lot of unused data space on drivers licences for future additional info on individuals.

    (Also BTW, cdividers often ignore the Ottoman empire when looking for historical examples. In their heyday, the Ottomans had population management/control down to a fine art…..guilds/ethnicities were alloted their own section of the city and it was locked down at sunset. It was a also a brilliant empire based on polyglot populations, thriving trade, abundant higher learning and religious tolerance… by the standards of the time.)

    Back to my point. Digitalised ID cards allow for a much more selective and individualised system of population management. As you enter and exit pass points you are leaving an electronic trail able to be mined at any time. But this aint the future yet.

    Recall my post about Golden Shield:

    This is like a William Gibson dystopian view of the future. The convergences to realise this project are all available now. It is now a question of writing the program to make it work effectivley on a mass scale.

    Why stop here. Attach an avator to every ID card (containing info of your choice…ie internet id .. big issue in China right now, security rating
    etc), and you can be tracked every minute of your life.
    Already a staple with sci fi writers, so no claims for originality.

    This is the **modern project** since it *concentrates far more selectively and squarely on individuals and less on classes or communities*, although the latter will still have a significant place in this future method of management.

    Sorry about the length and I should reference Foucault. Feel free to edit my screed.

      • lolz

        Not sure what is your point KT, London has over ten thousand of these crime cameras to watch over the people. The American organization NSA watches over virtually all of the internet communications in efforts to “weed out terrorism”. In countries like Mexico the idea to implant GPS chips into human bodies is in high demand, mostly to counter the high kidnap rates there. The fact is that each country has its own ways to deal with crimes. What boils down ultimately is whether the local population accepts these measures and whether these programs work.

        Having cameras everywhere in Urumqi sounds like a fantastic idea, especially for Hans who were mostly the victims of the recent violent race riot. Had China sent thousands of policemen to watch over the city instead of using the cameras, the western media would be still complaining about how Urumqi is a police state.

        • King Tubby

          lolz. Sure I think most people here are well aware of the London/Mexico references. If you read my 7.03 post closely, you would have seen that I’m not just talking about CCTV (small beer in the overall scheme of my argument)….the key words were convergence and the nature of the modernist project for managing both populations and individuals. Pls read that closely plus the link, and also dip into a bit of Foucault and you will see where I am coming from.


  11. Damn, late to another party? No matter, here is my two cents on the matter:

    It didn’t get the airplay in other countries, because it is already part of cultural fabric in other countries. If you all want to take a hard look at the gated community issue – take a peek at South Africa. Years after Apartheid, you have entire sections of cities walled up to the hilt, for good and bad reasons.

    Same goes for places like Mexico City, Bogata, and Chicago – people have fears about real (and hyped) events and issues – and increased and/or more visable police presence has not been enough to allay those fears.

  12. Lolz

    The most important things are a) does this gated village concept really work and b) are people okay with it. I think as long as this concept work to some degree against crimes people will be convinced to accept this.

    Crimes and social unrest are directly related to income gaps so ya this is only a short term solution to a much larger and more complex problem.

  13. Felice Pope

    If immigrants are the cause of increased crime, will “sealed management” predispose a shift to daytime burglaries, thefts that may precipitate heinous crimes? Whether imposed, government-sanctioned, no-free- choice, separated-populations in China, the U.S. (e.g., besides the “Paper Please Law.” the partially-built, underfunded, Step-Aside Mexican Wall, “Get-Mo,” Internment Camps), Russia (e.g., the Berlin Wall,”cold-war suppressions”), Germany (e.g., Warsaw Ghetto Wall, Nuremburg Laws, Concentration Death Camps), theocracies, and in other polities, profiling, shutting doors, locking gates, or building walls, restricting free-choice are forms of racism. When promulgated into law, they are blatant forms of discrimination in any language. History has proven these to roil hatred, not mitigate crime. Criminals will circumvent the law. Will the same be proven with time of sealed management and the paper-please law?

Continuing the Discussion