- The Government Next Door: Neighbourhood Politics in Urban China by Luigi Tomba
Considering the following story in which a young man moved into a newly rented apartment in a gated, “sealed neighbourhood” (封閉式小 區 fengbishi xiaoqu) in urban China. Every day, when he returns home and passes through the main gate, the security guards ask him to present his ID card and sign the log-in book. Ironically, such thorough, if not bizarre, routine checks are the reason that he would like to rent this kind of apartment. Living in such a gated “sealed neighbourhood” embodies his social status as middle class. How does living in a “sealed neighbourhood” become an embodiment of social status? How does choosing housing link to broader economic, cultural, political, and social changes in reform-era China? Luigi Tomba’s book not only provides insights into these questions, but also sets a new standard for the current debate surrounding China’s governance practice. As Tomba points out in the beginning, focusing on residential areas can both “reveal the many ways in which the increasingly complex interests of individuals, families, and groups interact with the goals of the state” (p. 4) and enable the researcher to analyze the conflicts, “forms of loyalty, strategic alliances and behaviours, and possibilities for new social identities” (p. 4). Based on interviews, participant observation, and a wide range of sources, Tomba frames his analysis with five themes: social clustering, micro-governing, social engineering, contained contention, and exemplarism. By unpacking these issues, he deftly leads the reader to see different ways by which governance has been engineered and practiced in everyday life, as each theme probes into a deeper level of analysis.
As a result of China’s urbanization and housing reforms, two different types of neighborhood have emerged from the attendant social transformations. One is the old residential compound where many laid-off workers live. As these workers were victimized by the aggressive reforms of the state-owned industrial system in the late 1990s, many of them share similarly challenging financial situations. The other type is the newly built gated, middle-class “sealed neighbourhood.” Such spatial as well as social distinction between these two types of neighbourhood is what Tomba terms “social clustering.” Tomba argues in the first chapter that “the privatization of residential spaces has facilitated [End Page 251] segregation and has not reduced the ability of the state to classify the population and to influence social hierarchies” (p. 59).
Although both types of neighborhoods have intensive everyday governance, the governing styles are different. Chapter 2 focuses on the previous work-unit compound and how cadres do “micro-governing.” Ethnographic stories reveal that local cadres are both providers and recipients of state subsidies, and both the subjects and objects of social regulation. As most of the residents are laid-off workers, cadres are symbols of the state who make visible the state’s efforts of fulfilling its commitment to the working class. Through these agents, dependency and social control have been created and further contributed to building stability and a harmonious society. While laid-off workers struggle with poverty, the so-called middle class has striven to enhance their status by consuming high-end real estate and residential spaces. Chapter 3 looks at how the consumption of residential space creates a propertied middle class and how such “middle-class lifestyle fever” contributes to the preservation of stability and social order. By tracing back decades-long Chinese housing reform, Tomba argues that such restructurings result in “more general objectives of the state” (p. 115). To achieve objectives like social stability and consensus, a conservative middle class is favored by the state as they have “a larger stake in the developmental trajectory of China’s economic reform and that are more likely to be aligned with the government” (p. 116).
Nonetheless, conflicts between middle-class residents and developers often occur behind the gates of the neighborhood. Chapter 4 vividly depicts how residents in the gated communities organize protests to make...