China Power

China’s Huddled Masses

Fears of rising crime among migrant workers have prompted the use of gated communities.

‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

Every American, and probably many other nationals, are familiar with the words of ‘The New Colossus’, a sonnet adorning one of the inner walls of the Statue of Liberty and which has for more than a century inspired immigrants seeking a better life.

But what if a place that has been sought out by huddled masses seeking a better life decides, well, that they can’t leave once they’ve arrived? It’s a problem facing many migrants in China who have found themselves trapped in gated communities.

For, while many Western governments grapple with their publics’ fears of crime and social strains (some US states with Mexicans and France with North Africans are just a couple that spring to mind), many Chinese worry about a supposed rising tide of violence and robbery that they believe accompanies migrating labourers.

According to a report in the Globe and Mail, gated villages that have traditionally been seen as signs of affluence are now little more than prisons, with residents sealed in at night by uniformed guards.

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The report notes that there are 16 such villages around Beijing which are, contrary to the official line, upsetting locals who say the restrictions on their movements are disrupting their work:

‘Some residents protested against the installation of the gates at Shoubaozhuang after they went up two months ago, arguing that the curfews made it difficult for them to reach their jobs—sometimes a 2.5-hour bus ride away on the other side of Beijing—and get home again before lockdown. The authorities responded by pushing back the night time curfew by half an hour, but many here are still bitter about the restrictions, complaining the gates often open later and close earlier than they’re supposed to.’

Ask residents of nearly any urban area in the world if crime is rising and they’ll say yes, regardless of whether it really is (try asking many Japanese—despite their already extraordinarily low crime rate continuing to fall).

So is it in Beijing? Actually, according to Chinese officials crime is rising rapidly across much of the country, particularly in urban areas. Some blame the global economic downturn for the uptick in property crimes and ‘crimes disrupting the market economic order’. But whatever the reason, China Daily reported earlier this year that: ‘Criminal prosecutions increased by more than 10 percent in 2009, and public security cases increased by about 20 percent.’

The Globe and Mail notes the irony of the fact that it is these same migrant labourers that built many luxury gated communities but who now find themselves locked into communities where:

‘(U)nwatched young children play on a dirt road strewn with uncollected garbage while their parents work in the city during the day. The stench of fetid public toilets fills the air and bicycles vastly outnumber cars.’