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Chinese Migrant Workers Walled Off From Society

A group of Chinese children, whose migrant parents are unable to afford the kindergarten or pre-school education in China's capital, gather with volunteers in Beijing, 7 July 2010
A group of Chinese children, whose migrant parents are unable to afford the kindergarten or pre-school education in China's capital, gather with volunteers in Beijing, 7 July 2010

Struggling to keep a swelling urban population in check, Beijing authorities believe they have a solution: walled communities. It's a new strategy to safeguard communities affected by overcrowding and rising crimes rates.

The eagle-eyed security guards manning the entrance of the Dashengzhuang neighborhood in south Beijing do not miss a trick. They stop and quiz anyone trying to enter the walled community. "Who are you? Where are you from?" they ask. "You do not belong here. You must leave," they order.

Urban planners in the Chinese capital believe segregation might be the answer to the swelling population of millions of migrant workers flooding into the city from the countryside. Officials say a drive to prevent crimes, including murders, littering and other anti-social behavior, are behind a pilot program for the manned barricades springing up around local communities to keep undesirables out.

Security Tightens as Population Swells

The real reason for the increased security, however, may well be overcrowding. Urban planners believe Beijing's population must be kept at 18 million people to ensure there are enough precious resources, like water. The current official population is 17.55 million.

Unless migration is strictly controlled, researchers estimate the population could surpass 21 million - perhaps reaching 25 million. So the government is running several community management schemes on the outskirts of the capital.

Dashengzhaun community is one of the first working-class suburban neighborhoods in Beijing to erect a tight security curtain. Residents must present detailed ID cards to guards at the steel gate. CCTV cameras monitor the movements of those coming and going.

Li Wujiang is the village chief of Dashengzhaun, and he said since the community was sealed off and secured, the crime rate has dropped and the environment has improved. Before migrants workers were forcibly kept out, Li said the population was overflowing, causing danger, chaos and a high crime rate.

Now residents are carefully vetted before they enter. Those who want to come and live here must possess correct paper work and undergo stringent security checks.

Improved Conditions

Li said the 3,000 registered residents, who pay on average $21 a month (U.S.) for rent, live in a pleasant environment. A reporter's observation bears this out. Dashengzhaun is a quiet, orderly and friendly - if poor - community of single story buildings.

Old and young sit on steps outside of their homes and small shops. The lanes have little traffic - a novelty in grid-locked Beijing. Colorful plants have been planted around the base of trees that provide shade from the summer sun. Policemen from the resident police station say hello and chat to residents as they patrol on foot. Children play safely under the gaze of grandparents who sit and chat on the trash-free sidewalk. Red propaganda banners call on the residents to create a "harmonious society" - the mantra of the Communist Party.

Non-residents visiting friends or doing business are allowed to enter, as long as they can provide ID that gives their name, sex, ethnic background, hometown, occupation, identity card number and mobile phone number. Those who cannot show such details are refused entry. The gates are locked between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. In the security hut, a bank of TV screens with live pictures from security cameras are monitored, around the clock.

Yang Guimei, 58, has lived in the community for 30 years. She says before the gates and security guards, the overcrowded streets were dangerous because of the number of unknown migrants walking freely around the neighborhood.

Yang says the residents go to the village chief if they have issues or want something changed. She says, if she or anyone has a room to rent, they go to the chief and he then finds a suitable tenant from the migrant population outside of the gates.

Government Control

Secure living areas are common in China but they are usually up-market private residential complexes. What makes places like Dashengzhaun unique is they are sanctioned and paid for by the government and part of a social experiment.

It is not the first time migrants workers been locked out of the capital. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, the 2008 Olympics and last year's 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, millions of migrant workers were prevented from entering the capital or ordered out.

Dashengzhaun is one of 16 experimental walled communities. Many of the residents are first generation migrant workers who came to help build modern Beijing and now call it home. They strongly back the scheme to tightly control who comes and lives among them. Yang says the residents asked the officials to make the community secure.

Beijing Communist Party Secretary Liu Qi recently visited the neighborhoods and praised what he said were carefully managed communities. He told a seminar on urban planning the communities are having a positive effect and the schemes could be implemented citywide. Other large cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, are also planning similar programs.

Critics Decry Social Exclusion, Bigger Problems

But not all is rosy in this urban paradise. Many analysts claim the secure communities are creating a form of apartheid. Some describe the program as draconian, even medieval. They argue that migrants workers are being discriminated against. Others claim the communities - with their banks of CCTV cameras and security squads - are like prisons.

Control is certainly paramount. We were followed by nine security personnel from the local government and police station and photographed and filmed throughout our visit.

Børge Bakken, an associate professor from the department of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, says such programs do not offer a solution to the management the 250 million people on the move in search of better lives in 21st century China. He says such secure communities create segregation and foster resentment.

"Such schemes are not fit for a modern society," said Bakken. "It does not deal with the big problem of social exclusion, which actually produces crime. This is a little band-aid on an enormous wound that has to do with social exclusion. It won't help."

What do those who are forbidden to enter these model communities think of the program? Migrant workers Mr. Jiang and Mr. Xu say they accept discrimination on a daily basis and the walled communities come as no surprise. Mr. Jiang says conditions are bad on the wrong side of the steel gates in the southern suburbs. He says Beijing people do not have a good attitude towards migrants. He says migrant workers, like him, try and speak to locals, but they do not listen. He says they are just ignored.