China recruits thousands to monitor its citizens' words and deeds

'Grid' workers wanted to collect information on residents, monitor opinions and emotions.
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2023.10.17
China recruits thousands to monitor its citizens' words and deeds A community worker puts up a Chinese national flag outside a house in Beijing, Sept. 30, 2020.
Tingshu Wang/Reuters

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is stepping up its monitoring of citizens across the board, from door-to-door monitoring of residential neighborhoods to new rules requiring online celebrities to use their real names.

Local governments across the country have been recruiting thousands of people in recent months as "grid workers" supplying information about residents to the local authorities, according to official websites.

The “grid management” system is so named because it carves up neighborhoods into a grid pattern with 15-20 households per square, and gives each grid a dedicated monitor who reports back on residents' affairs to neighborhood committees, the lowest rung in the government hierarchy.

Neighborhood committees in China have long been tasked with monitoring the activities of ordinary people in a certain area, but the “grid” system will allow officials to do so even more closely, as well as giving indicators of possible dissent at an early stage.

Grid workers are "information collectors, policy propagandists, liaison [officers] for social situations and public opinion, conflict and dispute mediators," among other things, according to a recruitment ad posted to the website of the Heshan city government in the southern province of Guangdong.

Multiple job recruitment postings for grid workers are seen on a Shandong civil service website in Aug. 2023. Credit: RFA screenshot
Multiple job recruitment postings for grid workers are seen on a Shandong civil service website in Aug. 2023. Credit: RFA screenshot

In the eastern province of Shandong, authorities in the provincial capital Jinan posted ads for 1,880 grid worker positions in August, with ads also visible on government websites in northeastern Jilin, southeastern Fujian, the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, and Shandong's Laizhou city.

Such workers "visit regularly to comprehensively collect basic information on people, events, places, objects, emotions, etc, within their grid," according to the Heshan recruitment material.

Most ads want to recruit people who live in the district they'll be monitoring, and only those who "support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."

Anyone who has "failed to cooperate" with the government or “implement the party line" in the past isn't eligible, even if they were merely engaging in passive resistance, according to a recruitment ad posted by authorities in Jilin's Tonghua city.

Door to door

A photo of a notice posted to social media showed a warning to local residents by the Huanglianqiao Neighborhood Committee in Sichuan's Deyang city that grid management in the residential district would be starting soon, with grid workers going door to door to "collect personal information from residents."

"We hope that community residents will actively cooperate," the Oct. 9 notice said.

Local resident Li Hong said he had received a similar warning from his neighborhood committee, adding that the grid workers are telling people to "be cautious in word and deed."

"They check the internet and tell adults and children not to go on WhatsApp, not to go on Twitter or Facebook, not to go on Telegram, and not to discuss the war between Hamas and Israel," Li told Radio Free Asia on Monday. "[Basically] not to speak, and not to comment."

Calls to the Huanglianqiao Neighborhood Committee rang answered during office hours on Monday. 

A member of a neighborhood committee knocks on the door to register locals and ask about their travel history in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China, during the COVID-19 pandemic,  Feb. 2, 2020. Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters
A member of a neighborhood committee knocks on the door to register locals and ask about their travel history in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Feb. 2, 2020. Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters

A staff member who answered the phone at the nearby Tianyuan Subdistrict Office of the local government said grid workers were also tasked with getting people to download an "anti-fraud" app issued by the government. 

"They're asking everyone to download the anti-fraud app," the staff member said. "I’m not sure about other tasks."

Social media footage has emerged in recent weeks of police stopping people at railway stations and streets in Daqing city and in Inner Mongolia and forcing them to download the app, with students at Jiangxi Normal University reporting similar orders. 

Online comments have warned that the app continues to work in the background even if it's deleted by the user, while residents have also told Radio Free Asia that the app contains spyware that tracks all of a phone user's actions.

'Hidden risks'

While Radio Free Asia has been unable to verify those technical claims, Professor Yang Haiying of Japan's Shizuoka University said in an interview on Sept. 27 that the app also prevents overseas contacts from calling people back home in China, citing his own attempts to call relatives in Inner Mongolia since they installed it.

Sichuan's provincial party politics and law committee described grid work in a March Weibo post as "discovering and reporting hidden risks, reactionary propaganda, cult-related activities, illegal preaching and other political and security risks.”

Grid workers are also tasked with reporting “social issues, damage to public facilities, clues to illegal and criminal activities such as violent debt collection, illegal pyramid schemes, pornography, gambling, drug trafficking, theft, robbery, and the illegal mining of sand and gravel."

They also play a role in "possible or ongoing cases of individual extremism and mass incidents [protests and demonstrations] ... reporting social conditions and public opinion [and] propaganda and mobilization, as well as participating in emergency response activities, policing and stability maintenance," the article said.

"Grid management is gradually spreading, until it controls the whole of society," Hunan-based current affairs commentator Yuan Xiaohua told Radio Free Asia. "They are pushing the Fengqiao Experience – grid management is the Fengqiao Experience in a different form."

Community workers wearing armbands sit by a street as the Third Belt and Road Forum is held in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters
Community workers wearing armbands sit by a street as the Third Belt and Road Forum is held in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Credit: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping mentioned the "Fengqiao Experience" during a visit to Zhejiang ahead of the Asian Games in Hangzhou last month, in a reference to the grassroots mobilization of the early 1960s, when then supreme leader Mao Zedong called on the masses to mobilize to wage “class struggle” across the country. Commentators have interpreted this to mean that similar moves are afoot in today’s China.

As well as the granular monitoring of people's daily lives and thoughts, government censors are also cracking down on online influencers, bloggers and celebrities, insisting that they use their real names on social media, instead of a pen-name.

The social media platform Sina Weibo recently warned users with followings of more than a million followers that they must display their real names on their accounts by the end of October, while users with more than 500,000 followers must comply by the end of the year.

Real-name registration has long been a requirement for social media users in China, but accounts weren't required to display a person's real name openly, although they did have to supply it to the service provider.

"Surveillance in China, including censorship of speech, is comprehensive," current affairs commentator Bi Xin said. "There are no blind spots."


Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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