Q&A on segregation in China’s privatised cities

Researcher Luigi Tomba talks about how China's cities have turned to gated communities to keep their residents in check

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2014, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2014, 4:23pm

Large-scale gated communities dominate the landscape of Chinese cities, sprawling into suburbs and around commercial centres. They often bring together tens of thousands of people of similar levels of wealth and education, who live in anonymity in near identical apartments.

In his new book The Government Next Door, Luigi Tomba, a senior fellow Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University in Canberra, examines how such gated compounds have been used by China’s city governments to segregate and manage their ballooning population and how a real estate downturn could exacerbate simmering social tensions.

How has urban planning changed civil society in China’s cities?

There are several levels in which housing reforms and the real estate boom have impacted Chinese society: The role of cities has changed dramatically, especially after 1978 and even more rapidly from the late 80s and during the 1990s.

We’ve moved away from socialist cities that needed to be places of production to create cities that are places of consumption. That is also part of the rebalancing of the economy and housing was clearly one item of consumption. There is also a question of public revenue generated from real estate development. Then, there is the question of finding new forms of governing society at a time when people have amassed private wealth and property and urban citizens are no longer managed by the socialist work-units.

Can more autonomy and individualism develop in these vast monotonous housing complexes?

There are significant differences in how these communities are governed depending on whether they are wealthy residential estates or old housing compounds for the ailing working class. While there is an increase in the apparent autonomy among homeowners in the big residential communities, the state is still very much in control in poorer communities and tries to maintain a certain level of visibility.

There is a certain level of autonomy but this remains limited to within the gates of the communities. The homeowner associations might be able to change management contracts, but anytime we’ve seen attempts by homeowners across cities to claim a much bigger level of autonomy, we have also seen the government reacting very strongly.

Why have local governments passed some of their duties to private companies in these compounds?

There could be a discussion whether there is a privatisation of governance or not, but certainly there are functions generally performed by neighbourhood committees that are now in the hands of the private management companies that sometimes sign contracts with the local government to perform some services for them.

One example in my book is birth control, the one-child policy. The task of controlling resident’s adherence to the one-child policy is in certain cases subcontracted to a management company. You can imagine what the consequences are. The companies have no experience in doing that and certainly have no interest in it. In recent years a generalised social critique has emerged related to the fact that that when you live in very wealthy communities you will have a much greater chance to get away with having more children than you’re supposed to have.

The new situation with private managers in charge has often led to conflicts, generally between homeowners and the management company or homeowners and the real estate developer. These disputes can sometimes get very intense and even violent although inside these communities social order is maintained by private guards, and it is rare to see the police intervene inside the communities.

Is this form of governance working? Is it being challenged?

Real estate developers need the support of the local government which decides on the price and location of the land and the type of buildings to be built on it. However, the connection between the developers, sometimes owned by the state, and the city government is complex. Developers find themselves in a situation where on the one side they need to conform to and enforce the government’s policy needs, but on the other side they need to attract homeowners and provide them with management services and cater for their desire for autonomous and private lifestyles. In this attempt to please homeowners, developers become exposed to the difficulties of meeting their residents’ increasing expectations and face their complaints about skyrocketing management fees.

Have these compounds replaced old communities and created new ones?

If I wanted to make one generalisation, then I’d say the first consequence of creating these privately-managed gated compounds is alienation. Some may like it because they enjoy new privacy, others may not. One thing that normally changes this alienation is the emergence of a collective dispute that has the potential to unite the community. At times of conflicts, you’ll see a much greater amount of interaction within the communities. Almost all the compounds I visited had such conflicts.

What these gated compounds do is to isolate communities from one another. These very large gated communities also symbolise a much clearer spatial and social segregation that characterises all Chinese cities.

Was this segregation of classes a failure or a purpose of urban planning?

It’s very hard to find a smoking gun, to be able to say this was an intentional way of planning cities. It is, for example, a consequence of the government maintaining ownership of the land and regulating land use. Spatial segregation is a useful tool for the government. Places where migrants or poorer clusters of population will require more direct control or intervention while wealthier communities may need less government. Middle classes are deemed more reliable and able to administer themselves, at their own cost, and based on the principle of “self government” [zizhi] that is at the centre of China’s new urban governance.

Could this segregation not spur further discontent?

The result of decades of housing boom is a much more privatised city but also a much more segregated city. The government has rushed to provide some housing to migrant workers – who are becoming more and more central to urban economies – and to the less well off. Outsiders live on the fringes and in concentrated places where the value of the land is not as important for the local government.

The fact that you can acquire urban hukou [household registration] if you own property creates a connection between owning property and your actual citizenship, the rights you enjoy in cities. As much as we have seen the middle class rising, we have also seen the traditional working class declining and those are a new group of urban poor that are often forgotten by mainstream narratives but are on the radar of the local governments. Community governance has been revamped very much to control such pockets of distressed population.

Can city governments ultimately be blamed for segregation?

The potential for all this to backfire is gigantic. The number of social conflicts has increased as gated compounds spread throughout China. In large cities like Beijing conflicts have also spilled out beyond compound gates. The second risk is in the fact that people are becoming attached to these compounds, not in the traditional idea of having affection for their community, but because they have attached large amounts of their savings and sometimes their families’ savings to buy these apartments. A real estate crisis or a change in, say, tax policy could spark very strong reactions among these new, very large homogenous groups.

But so far, even though there have been so many conflicts, these conflicts have been limited to small groups of homeowners blaming developers and estate management. Only in very rare cases, they have blamed governmental policies or questioned its legitimacy.

Do you see changes coming to urban planning in China?

The real challenge is at least partly structural. In a situation in which all urban land is owned by the city governments, it is very hard for Chinese planners to renounce planning. If they wanted to open the market to other forms of housing, they would need to release smaller plots of land, and fight the domination of increasingly large real-estate operators. I don’t see that happening in the current situation.

Local governments prefer big investments and large projects. They base their own budgets on the appreciation of land value, it’s very hard to move away from that. But this is a different discussion, very much connected to the issue of the reform of land entitlements.