The urban history that makes China’s coronavirus lockdown possible

Hankou Railway Station, Wuhan, on 22 January 2020. Image: Getty.

Hundreds of millions of people in cities in China have been affected by measures to contain the novel coronavirus. It has been reported that people have been asked to provide information such as their temperature via mobile phone, and that in some neighbourhoods only one member of a family is allowed out every few days to buy food. Visitors from outside residential complexes have been forbidden from entering, and public gatherings have been cancelled.

Although some of the monitoring of people’s health and movement has been done using mobile phone apps, much of it relies on hundreds of thousands of volunteers. They stand guard at the gates of residential complexes, enforce quarantines and conduct temperature checks.

A recent World Health Organization report praised the efforts of the Chinese government and its people in limiting the spread of the virus. The report noted the importance of community participation in the decision to lock down the cities. However, the mobilisation of the volunteers who guard buildings and conduct temperature checks relies on a system of governance built on China’s urban history. This means similar measures may not work elsewhere.

Local volunteers

Chinese urban governance – and the current coronavirus lockdown – is overseen by local residents’ committees. These have their origins in the 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established control over cities. Urban districts were sub-divided into residents’ committees, made up of several hundred households, and residents’ small groups, composed of fewer still. They were staffed by CCP officials and local volunteers, and were responsible for keeping order, putting up propaganda posters, and running political campaigns.

The committees gained greater importance during China’s period of economic reform, which began in 1978. Private sector growth meant the number of people employed in work units – state-owned organisations which provided housing, schooling and social activities – declined. The work units’ responsibilities shifted to the residents’ committees. Today, the committees have control over unemployment and pensions payments, public health and the local environment. They arbitrate in domestic disputes, promote cultural activities, and help people find work.

Since the late 1990s, it has become more common for two or three residents’ committees to be amalgamated into a larger community, known as a shequ. These can comprise as many as 16,000 people from diverse social backgrounds and include organisations such as companies and schools from the local area. Within the shequ, a neighbourhood delegate assembly elects the members of the residents’ committees, who are often women. The CCP retains control by having party secretaries elected or appointed. Local urban governance is, at least in part, the responsibility of people in the communities themselves.

This evolution of Chinese urban governance gives the CCP the ability to monitor cities closely, especially when it is combined with modern hi-tech surveillance systems. This has certainly resulted in draconian measures to control the urban population in recent weeks.

However, while the Chinese government is certainly capable of repression, to see residents’ committees as simply the arms of an authoritarian state bent on total control is too simplistic.


A shared experience

Many of the staff of these committees are drawn from the local community. This means that for many Chinese, the inconveniences of the lockdown, such as guards outside residential complexes and temperature checks, do not necessarily feel like something that has been imposed on them. Instead, they are a shared experience that can bring people together, as shouts of support from tower block to tower block in Wuhan show.

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, other countries must be careful about looking to China for examples of how to manage it. Cities in other countries do not have a political culture that would allow them to replicate what China has done, or the same governance structures. The Chinese model of urban development in the 20th century is not entirely unique, since it derives some of its inspiration from the USSR, but it has certainly diverged from the West.

Instead, if locking down urban populations is proven to be the most effective way of containing the virus, officials must look at the tools they have in their governance armouries.

This includes the police and other emergency services, but also charities and community groups. They often already work closely with city government, and are able to mobilise their members to take action. This could include checking up on vulnerable residents or helping to deliver food supplies to families who might be under quarantine. The coming weeks will test the resilience of our cities and our communities.

The Conversation

Toby Lincoln, Lecturer, Chinese urban history, University of Leicester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.