Beijing's maddening traffic jams have many causes typical of a developing country's capital; a sudden surge in the number of vehicles, poor road signs, official motorcades, and the like. Adding to the list in Beijing are the ubiquitous 'big compounds', which block through traffic and force people to make detours.
Mayor Wang Qishan, who regards congestion as his biggest challenge, has acknowledged that they are one source of the problem.
The Forbidden City is the prototype big compound, combining government offices and the residence of the imperial household in one walled area. The modern version is the self-sufficient community, dating back to the days of the planned economy. Inside tall walls and guarded gates are rows of squat concrete buildings separated by tree-lined roads. For compounds housing important civil and military bureaucracies, a flag pole and marching ground are de rigueur.
In their heyday, the big compounds conferred an identity and bred a special culture of hierarchy at a time when the proletariat egalitarianism was the official ideology. Because their parents were government functionaries or connected to the armed forces, children growing up there were conscious of their superiority over people living in the narrow lanes outside the walls. A woman was said to have 'married up' when she moved into her husband's place in a big compound.
The city had some 25,000 compounds of varying sizes in the early 1980s, when China began to open up. Lured by business opportunities, many big compounds tore down their walls and built street-front shops to rent. There was an exhilarating sense of expanding personal space and a corresponding retreat in authoritarianism. Young people sought identification not from their elders, but from pop heroes.
But as bastions of power and exclusivity, many big compounds were impervious to change. Citing reasons of security, protection of state secrets, the need for tranquility, and so on, sponsors of the areas - especially those connected with the military - baulked at running public roads through them. Short of appealing to the Central Military Commission, the city hall, like motorists, made careful detours around the forbidden zones.
In recent years, new big compounds have begun sprouting up in some of the most congested areas. Near the South China Morning Post's Beijing bureau the new CCTV headquarters is under construction, forming a massive city block. The traffic, already horrendous in the central business district, will get worse. After 25 years of reform and opening up, the newly rich yearn for the prestige of the old big compound. Some of the new housing estates surrounded by tall walls, complete with 24-hour security guards, are unabashedly called manors. They, too, have ways of keeping public roads from cutting through their gated communities. Today, a woman has 'married up' when she moves to one of the flats in such a compound.
Like his predecessors, the politically savvy Mr Wang knows that big compounds are here to stay.