Hepingli Neighbourhood Committee (Photo credit Flickr – Ming Xia)
What follows will be obvious to anyone who has lived in Beijing. The vast majority of the Chinese capital’s 17 million residents, regardless of whether they live in plush villas near the airport or in small apartments outside the fifth ring, all live in what are known as “communities” – walled compounds within an entrance in and an exit out, both of which are guarded around the clock, and over which watch is kept by Neighbourhood Committees, first established in 1954. This kind of urban planning, which is less rigorous in other Chinese cities such as Dalian, has one purpose in mind: control.
At least since May 4th 1919, when students and intellectuals led a march to the Legation Quarter in Beijing protesting against the Treaty of Versailles, the Beijing government has had a problematic relationship with the residents of their city. These difficulties continued under the KMT government, but it was only when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 that the governors of Beijing had the means and the opportunity to reconstruct their city in a way that would better enable them to control the population that they were responsible for. Devastated after 12 years of war, Beijing was ripe for rebuilding. All residential accommodation built since 1949 has been built on the model of the community (known in Chinese as Shequ). With their guarded entrances in and out, there is a facility in place to monitor the movements of citizens but also to control their movements – close the gates, shut the doors, and there is little way for residents to leave the compounds in which they live.
While the picture painted thus far may seem rather austere, the full capability of the community system has not been used to full effect on many occasions. In fact, the only time that residents were shut into their compounds was on June 4 1989, the day of the Tiananmen Square Incident. More frequently, the community system proves to be a useful tool in day-to-day administration. It makes it very easy for censuses to be undertaken and postal addresses to be located, among other mundane tasks for the municipal government. Critically, the Neighbourhood Committees provide a channel for policy originating from national and municipal levels to be implemented at the lowest rung of the Chinese state’s organisation ladder. While the day-to-day political uses of the Community system are mundane, it is an institution which has been successful in controlling and keeping track of the residents of Beijing.
Why has the Beijing government been so successful in implementing this system? Even over the last 20 years, huge swaths of the alleys and courtyards have been demolished to make way for the ubiquitous high-rise apartment blocks. Known respectively as hutong and siheyuan, the old alleys and courtyards that remain have a warrennous feel and often lack proper plumbing. In a city that is growing at the rate of Beijing, this style of residential accommodation represents a wasteful use of space and, beyond this, presents a number of challenges to the municipal government. Firstly, due to the lack of proper plumbing and the density of accommodation, maintaining public health can prove difficult, while the density and lack of road access mean that keeping accurate records of residential registrations can prove problematic. Thus, there has been a mandate for the municipal government, despite the wishes of expatriate “hutong hipsters”, to do away with hutong system. This has been a successful undertaking, as there are very few left in Beijing, especially outside the Second Ring Road. Many former residents gladly took government compensation and government-provided accommodation in modern apartment blocks further from the centre. Where residents have resisted, they have been removed and modern blocks have gone up anyway. Through a resourceful deployment of both carrot and stick, the Beijing government has been successful in establishing a residential system that makes urban management relatively easy.
The compound system has not only been applied to residential buildings. Across China, universities and schools have also been established on the basis of this model. At Peking University, in northwestern Beijing, every exit can be sealed and is guarded around the clock. This has been interpreted by others before as a response to the problems of student uprisings that have occurred in China at least as early as 1919 and most recently in 1989. In 1919, students marched from the old campus of Peking University, then known as Yenching University, to protest at the Legation Quarter, formerly home to many embassies. In 1989, there was no mass march, and that can be credited to the predominant design of university campuses that continues to this day.
While the compound system does play significant restrictions upon the freedoms of those who live within it, there are benefits. Large cities can often be lonely places, but the organisation of compounds around a central green space and with noticeboards, shops and so on, compounds compress the city to become a more community-orientated space. Elderly men spend the weekends sat around playing cards, a sight that is far more difficult to imagine seeing on a residential street in a city such as London or New York. There is a reasonable argument to be made that the compound system is unnecessarily restrictive, but its name in Chinese, shequ, which translates into English as “community”, is not at all a misnomer.