China Plans to Tear Down Walls of Gated Condos and Let Public In

  • Drive for compact cities to boost growth and curb pollution
  • As many as 90 percent of city-dwellers are in walled compounds

Goodbye to Gates: China Plans to Tear Down Walls

For years, Ji Ping has put up with Beijing’s smog, traffic and high prices, but this could be the last straw. A government plan threatens to pull down the walls of her gated community and maybe even drive a public road through its manicured gardens.

"There are already so many things I’m not happy about here," says Ji, 48, whose 21-year-old daughter studies in the U.S. "The environment, the smog. Many of my friends have left already. Now I’m thinking about leaving too."

Her apartment is in Greenlake Place, a condo spread over an area almost twice the size of Yankee Stadium. It’s typical of the colossal residential projects that China built in their millions during the property-boom years -- a vast walled tract of gardens and lakes, studded with giant tower blocks and patrolled by private security. The government now views these oases as a waste of space, contributing to urban sprawl, traffic congestion and air pollution.

A new urbanization blueprint announced in February aims to open up the compounds and punch streets through their peaceful gardens, increasing the urban density to reduce commuting distances and help accommodate the millions of people moving to the nation’s cities every year. 

With as many as 80 to 90 percent of city-dwellers’ homes in these types of compounds, the stage is set for a major face-off between President Xi Jinping’s government and the middle-class homeowners who paid premium prices for their privacy.

"Get the popcorn, this is going to get interesting," said Carl Minzner, a professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York, who specializes in Chinese law and governance. "If Xi Jinping wanted to pick an issue that would intensely irritate the vested urban middle class, and at the same time resonate deeply with all of those left out by China’s go-go years, he couldn’t pick a better one than this."

Soviet Inspired

Not just the middle class. The Soviet Union-inspired urban planning, with wide multi-lane boulevards poking into the suburbs, lined with compound after compound, is a favorite of China’s local governments who get about a fifth of their revenue from land sales. And powerful vested interests like the People’s Liberation Army and Ministry of Finance have large, gated communities for their employees in Beijing.

A large apartment complex stands in Beijing.
A large apartment complex stands in Beijing.
Photographer: Liu Jin/AFP via Getty Images

As China’s cities grew rapidly, developers built these blocks further and further away from the center, often with few or no amenities like shops and restaurants and schools in the neighborhood. Many residents need a long car journey for almost every activity, from dropping the kids at school to dining out or going to work. The new plan -- which emphasizes densely populated communities, use of public transport and amenities and offices close by -- aims to create more efficient cities with less traffic and exhaust fumes.

Building compact cities in China around mass transit systems could stop as much as 800 million tons of carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere by 2030, according to the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that promotes clean energy. That’s more than the combined emissions of Australia and Italy.

The way things are, traffic congestion and environmental damage could be holding back Beijing’s economic output by as much as 7.5 to 15 percent, according to He Dongquan, vice president of programs in Beijing at the Energy Foundation.

Economic Rebalancing

"Consumption and services-based growth in China is going to be led by cities," said Karlis Smits, an economist with the World Bank in Beijing. "If you don’t get cities right, you undermine China’s next economic rebalancing."

With 100 million more people set to move to China’s metropolises by 2020, the government has little time to find a solution.

Opening gated communities will help cities prosper with the number of people in areas increasing and small businesses like restaurants and convenience stores thriving, said Li Tie, head of the China Center for Urban Development at the National Development and Reform Commission, the nation’s chief planning agency.

Traffic Problem

Gated blocks forced all the traffic onto arterial roads that become clogged with traffic, said Li, who advised during the drafting of the State Council document. The north part of Beijing has an average of 14 street intersections per square kilometer compared with 211 in Ginza in Tokyo and 133 in Paris, according to a 2013 study cited by the World Bank. 

"We’re all very excited about this document," said the Energy Foundation’s He. "It has detail that goes beyond our expectations and that is unusual in high-level documents in China. So it seems to us they want to implement it."

Average population density in China’s cities has actually dropped by more than 25 percent in the last decade, according to some estimates, the World Bank said in its 2014 urbanization report. If Guangzhou in the southern province of Guangdong had the same population density as Seoul in South Korea it could accommodate 4.2 million more residents, while Shenzhen could fit another 5.3 million, the bank said.

Residents Skeptical

Residents at Greenlake Place are unconvinced. Nobody living in gated communities will agree to them being opened, said Gong Yoyo, 34, taking a walk in the compound on a sunny spring afternoon.

"It’s impossible to implement this plan," said Gong, who worries it wouldn’t be safe for her 7-year-old daughter to play in the garden if the compound was opened to outsiders. She said it’s not true that she has to drive everywhere because she can get restaurants and shops to deliver via the Internet.

"It’s very, very hard for the general public to understand," said Lu Ming, director of the Center for China Development Studies at Shanghai Jiaotong University. "Why is a wide road bad for congestion? Ninety percent of people don’t understand this, including government officials."

After the urbanization plan triggered a storm of complaints from middle-class residents on social media platforms like Weibo, the government softened its tone, emphasizing that implementation would be gradual and that residents’ legal rights would be respected.

Rule of Law

"The major problem is that we cannot restrict the excessive use of government power, and that could put our freedom of expression and personal and property safety under threat," said Han Dayuan, dean of Renmin University of China Law School. "People get worried and fear everything if they think the law could not protect them."

China’s legal system remains subservient to the Communist Party, giving its bosses the power to enforce policies as it sees fit, leaving ordinary folks with little protection.

China has already seen many protests over land clearances, said Austin Williams, an associate professor of architecture in Suzhou at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. "There could be a lot more of that," he said. "The grand plans of the Chinese state might be scuppered on the basis of the social reality that they are dealing with."

For Ji, walking in the gardens of Greenlake, there are more fundamental concerns.

"If we open these compounds, lower-quality people would come in and steal the flowers and throw garbage all over the place," she said. "And if cars come through the garden they’ll be honking their horns all the time. It will totally disturb the peace."

— With assistance by Kevin Hamlin

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