Last month, faced with a nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 that would go on to kill 3,180 and sicken 78,000 more as of March 13, local officials across China responded with a host of novel, if occasionally draconian, containment measures. These ranged from routine temperature checks and big data tracking to “hardcore” methods like traffic bans and citywide lockdowns.
In urban areas, at least, one of the most common practices involved sealing off residential communities one-by-one throughout entire cities. Officials’ work was made easier because many of the residential developments built over the past 30 years are gated communities, with perimeter walls, security guards, surveillance cameras, and easily monitored gates — all paid for by the residents themselves via property management fees. Although many places have loosened their containment policies in recent weeks, at its height, dozens of cities kept strict control over who was entering and exiting compounds, with some even limiting residents to a single trip outside the community gates once every few days.
For as useful as these features have been for local governments over the past month, the proliferation of gated communities in the reform era has long been a sore spot for urban planners, central officials, and — increasingly — the residents themselves. Originally meant to lure in privacy-starved urbanites tired of collectivist, workplace-arranged living quarters, they have become “cities within cities” — sites of poor, nearly privatized governance that distort the physical landscape and social ecology of urban areas.
In many countries, gated residential compounds are largely the exclusive province of the wealthy. Not so in China, where they have become almost standard for middle-class urbanites since the late 1970s. Prior to the advent of “reform and opening-up” in 1978, most urban residents lived in communal housing assigned by their workplaces. These collective-style residences were defined by their small living areas, in which multiple families might share a kitchen or bathroom. Generally speaking, they were not particularly comfortable, and living in close proximity with one’s colleagues left little room for privacy.
So when large-scale commercial urban housing developments began cropping up in the ’90s, early homebuyers were eager for something new. Real estate developers responded by making privacy, exclusivity, and status central to their residential design and sales strategies. Buying up large plots of land from cash-hungry municipalities, they built huge developments with little thought to transit links or road networks.
Unsurprisingly, this caused headaches for urban planners. With so much space walled off, cities became much less walkable, and roads had to snake around community boundaries. This is one reason why Chinese cities have a lower density of road networks than their counterparts in developed countries. In 2016, the international edition of the party-run People’s Daily newspaper described gated compounds as the “clogged arteries of cities.”
Residents, too, have learned that walls come at a price. Closed off from the rest of the city, they are often at the mercy of their compound’s property management company, which interposes itself between residents and the local government.
These companies provide basic services like waste management to communities, paid for by residents’ property management fees. Local governments are content with this situation, because it eases pressure on public services and already strained municipal budgets. For property management companies, gated communities are a reliable cash cow.
A man makes a call near a temporary trash dump in Beijing, Feb. 24, 2020. Many communities have closed themselves off as the city battles to keep the COVID-19 epidemic from spreading. Pu Feng/dixphoto
In theory, communities should be run by residential committees, but these are hard to form and fragile in practice. Property managers, brought in to serve residents, often fill this vacuum by taking on a management role.
This isn’t always to residents’ benefit: Property management firms’ accounting practices are frequently opaque, their fee structures outlandish. Yet under current law, it is extremely hard for communities without a strong, organized residential committee to cancel their contracts.
Caught between local governments’ eagerness to duck responsibility for neighborhood management and the pursuit of profits by property management companies, homeowners are in a very vulnerable position. Companies looking to pad their bottom line rarely see any reason to compromise with homeowners, and disputes have become commonplace.
Gated living has more insidious effects, too, including sorting homeowners according to class or wealth. This sort of residential-based segregation is common worldwide, but the ubiquity of gated communities in China only further reduces the odds of people from different backgrounds interacting with one another.
In recent years, the country’s central authorities have begun to push back against the ubiquity of gated-off neighborhoods, whether newly built or Maoist-era workplace housing. In 2016, the national government issued a document demanding local officials address the issue. It also promoted the more open “block system,” in which cities would be prevented from building new closed residential compounds and required to gradually open up existing gated communities to through-traffic.
The ongoing pandemic, with its emphasis on hardcore neighborhood-based containment measures, has quickly deflated what little momentum the campaign had, however. Many compounds have started to implement visa-style “pass” systems, strictly limiting the number of people allowed to enter and exit each day. Some residents have been even more proactive and demanding than local officials, setting up their own checkpoints, “interrogating” nonresidents who do not have the required pass, and even refusing entrance to residents who have returned from hard-hit areas.
Given the circumstances, it’s understandable that residents would seek to protect themselves. But this renewed enthusiasm for closed-off, protective neighborhoods could pose problems if the government ever wants to get back to promoting open communities. Concerns over property values and safety meant that effort was already controversial, and among the residential committee members, property management employees, and local cadres I’ve spoken with, there is a fear that the pandemic could reinforce the legitimacy of closed-off communities in ways that will linger for years to come.
“Closed fortress”-style neighborhoods have already left their mark on the urban ecology, social landscape, and governance of China’s cities. As they grow more entrenched, residents and officials alike would do well to keep an eye on this phenomenon and closely track any developments.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua, Kilian O’Donnell and Cai Yineng.
(Header image: Volunteers stand at the entrance of a residential community in Beijing, March 8, 2020. Ren Chao/Xinhua)