City besieged (weicheng-围城)


This week, Shanghai put in place extraordinary security measures to ensure the smooth progress of the 4th summit of the CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia), which host the presence of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the light of the recent wave of terrorist attacks, and the delicate situation in Ukraine, the city implemented the most stringent security measures, including the decree by the local government of a public holiday.

It is well known that in ancient China, as in many other territories, walls were once the most frequent form of city protection. In China, the city was arranged in a series of concentric squares whose importance descended moving outwards. The centre would not only include a palace but the central administrative zones or yamen (as can be seen in the Forbidden City), which would be surrounded by inner walls. The outer city served other administrative functions and would also include markets and rural areas outside the urban cluster but enclosed within a second outer wall. This would safeguard resources in time of war.1

With the development of gunpowder, the height and thickness of these walls increased. However, in modern times, revolutions, banditry, and the rise of terrorism have proven that walls are useless, particularly when the threat comes from within. New special police forces, such as the French Brigades du Tigre, appeared at the beginning of the 20th century to deal with these new types of aggressions. They were mobile forces that had all the technological advances of the time at their disposal to better protect the city. The police came up with methods to build virtual walls inside the city that could be created ad hoc for guaranteeing security in such events as a head of state visit.  These virtual walls consist of sealing off an area of the city, controlling passage within its perimeter. This would have been particularly useful in preventing the assassinations of the tsar Alexander II of Russia or the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, attacked in their carriage by individuals unnoticed in the crowds of people that gathered in the streets to welcome them (in the case of the Archduke, the carriage’s itinerary had been published).

Being in Shanghai this week was a good opportunity to see how modern Chinese cities enforce security measures to protect themselves from eventual attacks. Apart from the standard measures adopted by many cities in the West during important events, which includes the enclosure of critical areas forming virtual walls, blocking off cars and suspects from getting inside the secured perimeter, as well as the closure of metro stations within these areas, there were two specific developments that drew UrbaChina’s attention:

  • The local government decreed May 21st a public holiday for public schools and offices.2 Private schools and businesses were left the choice to decide whether to give holidays to employees or continue working as usual. As for schools, a good number of them, even though they are located far away from the city centre, seconded the government’s decision (see photo below of American School of Shanghai, which has a campus in a relatively tranquil area of Pudong). The main reason behind this measure was the traffic disruption that hindered commuting.

School closed

  • The number of volunteers mobilised to assist the police was more than 300,000 according to the Shanghai Daily,3; especially impressive was the scale of their operation, which included to some extent invasion of private property, and their smooth mobilisation. Residential buildings in critical areas were swarmed by police, neighbourhood committees (juweihui-居委会), and volunteers, who were posted at every floor (in a city with thousands of high-rise buildings one can understand why such a large number of volunteers is necessary to protect certain areas). At the base of every building, a checkpoint was improvised. Interestingly, neighbourhood committees supervised the deployment of volunteers at the residential compounds, which played an important part in making sure the whole operation was carried out smoothly.

All this gives a glimpse of the hypothetical state of emergency that could ensue in cities should terrorist attacks intensify: the city besieged, by security forces and a legion of volunteers.


Cite this blog post
Miguel Elosua (2014, May 23). City besieged (weicheng-围城). URBACHINA. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from

  1. Victor F. S. Sit (2010) Chinese City and Urbanism, Evolution and Development, World Scientific. []
  2. shizhengfu bangongting yinfayaxin fenghui” zhaokai ri fangjia anpai de tongzhi-市政府办公厅印发“亚信峰会”召开日放假安排的通知,last accessed on 22 May 2014 []
  3. “300,000 volunteers to assist police in maintaining order”, last accessed on May 22, 2014 []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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