Chinese gated communities feature social clustering, micro-governing, and social engineering

In The Government Next Door (2015), Luigi Tomba describes five “rationalities” whereby the Chinese state has maintained control over local neighbourhoods during the transition from socialism to capitalism, namely:

  • Social clustering
  • micro-governing
  • social engineering
  • contained contention, and
  • exemplarism

Homogeneity of collective interests

In Chapter 1 of the above-noted, exquisitely well-organized study, Luigi Tomba notes that “Communities are places where the presence, rhetoric, and activity of the government meet individual and collective interests, where collective interests are more or less homogeneous.”

That is to say, the above-noted five rationalities are “translated into the practices of the neighborhood.” Each chapter in The Government Next Door (2015) focuses on a different rationality.

1. Social clustering

In Chapter 2, Luigi Tomba notes that in different types of neighbourhoods, residents are “differently exposed to techniques of government.”

In gentrified residential areas, for example, “residents enjoy a significant (albeit spatially limited) autonomy to govern themselves and successfully avoid the direct control of public neighborhood organizations.”

On the other hand, in socially troubled neighbourhoods, “the presence and visibility of the state has often increased after the reform and rapid urbanization of the last decade.”

2. Micro-governing

Chapter 2 focuses on the formal structures of administration and government in the city of Shenyang, “where industrial decline (and the slow demise of the traditional work-unit system) required an overhaul of neighborhood governance to deliver essential services to a large number of unemployed people through grassroots organization.”

With regard to dealing with gated communities in Shenyang, Tomba suggests that, “while the burden of governing in middle-class neighborhoods is becoming ‘lighter,’ the government of social distress is attracting more resources, ‘heavier’ governing practices, and new challenges at the grassroots level, according to a strategy that I call micro-governing. This trend signals the continuity [in socially troubled neighbourhoods] of paternalistic practices of socialist governance.”

3. Social engineering

Chapter 3, Tomba notes, “introduces the social and cultural engineering behind the two decades-long project of housing privatization and its wide-ranging impact on the redefinition of urban social distinction through extreme forms of residential segregation.”

The chapter notes that a strategy of “selective incentives” has favored some groups over others; that is:

“Individual housing careers and access to material resources therefore still remain affected by one’s position with respect to the system of public employment. Residential settings reflect the structure of access to homeownership created by subsidization policies and is consistent with other policies to ‘make’ a high-consuming cluster of society.”

The chapter also challenges assumptions “generally made about the role that the middle class could play in pushing China toward democratization and reveals how the growth of a property-owning middle class is the result of a process of social engineering.”

4. Contained contention

Chapter 4 investigates “the nature of the growing number of social conflicts taking place in the new neighborhoods and the articulation of collective interests around property rights issues in middle-class residential communities. Through an analysis of their framing mechanisms, I find that they do not carry the potential for societal autonomy that other authors have suggested.”

Tomba also notes that the potential for social autonomy is effectively contained by the gated and walled compounds of the neighbourhoods, which “provide a concrete marker of how broadly certain interests are allowed to coalesce without triggering a reaction by the authoritarian state.”

5. Exemplarism

Chapter 5 investigates “the practical and material consequences of the dominant discourse of a ‘civilized’ middle class on China’s urban governance.”

The chapter also addresses “the significance of the newly emerging neighborhood-based stratification for the overall project of governing Chinese cities” and notes that:

“Urban renewal and the rebranding of traditional urban centers as postindustrial and global metropolises rely heavily on the promotion of ‘middle-class’ exemplarism. The ‘values’ produced through this process are both monetary and political. By targeting the middle class as a potential buyer, the state increases the value of use rights, thus making it more attractive for local governments to redevelop traditional, dilapidated, and industrial areas in the city center to rebrand them as ‘middle class paradises.’ ”

Further reading

As noted at a previous post, my initial reading, regarding gated communities, has prompted me toward viewing writing based upon ethnographic fieldwork as a step ahead of traditional journalism. However, my recent reading has prompted me to see that there is value, as well, in the musings of journalists.

With regard to journalistic accounts, a number of online commentaries  are of interest:

Former Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse reveals right-wing proclivities and much more in Mass Disruption

A ‘New Yorker’ Writer’s Take On China’s ‘Age Of Ambition’

Review: ‘Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China’ by Evan Osnos

The China Syndrome

The latter study speaks highly of the work of the historian Warren Cohen; among the books by the latter author are:

East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World (2000)

Profiles in Humanity:The Battle for Peace, Freedom, Equality, and Human Rights (2009)

The China Fantasy (2007)

The China Syndrome link (above) refers to The China Fantasy (2007) by James Mann. A blurb describes highlights the author’s background as follows:

“James Mann is author in residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet [2004], and two books about China: About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton [1999], and Beijing Jeep [1997]. He was previously a diplomatic correspondent and foreign affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, serving from 1984 to 1987 as Beijing bureau chief.”

An excerpt (pp. 38-39) from his 2007 study reads:

“Those in the United States who favor the promotion of human rights and democracy in China have, in recent years, been subjected to a new label: They are sometimes branded as ‘ideological.’ This is a curious usage, since originally ‘ideology’ meant a comprehensive worldview like Marxism or Nazism, not simply a belief in democratic government or self-determination. Under this new definition, Woodrow Wilson was ‘ideological,’ as were Thomas Jefferson , Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Unfortunately, the cause of promoting democracy has been damaged and tarred as ideological because of the way in which the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters pursued a change of regime in Iraq. Bush settled upon democracy as the principal reason for the Iraq war only after the grounds initially cited for the war (that is, weapons of mass destruction and the supposed links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda) were found to be baseless. The neoconservatives, meanwhile, embraced Wilsonian democratic ideals both before and after the Iraq war but linked these principles so closely to the use of military force and to American unilateralism that the result has been to weaken support for the promotion of democracy elsewhere in the world, such as in China.

“To seek changes in a political system that eradicates all organized opposition is not ‘ideological’ in the original sense; ‘idealistic’ would be a fairer and more accurate word. Yet in America’s current political lexicon, promoting democracy is increasingly mislabeled as ‘ideological.’

“In the current idiom, it is interesting to note what is not branded as ideological when it might well be: an unwavering commitment to free trade. Those who argue that trade will lead inexorably to democracy, or that all other priorities should be subservient to principles of economic efficiency, are every bit as doctrinaire as those who favor democracy. Yet our current usage suggests that somehow the proponents of free trade are by their very nature prudent and sober, while those who favor democratic principles are out of touch with reality. Actually, sometimes the reverse is true.”

[End of excerpt]


A text that reminds a reader, in a vivid way, of topics that are otherwise treated in a manner that is academic and abstract, is featured in a Jan. 22, 2015 Guardian article entitled: “I want you to understand the sense of fear that Chinese people feel every day.”

A Feb. 19, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘The Most Wanted Man in China’ and ‘The Cowshed.’ ”


An April 28, 2016 Walrus article is entitled: “Neighbourhood Watch: How social networks lead to racial profiling. Welcome to Canada’s new virtual gated communities.”

Also of interest: One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment (2016).

A June 2016 Atlantic article is entitled: The Destructive Legacy of Housing Segregation: Less visible than the rise of income inequality in America is its impact in shaping the country’s urban neighborhoods. Two books – by Matthew Desmond and Mitchell Duneier – could help change that.”

A June 2016 Atlantic article is entitled: “China’s Twilight Years: The country’s population is aging and shrinking. That means big consequences for its economy – and America’s global standing.”

A June 15, 2016 Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy article is entitled: “China issues demolition order on world’s largest religious town in Tibet.”

A June 24, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Beijing has fallen: China’s capital sinking by 11cm a year, satellite study warns.”

A Nov. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians banned by China as crisis grows: Beijing makes landmark ruling on future of former British colony, barring two pro-democracy parliamentarians from office.”

A Nov. 12, 2016 Globe and Mail article by Doug Saunders, entitled “Whitewashed,” features an American interview subject who lives in a gated community: “Although her neighbourhood, which is gated and predominantly white, does not see much crime, her family had armed up, accumulating more firearms to protect itself.”

A Dec. 25, 2016 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “TIBET: Behind the looking glass.”

A July 21, 2017 Jamestown Foundation article is entitled: “Beijing Harnesses Big Data & AI to Perfect the Police State.”

Also of interest:

We have a white extremism problem, Doug Saunders argues – Globe and Mail, Nov. 12, 2016

Two studies that provide backstories related to the topics at hand include:

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback Ed. (2001; originally published 1944)

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999)

A Best of 2016 Longreads article, which refers to the concept of “gated communities” in the context of warfare, is entitled: “Theorizing the Drone: What does the rise of the drone mean for justice, for the ethics of heroism, for psychology? Most important of all, who is dying and why?”


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