Thursday, May 25, 2017, 1:39 AM CST – China

Politics

Enclosed Communities

Gate Mail

Chinese government plans to replace ubiquitous enclosed residential communities with open blocks similar to those in Western countries. They may have a fight on their hands

Supreme People’s Court officials respond to media questions regarding open communities, February 23, 2016 Photo by CNS

A community fitted with security checkpoints to limit the free entry of individuals and vehicles in Zhengzhou, Henan Province Photo by CFP

An open community established in Yibin, Sichuan Province Photo by CFP

On February 22, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a new guideline on urban construction and management planning, including a proposal to end the building of enclosed communities. “[The construction of] enclosed communities will no longer be approved in principle. Instead, new residential communities will be built in open blocks. The current enclosed communities will be gradually opened,” the new guideline stated.

The same document intimated that China’s enclosed communities, gated blocks of apartments surrounded by high walls or fences that often have limited access points, carry a large responsibility for the snarled traffic in urban areas, particularly large metropolises, as they block the “capillaries” of urban road networks. This new policy aims to open these thoroughfares to allow a smoother flow of traffic. “We have to increase the utilization of limited land and build a [new] traffic system characterized by narrow roads and densely distributed streets,” the guideline stated.

Some voices came out in support of the new policy, believing it to be a step forward in the establishment of a modern, integrated country with improved access to public services. Others, however, worried that “open communities” would increase security risks and infringe on homeowners’ property rights, particularly right of access to roads and facilities within their community, the value of which is factored into real estate prices in China.

Amid mounting controversy, the government issued a clarification stating that the policy would not be implemented until after it undergoes a detailed investigation, also pledging not to “violate relevant laws.” Debates, however, continue to rage.

Tradition

China has a long history of gated communities, which have arguably been a feature of urban life since the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), when China’s first emperor enclosed residential buildings to better control and manage residents (at the time, a permanent nighttime curfew was maintained to further tighten social control). This draconian system was abolished in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but resurfaced as a feature of urban planning in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). 

Though the social control aspect of enclosed communities ceased to be a stated government priority following the fall of the Qing, in practice it endured beyond the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 as a product of the planned economy. In the 1950s, the building of enclosed communities reached its peak when the Chinese government allocated each government department, State-owned enterprise (SOE), government-backed organization and academic institute a plot of land according to their respective administrative level and scale of operations, allowing them to build dormitories and other facilities for their employees and their family members. Many enterprises and departments took advantage of these benefits to establish sizable, multi-functional communities that could function virtually independently as an enclosed mini-society.

According to Chinese media reports, by 1975, around 78 percent of urban workers lived in an enclosed community owned and operated by the enterprise or government department in which they worked. This rate had climbed to 95 percent by 1978. People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, for example, presides over a vast, well-guarded community in Beijing. Besides residential buildings and necessary public facilities like dining halls, the community’s garden is well known, dubbed by other Chinese media “one of the most beautiful gardens in the capital.” When People’s Daily came out in support of open communities following the issuance of the State Council guideline, netizens responded by urging the paper to take the lead by opening up its gated garden.

According to some observers, the modern Chinese take on enclosed communities has its roots in the Soviet Union’s championing of “wide roads, large communities” as the ideal model for urban planning. However, many experts have demonstrated that in reality such architectural and infrastructural largess undermines efficient traffic management and significantly hampers effective urban planning. In 1952, renowned architect Liang Sicheng reportedly cited a Russian counterpart as saying that “enclosed communities have isolated people from each other.” In 1964, Li Fuchun, China’s vice premier at the time, submitted a report to the central government on urban construction in Beijing, complaining that it was difficult for the capital to work out an integrated construction plan due to the vast swaths of land essentially blocked off by enclosed communities built by government departments and SOEs.

Such dissent, however, failed to sway the central government. The enclosed community model was instead adapted to the construction of private, civilian residential buildings when China began to commercialize housing in 1998. Influenced by what observers called “traditional thought originating in the agricultural era,” evoking imagery of China’s once ubiquitous courtyard homes, Chinese homeowners overwhelmingly seemed to prefer enclosed communities. “Good compartmentalization, a high degree of privacy and large green spaces are three major elements that distinguish high-end apartments from ordinary ones,” a Beijing real estate sales agent surnamed Li told NewsChina.

Incomplete data provided by Chinese media sources show that between 1991 and 2000, 83 percent of Shanghai’s residential communities were enclosed. Over that same period of time, Guangdong enclosed 54,000 residential communities, and by 2001, 95 percent of residential communities in Shenzhen that had obtained sales licenses were walled off from outsiders. Research by engineer and academic Li Jingwen indicated that communities belonging to central government departments and their auxiliary units occupy one-third of usable land in Beijing, leaving the capital with a paltry 7 percent for road construction. In New York City, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, that number is 25 percent.

“A city with 100-120 blocks [of housing] to every square kilometer of land is livable,” Zhou Qiren, an economist working with Peking University’s National School of Development, claimed at a public lecture on “urban ills” held in April 2015. “Although the roads in such cities are not that wide, those cities possess dense streets with all sorts of amenities and facilities built in.”

“By contrast,” he continued, “the ‘free from capillaries’ structure such as that in Beijing, easily leads to traffic jams, as people are concentrated in one place. Traffic jams may, in fact, be caused not by high density, but rather low density.”

Safety

Indeed, few people challenge the idea that such a move would ease traffic jams. For many, safety is the greatest concern. “How could I confidently let my son play in our community if cars are allowed to pass through it freely?” Gao Rui, a Beijing resident living in an enclosed community in Chaoyang District, told NewsChina. “Unlike Western countries, China has a dense population with limited land,” she added. 

A recent survey on sina.com.cn showed that nearly 76 percent of the 26,840 respondents “did not support” opening up enclosed communities, with “safety” cited as their single biggest concern. A similar survey published on Tencent’s news website, view.news.qq.com, delivered similar results: 75 percent of over 170,000 respondents stated that they “do not agree with opening enclosed communities.”

Safety was what drove many of China’s newer residential communities to close their gates in the first place. A 1996 report by China Police Daily, a paper under the Ministry of Public Security, for example, revealed that after a local public security bureau of Beijing enclosed 10 nearby communities, the rate of bicycle theft in those communities fell by 91.5 percent, while the overall crime rate fell 85 percent.

“Despite the presence of a security gate, nearly all the families in our residential unit have been victims of theft, including me,” An Yang, a resident of the large, open-plan Zhaohui Community in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, told NewsChina. “I just bought a new apartment here last November, and it was the community’s close vibe and privacy that convinced me to make a down payment.”

Supporters of the policy change, however, believed that questions concerning security could be addressed with more police on the beat and the enhanced use of security guards – already a visible feature of urban life. “If a community is opened, the property management personnel [in that community] should shift their focus onto keeping the peace and maintaining order,” Chen Xi, a resident in Yuejiyuan, an open community in Beijing, told NewsChina. “Taking down the walls does not mean removing the guards.”

According to Chen, a more significant reason behind the loud opposition to the government’s proposal is that many people are not willing to share their communal amenities and green spaces. “If Guanchengyuan Community [a high-end gated community beside Yuejiyuan] opened up, for example, all the people in the neighborhood – like me – would have access to their garden, their swimming pool, their exercise equipment. The homeowners might view that as a violation of their rights and interests,” Chen said. “But I think, in the government’s eyes, it is good to have more people share public facilities and encourage broader communication.”

Chen’s view of the government’s motivations would appear to have some validity. In an interview with Caijing, a Beijing-based financial magazine, Li Tie, the urban construction director of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, claimed that the government intends to focus more on “land” planning, not merely “roads.” “Compared to large plots of land, a smaller plot is easier for the service industry to enter into and thrive… The final objective of land [planning] is to satisfy the demands [of residents living] on it,” he said.

Law

However, before any walls can be demolished, one major obstacle to the State Council guideline remains – China’s Real Right Law, the country’s top property rights statute. “Why should I share the facilities [in my community] with outsiders?” said Gao Rui, of Beijing’s Chaoyang District. “They did not pay for them. I did.”

Gao’s opinion reflects the sentiments of homeowners opposing the new policy. Although supporters argue that all facilities would have to be shared by all communities should enclosure end, the law does not favor that outcome.

“Except for the roads that are clearly for public use, paths, facilities and buildings within a community’s boundaries should belong to all homeowners in that community,” Lu Junxiang, a lawyer from Beijing Crown & Rights Law Firm, told NewsChina. “These people have no obligation to open [their facilities] to the public.”

“Based on the Real Right Law, an enclosed community that has already been built should not be opened up without the approval of a majority of residents,” he continued. “Even then, the government should pay proper compensation to the homeowners.”

Even communities owned by government departments or SOEs are not that easy to open up, even with the blessing of the body in charge. Local residents in such communities, according to Lu, should also be compensated for the potential additional noise and pollution that would accompany such a change.

“It is convenient to live in a large open community, given the retail facilities they have,” said Chen Xi of Beijing’s Yuejiyuan Community. “But the apartments in our community are cheaper than those in the nearby enclosed communities due to more noise and a poorer living environment. I think these issues are harder nuts to crack than the safety problem.”

Following the State Council’s announcement, many people have criticized the government for “making unpredictable policy changes.” “I don’t understand why the government suddenly wants to open up communities. You know, just before and during the [2008] Olympics, the government called for enclosing more communities for better security and environmental conditions,” one netizen posted on Tencent’s news website, view.news.qq.com.

Enclosed communities proved a hot topic at China’s Two Sessions this year, with many attendees appealing for the government to carry out a detailed investigation before implementing the new policy.

In fact, as early as February 24, two days after the State Council guideline was issued, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development published a statement asking the public “not to misunderstand the State Council’s document.” The statement read: “It is merely a general guideline. We will implement the new policy gradually and tailor it to different regions. Opening communities is not a simple matter of breaking down walls.”

Almost simultaneously, Cheng Xinwen, presiding justice of the Supreme People’s Court, pledged that the judiciary would “coordinate with relevant departments to prevent any violation of laws.” Yet, despite reassurances from the central government, many people have taken the announcement badly, worrying about a resurgence of the forced demolitions that caused much ill will during China’s era of breakneck development.

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