The government calls it "sealed management." China's capital has started gating and locking some of its lower-income neighborhoods overnight, with police or security checking identification papers around the clock, in a throwback to an older style of control.
It's Beijing's latest effort to reduce rising crime often blamed on the millions of rural Chinese migrating to cities for work. The capital's Communist Party secretary wants the approach promoted citywide. But some state media and experts say the move not only looks bad but imposes another layer of control on the already stigmatized, vulnerable migrants.
So far, gates have sealed off 16 villages in the sprawling southern suburbs, where migrants are attracted to cheaper rents and in some villages outnumber permanent residents 10 to one.
"In some ways, this is like the conflict between Americans and illegal immigrants in the States. The local residents feel threatened by the influx of migrants," Huang Youqin, an associate professor of geography at the University at Albany in New York who has studied gating and political control in China, said in an e-mail. "The risk is that the government can control people's private life if it wants to."
The gated villages are the latest indignity for China's migrant workers, who already face limited access to schooling and government services and are routinely blamed by city folk for rising crime. Used to the hardship of the farm and the lack of privilege, migrants seem to be taking the new controls in their stride.
Jia Yangui said he accepts the new system as a trade-off for escaping farm work in the northern province of Shanxi. He arrived in Beijing less than two months ago and lives with a relative in one of the gated villages, Dashengzhuang. He sells oily pancakes just inside one of the gates.
"Anyway, it's not as strict as before, when we migrants would be detained on the way to the toilet," said Jia's relative, a middle-aged woman who gave her family name as Zheng.
"Sealed management" looks like this: Gates are placed at the street and alley entrances to the villages, which are collections of walled compounds sprinkled with shops and outdoor vendors. The gates are locked between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., except for one main entrance manned by security guards or police, there to check identification papers. Security guards roam the villages by day.
"Closing up the village benefits everyone," read one banner which was put up when the first, permanent gated village was introduced in April.
But some Chinese question whether problems arising from growing gap between the country's rich and poor can be fixed with locks and surveillance cameras.
"It's a ridiculous idea!" said Li Wenhua, who does private welfare work with migrant workers in Beijing. "This is definitely not a good long-term strategy. The government should dig up the in-depth causes of crime and improve basic public services such as education and health care to these people."
Crime has been rising steadily over the past two decades, as China moved from state planning to free markets and Chinese once locked into set jobs began moving around the country for work. Violent crime in China jumped 10 percent last year, with 5.3 million reported cases of homicide, robbery, and rape, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported in February.
"Sealed management" was born in the village of Laosanyu during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the government was eager to control its migrant population. The village used it again during the sensitive 60th anniversary of Communist China last year. Officials then reported the idea to township officials, who decided to make the practice permanent this year.
"Eighty percent of the permanent residents applauded the practice," said Guo Ruifeng, deputy director of Laosanyu's village committee. He didn't say how many migrants approved, though they outnumber the locals by 7,000 to 700.
"Anyway, they should understand that it is all for their safety," he said. Guards only check papers if they see anything suspicious, he said.
Gating has been an easy and effective way to control population throughout Chinese history, said Huang, the geography professor. In past centuries, some walled cities would impose curfews and close their gates overnight. In the first decades of communist rule, the desire for top-down organization and control showed in work-unit compounds, usually guarded and enclosed.
As the economy has grown, privately run gated communities with their own security have emerged in the biggest cities, catering to well-to-do Chinese and expatriates, offering upscale houses and facilities like pools and gyms.
The new gated villages in Beijing are very different.
"To put it crudely, gated communities in the city are a way for the upper middle-class and urban rich to keep out trespassers, whereas gated villages represent a way for the state to 'keep in' or contain the problem of 'migrant workers' who live in these villages," Pow Choon-Pieu, an assistant professor of geography at the National University of Singapore who has studied the issue, said in an e-mail.
Jiang Zhengqing, a supermarket owner in the gated compound of Laosanyu, told the China Daily newspaper in May that he doesn't even know if he'll be in business next year because of the drop in customers.
"Before, the streets were crowded with people in the afternoon but now the village is deserted," he said. "I can't understand why the government has invested such a large amount of money into putting up these useless fences, rather than repair our dirty public restrooms and bumpy roads."
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.