Chaoyang Masses: The Rise of Neighborhood Patrols in Beijing | China
TThey are often seen wearing red armbands patrolling residential neighborhoods in Chaoyang, Beijing’s largest neighborhood, which is home to nearly 3.5 million people. On a sunny late fall afternoon, they’ll sit with a group of retirees in the sun and chat. But when an individual of interest shows up, their attention quickly turns to them.
In Chinese media and official police statements, these neighborhood vigilantes are referred to as the “Chaoyang masses”. The state-owned Global Times last week went further, citing netizens saying the mysterious group “could match four famous intelligence agencies.” [agencies], CIA, MI6, KGB and Mossad ”. Some jokingly called it “the fifth largest intelligence agency in the world.”
For years, the Chinese capital’s volunteers have been part of its daily social fabric. They help run their neighborhoods by picking up litter and guiding those who are lost. They also observe, listen and follow every clue that could lead to a possible court case. The rise of the masses of Chaoyang illustrates the extraordinary ability of the ruling Communist Party to mobilize grassroots forces to keep the vast country on the move, but also to control its population.
Last week, when “piano prince” Li Yundi was arrested for allegedly hiring a sex worker, Beijing police credited the “masses” in Chaoyang with informing them. Internet users have once again been fascinated by the role of these vigilant citizens in the downfall of yet another celebrity. Discussions about them quickly erupted on social media.
So far the hashtag: #Who exactly are the Chaoyang masses? has been viewed at least 310 million times on Chinese social media site Weibo. “Well done, masses of Chaoyang, you are unsung heroes! Wrote a commentator. “How did people know it was a prostitute and her client?” How about a married couple, some friends, some dating buddies? Asked another.
For longtime Beijingers, the name of the Chaoyang masses is not unknown, even though they are not the only force ruling the city’s neighborhoods, said Ka-ming Wu, an anthropologist at the Chinese University. from Hong Kong, which is studying the rise of these volunteers. “They are often retirees and women. Many would call them grassroots government agents for the party state, but the grannies themselves speak of their service in terms of contribution and honor.
Ling Li, an expert in Chinese politics and law at the University of Vienna, said that the hyperactivity of these ward wardens is mainly the result of the expansion of public procurement of state-sponsored social services to individuals or of entities.
“Although these services can also be provided for the provision of social supports, they are mainly used to help maintain social stability: for example, intelligence gathering, neighborhood watch, post-incarceration follow-up and other crime prevention activities, ”Li said.
According to state media, more than 850,000 of these volunteers were registered across Beijing in the summer of 2017. In different districts, they also have custom names. For example, in Xicheng distract, the western part of Beijing with nearly 1.3 million inhabitants, they are called “Westside Mamas”. And in Tongzhou in the east, they are called “People of Tongzhou People”.
But the Chaoyang masses are the best known. So much so that in 2017, the Beijing police developed a mobile phone app of the same name, giving citizens a tool to provide information. At that time, Chaoyang District officials claimed that around 130,000 names had already been registered with them, or 277 people per square kilometer. On average, they have provided nearly 20,000 denunciations each month, for sins ranging from terrorism to drug use and theft.
Earlier this year, a Beijing community police officer told a Chinese newspaper that while wardens looking for prostitution find a girl who always comes home in high heels and short skirts in 2–3 am with different men, “so it’s time for us to step in and check out what exactly she’s doing.”
According to the same newspaper, Chaoyang volunteers are paid 300 to 500 yuan (35 to 60 pounds) per month. And if accidents happen in the line of duty, volunteers receive up to 1.2 million yuan (£ 136,000) in insurance benefits as well as an additional grant.
In recent years, neighborhood watchers have often been credited with attracting prominent artists and celebrities. These include the son of Hollywood actor Jackie Chan, Jaycee, who was arrested on drug-related charges in 2014. The masses of Chaoyang have also been praised for keeping an eye out for foreign agents, with reports as early as 1974 detailing how they assisted the police in the arrest of Soviet spies.
But not all volunteers are happy with the association with espionage or with demands for financial reward, Wu said. “The state wanted to make it seem like there are internal enemies of gender, class and ethnicity and focus on securing city life, but most of the volunteers I spoke to were only there to kill time and keep the community clean and nice.
Nonetheless, the authorities began to promote it, publishing a series of cartoons for them in 2015. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke fondly of it during his inspection in Beijing. “Where there are more red armbands, there is more security and peace of mind,” he said.
“[The Chaoyang masses] have three magic weapons, ”said Xia Ke Dao, an official People’s Daily Wechat account, after the arrest of now disgraced pianist Li. “They come in large numbers, they are difficult to discern and they reason well. “