Gate crashing

Private housing enclaves may soon be a thing of the past in Chinese cities

cbd gate

Before: CDB’s entrance prior to its imperial-style gate being torn down

In 1958, inspired by the designs of the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong decreed that Chinese rural folk should adopt a communal mode of living: production brigades were housed together in large compounds, where they shared food, furniture, space and labour.

These so-called people’s communes were eventually phased out but there must have been something endearing about their aesthetics. Indeed, as Caijing magazine observes, when China privatised the urban property market in 1998, residential enclaves bordered by high walls remained the vogue, albeit now described as “gated communities” rather than communes.

But there is, of course, a conceptual difference: people’s communes were designed to aid co-habitation; gated communities are instead intended to offer security and exclusivity.

For this reason, a recent decision of the Party’s Central Urban Work Conference has caused much consternation amongst homeowners. The body – which was convened for the first time in nearly 40 years and released its findings late last month – wants to provide the public with right of way through the many private residential compounds in Chinese cities.

The directive included the following line: “No more enclosed residential compounds will be built in principle [and] existing residential and corporate compounds will gradually open up so the interior roads can be put into public use.”

It was just one of the many instructions tucked away in the conference document (the Party has also ordered local governments to build no more “weird” buildings), but the proposal quickly prompted national debate. Many local news outlets have supported the plan (a leaked editorial directive emerged online and suggested that the government told domestic media to avoid criticising the initiative) arguing the virtues of gated communities are often exaggerated.

Caijing reports: “Not only do the walls of gated communities not allow their residents to directly face the street, but for stretches of 200 or even 300 metres, the walls might only provide one or two security gates.” The suggestion being that gated communities are hindering their occupants more than they are serving them.

The primary reason given for razing walls and raising gates is that it will alleviate traffic congestion, by converting the private roads that run through some of the compounds into public rights of way. A professor with Peking University told Caijing that in an optimal metropolis there would be 120 intersections every square-kilometre: in New York this is the case, but in Beijing the number is only 14, and the figure is no more than 20 in many other Chinese cities. Hence residential compounds have been highlighted as one of the key obstructions preventing roads from meeting.

Interestingly, state media has argued that the abolition of fenced communities and the subsequent influx of intersections will not only improve traffic flow but also enhance social intercourse. This notion of improved sociability appears to be aimed at countering widely-shared concerns that opening gates will reduce residents’ security. The People’s Daily addresses this concern directly, asserting: “Implementing a system of roads and blocks certainly isn’t a scourge threatening the peace and stability of a community – demolishing walls will help strengthen the vitality of a community.”

But the public appears to take a different view. An online poll conducted by Sina found that of over 30,000 users who voted, 76% opposed the proposal to demolish the walls, with 89% of the total claiming they would demand compensation if it came to pass.

The idea of demanding recompense raises the pertinent question of whether the government has the right to simply nationalise a private compound’s roads. The South China Morning Post reports that many believe the proposal violates the Property Law, which was enacted in 2007 and states that “roads within a building zone shall be jointly owned by all owners, with the exception of the public roads belonging to a city or township”.

According to Wang Hongliang, professor in law at Tsinghua University, the roads can only be expropriated as long as owners are “properly compensated”.

(In China all land technically belongs to the state, but in cities can then be leased to “owners” for a maximum period of 70 years.)

One Dalian-based lawyer says that because homebuyers paid “land-transfer fees” to the government when purchasing the flats, the government has no right to nationalise the roads, Global Times reports. Seeking to smooth over concerns that the policy will infringe the public’s rights, the Supreme People’s Court has promised that it will “make timely study and judgement on the impact, coordination and protection of the rights of the relevant parties”.

The proposal to open the gates has not yet been adopted into law, but if it is, the responsibility for its fair implementation will fall upon regional governments.

But as the directive states, it is not just private housing enclaves that will be subject to the new opening-up, but corporate property too. Domestic media claims that eventually the plan will extend to government compounds – which tend to occupy much larger and more central spaces.

Last month Beijing found its first corporate guinea pig for the new policy, although this particular gate wasn’t blocking anyone’s access. The infrastructure in question was an imperial-style edifice that stood outside the headquarters of the China Development Bank (CDB), on Chang’an Avenue in the Chinese capital.

The arched gate, supported by red pillars set in a marble base and topped with the iconography traditionally reserved for an emperor, was a flashy showpiece for the offices behind it, which were built in 2012 at a cost of Rmb1.39 billion ($214 million) at the height of the policy bank’s power.

The Financial Times reports that the Party’s discipline watchdog presented a damning report to CDB a couple of weeks ago, and highlighted problems such as “official extravagance”. One immediate result: a few days later the grandiose gate was bulldozed.

The official reason for uprooting the imperial arch – at least the one given after its removal – was to “keep in line with the scenery and lighting requirements of Chang’an Avenue”. But one worker who helped to tear it down told the FT that a “big boss thought the gate was too conspicuous”.

That suggests a political motive and another move by President Xi’s regime to clip the wings of a former rival. The arch was one legacy of the CDB’s former princeling boss, Chen Yuan (see WiC189), who stepped down not long after Xi took power. Chen had built CDB into a powerful fiefdom thanks to his ability to use the policy bank to make cheap loans. Since his departure its profile has been markedly lower.

Obviously, CDB’s costly imperial arch had little to do with its role as a development bank. So perhaps its demolition was to make an Ozymandian statement about Chen’s decade and a half at the helm…

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