Globe and Mail - July 18, 2010
Inside China's gated communities for the poor
By Mark MacKinnon
Once a symbol of affluence, gates are now used as a form of 'sealed management' for low-income villages
GATED villages in China have for years been symbols of affluence; places where the rich can live in villa-style homes, surrounded by private schools and swimming pools, with fences to keep out those who don't belong.
Now China is gating off low-income villages, where migrant labourers from the countryside (the people who built those expansive villas) live in near squalor. The newly erected fences and nighttime curfews are designed to hold in the residents, and the criminality that supposedly emanates from these communities. "Enhance the idea of safety and reduce illegal crimes," reads a red banner hanging over the main road to one such village south of Beijing, home to some 7,000 migrants
That road into Shoubaozhuang is guarded 24 hours a day by two uniformed guards and partially barred by an accordion gate that closes tight at 11 p.m. each night. Until 6 a.m. the next day, the residents are sealed in. Only those with passes are allowed to come and go, their movements recorded by a video camera stationed over the entrance.
It's one of 16 villages around Beijing that for the past two months have been locked down at night, under a program local authorities call "sealed management." They say the aim is to get a better handle on the millions of migrant workers who have moved to the Chinese capital in search of work, and who often end up living in poor, dirty and rapidly growing places like the villages south of Beijing, some of which have seen their population grow tenfold in recent years.
Another aim is to curb the rising crime in Beijing and other big cities, which is frequently blamed on the influx of migrant workers. Violent crime in the country rose 10 per cent last year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which has also highlighted the dangerous and widening gap between increasingly well-off urban population, and the hundreds of millions of migrant workers and rural residents who live in and around the cities in poverty.
The authorities claim to have the support of the local population for the program. But many of those who live here say the gates around their homes are a major inconvenience imposed without consultation, and more proof of widespread discrimination against migrant workers. Those born outside Beijing already face limited access to the capital's schools, health care and other government services, which they are supposed to return to their hometowns to receive.
"This is against our will. The ordinary people have no human rights," whispered an elderly man watching the guards inspect a car stopped at the gate to Shoubaozhuang. The guards at the gate said no journalists were allowed to visit what they called a model city.
Critics of sealed management include Yuan Chongfa, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission's research centre for small towns and cities. "This move not only closes the door on migrants but also on future development," he told the China Daily newspaper when the plan to put permanent gates around Laosanyu was announced. "Closing off the village will do nothing but harm."
Some residents protested against the installation of the gates at Shoubaozhuang after they went up two months ago, arguing that the curfews made it difficult for them to reach their jobs - sometimes a 2.5-hour bus ride away on the other side of Beijing - and get home again before lockdown. The authorities responded by pushing back the nighttime curfew by half an hour, but many here are still bitter about the restrictions, complaining the gates often open later and close earlier than they're supposed to.
"It's not very convenient for us, because they can lock us in and we can't take our cars out without a pass. Everything is up to them, because they have the keys," said Liu Lei, a migrant from central Henan province who runs a convenience store in the nearby village of Laosanyu, where the sealed management program was first introduced on a trial basis ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The experiment was viewed as a success, and gates were erected around Laosanyu again last fall ahead of the politically sensitive 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. In May, the gates were made a permanent feature. Migrant labourers living here were told to report to the local police office to apply for temporary residence permits.
"The security standard for the Olympics was very high, we were afraid of trouble caused by terrorists or illegals," said Chen Yuanying, an official in the local Communist Party office who sported a red hammer-and-sickle buckle on his belt.
He said there were 31 security staff assigned to watch the entrances into Laosanyu, in addition to video cameras set up around the village. "The people here are very complicated. We need to know where they're from, what they're doing."
Places like Laosanyu seem to exist in a different era than the affluent gated communities of the futuristic capital. In Laosanyu, unwatched young children play on a dirt road strewn with uncollected garbage while their parents work in the city during the day. The stench of fetid public toilets fills the air and bicycles vastly outnumber cars.
Some 7,000 migrants live on land owned by the village's 612 permanent residents, many of them paying $35 a month to live in a row of identical 14-square-metre concrete homes. But the cheap accommodations, combined with the proximity to Beijing, and the capital's relatively high-paying jobs, make everything else worth it.
"Of course, it was more comfortable living in my hometown, but here I can earn 5,000, 6,000 even 7,000 [yuan] a month," said Wang Yunqin, a 40-year-old interior decorator from Anhui province who lives in his one-room home with his wife and 15-year-old son. He said that while the new gates around Laosanyu might make other residents of Beijing safer, they haven't done much for security in the village itself. "They said [the gates] would make it easier to safeguard our property from thieves, but I don't think it works very well. Someone robbed the place just across from here the other day."