Pretty much everyone in Chinese cities live in gated communities. Vast sprawling complexes of multiple buildings with sparse to luxuriant vegetation depending on the cost level. The community I live in has 45 buildings spread over a square kilometer or so with 6 gates closely guarded by an army of ‘bao an’ – security guards.
You literally cannot get in without passing through the keen eye of the guards and if they don’t know you, you are stopped and questioned and forbidden entry until the person that is being visited is contacted and approves entry.
About a year ago every single gated community in Chengdu had the entry barriers replaced on the ‘advice’ of the police and a new number plate recognition barrier was put in place which I am sure is connected to the police computers – although I can never get a straight answer for that from the guards.
Even internally in the complex there are gates between the different sections and each of these internal gates I also guarded by the management’s (wu guan) security guards.
Cars can’t be parked in the car parks without someone watching and directing you. Every 10 minutes the guards walk around the entire perimeter of the complex and scribble in note books at each corner indicating all is well and safe. And every half an hour the guards check the stairwell entry doors to ensure they are still secure.
If the guards don’t know you then you will stand under their polite but firm scrutiny and will be asked to provide your ID card for registration and permission to enter.
On occasion the back room guards show themselves – all wearing riot gear and ready for any trouble that could eventuate – like someone mounting a special forces attack on the residential complex and stealing all the silver.
You might think that it is like living in Stalag 13 and to a foreigner it sure seems a bit over the top. The guards are however friendly and if they know you there is never any problem – the barriers are lifted and the gates opened with a smile and cheery face.
They will receive packages for you, go looking for the dog if he has escaped, help with carrying things, and pass the time of day – they can be a treasure trove of gossip about what’s happening in the complex or the wider neighborhood. There is no heavy hand although they might chase you if you inadvertently scraped someone’s car parking – now who would do such a thing?
The locals would have it no other way. There is a huge amount of fear in the hearts of the local people that strangers will get in and rob them and more importantly disturb their peace of mind and without the elaborate security systems in place no-one would feel comfortable or safe.
When we tried to build a closed pergola on our balcony we ran into a violent manifestation of this fear. The people right above us in the complex went positively nuts. I mean nuts – boiling jugs of water thrown on the workers. Throwing chairs and rocks and rubbish onto the balcony. Yelling and screaming. Calling the police – in a word – nuts.
The ‘wu guan’ management committee were summoned and we were assailed from every side – the argument was that robbers and thieves could climb up over the razor wire fence right beside our place, onto the thin acrylic pergola covering and murder, pillage and torture the poor inhabitants of the upstairs apartment.
The argument went on for hours. Hours and hours. Until finally the management committee rescinded our permission to build the covered pergola and we had to go with Plan B – a canvas, free standing cover.
The whole procedure was repeated with even more venom a few months later when the neighbours tried to do almost exactly the same thing and their upstairs neighbours did exactly the same thing as ours had and it did not settle down until there was a squad of policemen brought in to sort the situation out.
Fear of robbery is so deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche that it is more than just a normal anxiety – it is a deep guttural aversion to possible trouble.
Then you start to consider the origin of this deep rooted fear.
China is a country that was forged in fire and war – the founding Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, was simply the king of one of the many kingdoms of the physical site known later as China, but he was the biggest son-of-a-bitch in the valley and conquered every other kingdom and established what we now know to be China.
But prior to the establishment of this unified entity the country had been riven with war and fighting and invasion. So much so that one of the earlier periods before the Qin Emperor was called ‘Warring States’ when the entire country was fighting.
Sun Zi, of Art of War fame, opened his treatise with the words:
“The empire long divided must unite, long united must divide”
And division means chaos. Chaos means suffering and suffering inevitably means death.
China has been held sway to a dynastic cycle for thousands of years and at the end and the beginning of each of these dynasties there has been the entire stable of horsemen of the apocalypse riding forth throughout the land. War and Famine, Pestilence and Death.
When fighting disrupts the order of society then the economy generally collapses and when the economy collapses almost universal banditry arises and people’s lives are no longer safe.
And this chaos is not limited to the past – the older generation of today have experienced it firsthand.
My father-in-law has lived through and remembers the Japanese invasion, the Second World War, the Civil War, the creation of ‘New China’, the ‘Anti-American Imperialist War’ (Korean War) the Great Leap Forward, The Great Famine, The Cultural Revolution until finally, finally, things settled down under Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms and rule.
And his father and grandfather lived through just about as much – 30 million people killed in the Taiping Rebellion, the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the Opium Wars, the intrusion by western powers – Britain, France, Germany, US, and France, the Boxer Rebellion and so on and so on.
The past 150 years up until 1978 saw China bleed from a thousand wounds and million upon millions – many more than 100 million if not 200 million people’s lives lost.
When the hand of government is released then the very worst of society comes screaming out of the woodwork.
This is why there is such a visceral desire to feel safe:
‘I’ve been through hell, but I’m just coming right now- and I am NOT going to let anything threaten my wellbeing and I am not only comfortable with living in a highly protected gated community but I absolutely demand that I enjoy that level of security.’
Nothing happens in a vacuum – national characteristics are developed with reason. Russia, for example, has been the target of invasion and attack for more than a thousand years – raiders have come and stolen people to such an extent that the very name of the Russian nationality comes from the world slave. Western armies have surged through the east conquering and being defeated over and over again. So that today Russia sees its security through the lens of violence and ferocity just to survive. It sees the western states of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Baltic States, as its buffer zone to prevent large armies, like the one Hitler threw at it only 70 years ago, being able to destroy its unique culture and identity.
Currently the hot topic in global geopolitical affairs is the recent situation in the South China Sea.
What I am about to write is in no way joining the argument on either side of the ‘debate’ but is an attempt to understand the thinking behind the importance to China of their stance and how it makes perfect sense from the Chinese side.
Firstly, all through its history China has been the prey of ‘barbarians’ who have swept out of the north, the west, the south and the east and have invaded the sacred land of the Han people. From the very first inkling of a national identity called the Han, its people have been subject to these regular invasions and at times total conquest.
It’s not just the ones that are obvious – Japan in the 20th century, the Mongol Invasion led by Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan, or the more recent Man Zhu conquest and the establishment of the last dynasty led by an emperor – the Qing. But also the ones not commonly known about – the southern kingdom of Zhao, the Cham, the Viet, the Tibetan, the ‘Xiong Nu’ (Huns), the Turks, even little Korea (Korya) has at times made war or invaded China.
The entire history of China has been one of fighting and defeating enemies and often subsuming that enemy’s territory and adding the defeated people into its own cultural identity.
Throughout its long history China has been oscillating between periods of peace and tranquility and states of war.
Because war has come from outside of China so many times there has developed a cultural identity that prefers its own company. When peace has been restored, almost ubiquitously, China has closed its doors or highly managed its foreign affairs.
Developing an insular character has been inevitable when you add up the number of times that warring tribes and countries have crossed the border and disturbed the very thing that the Chinese people crave the most – peace and safety.
The gate guards, the fences, the barriers, the razor wire of our apartment complex are the border guards, the mountain ranges, the Great Walls, the rivers and the seas that delineate the territory of China.
If you look at a map and see where the South China is and how there is a long chain of islands that grow right up to Japan and if you frame this ‘line in the sea’ as one of the essential geopolitical barriers that China considers necessary, then you will understand what role in the Chinese psyche the South China Sea plays in the minds of the leaders and the people in China. You will also see that the South China Sea itself is a weak link in the circle of protection.
As I said, I am not offering an opinion on the rights or the wrongs of the current situation, or frame an argument for either side – I am putting forward cogent reasons for the thinking behind the strong guttural response from China over this issue.
Until we live in a world whereby war is abolished then countries are going to build geopolitical barriers preventing the incursion from aggressive forces. It is easy to sit in a country that has never been invaded and dismiss the importance of the feeling of safety but since China has had bitter and recent experience of exactly this, it is very easy to understand the thinking behind the current situation.
China has a psychological natural placement – it is fully ringed by mountains, including the Himalayan Plateau and sits comfortably in this area. Unlike many western powers China has never been expansionary in its outlook.
There have been times in its history – many times – when its military might has been the largest in the world and certainly capable of conquering its neighbours and its neighbour’s neighbours. But it has not done so. Even after the voyages of Zheng He, the famous admiral whose six voyages ‘discovered’ the world in the early 15th century, was ordered back and all ships destroyed, after his return to China
And it comes right back to the concept of security provided by the gated community – the people want to be able to live in safety, raise its children, develop the family fortune and enjoy a quiet cup of tea along the way.
When you come from a culture that has been forced to fight outside forces for its entire history – as well as fight internal wars when power shifts happen, then the concept of peace is extremely important. What you don’t have, you crave.
With the current boundaries of China, China feels secure – it has buffer zones (Himalayan Plateau, Xin Jiang Province, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan and Guanxi provinces and a chain of islands that stretches into and around the South China Sea.
What I have written is NOT an analysis of the entire situation – it does not speak to many of the other factors in this issue, for example the growing geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. And if there was a need to exemplify the geopolitical situation, when the US placed its carrier fleet between China and Taiwan at the end of the civil war, the vulnerability of the geography was amply demonstrated.
I have simply tried to explain where the Chinese side is coming from in this current issue, what fits in with China’s history and what is psychologically imperative to the Chinese people.
Now I am off to enjoy one of those lovely cups of Chinese Tea in perfect peace and security.