Aside from criticizing “weird architecture,” the new Chinese urban planning directives issued by the Communist Party and state authorities on Feb. 21 are taking aim at much more ubiquitous and crucial aspect of the Chinese cityscape.
Housing communities currently closed off to motor vehicles will be gradually opened up to make way for a city block system, the directives say.
Inundating Chinese social media such as Sina Weibo are floods of angry responses to the proposed block system. Internet users worry about the safety of allowing traffic in densely-populated areas, as well as increasing air and noise pollution.
According to a survey conducted by Sina Corp., an online Chinese media outlet, over three-quarters of about 8,000 respondents were opposed to the new zoning directives. Over 85 percent agreed that homeowners should be compensated if the communities are opened to traffic.
In an interview with Sina, Xu Xin, a professor of law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, criticized the directive’s objective of dismantling the closed residential system as neither reasonable nor legal.
The system of closed residential areas has its roots in China’s ancient, medieval cities which had no motor traffic, but the idea really took off with the advent of the centrally-planned work units of the communist economic system in the 1950s. Entire communities with shops, schools, and other services were built around factories, institutes, offices, and other facilities.
Even with the shift of the Chinese economy to a market-based system, Soviet-style “big road, closed community” residential areas are a fundamental aspect in the everyday lives of countless Chinese.
Xu said that while he’s not opposed to the construction of new housing in an open traffic format, to do away with pre-existing residential communities that homeowners purchased with their own money is unfair and contradicts Chinese law and the constitution.
As for the directive, Xu Xin thinks it is born of “the long-standing habit of blurring the lines between public and private poverty and the ineffective protection of the latter.”
“Who’s going to be responsible for the safety of seniors and children?” Xu Xin said. “Who’s going be responsible if crime increases? Who’ll be responsible for the noise pollution?” says Xu Xin.
State media like the People’s Daily report that the current “closed estate” setup causes “major problems” for current urban development, as their inaccessibility to traffic leads to congestion on main avenues. Opening up the closed residential spaces would also increase available parking area.
Comments posed to Sina Weibo reflected the broadly negative attitudes of Chinese internet users:
“In the future I will have to think long and hard about whether to let my child play outdoors, and about whether to take a walk at night in the courtyards,” one reads. “Once the community is opened, how can I ensure my own safety?”
Another echoes Professor Xu’s reasoning: “Every inch was bought by unit owners at their own cost. You [the state] already received money for selling ownership of the land in the 1970s, now you think you can just take it back as you want?”
Another comment criticized the Party directive of “copying the United States in a heavy-handed way,” while another expressed resignation: “We’re a communist country, isn’t it simple?”
Another asked the authorities to lead by example.
“Open the government office compounds first.”