Innocent-sounding 'care teams' spark fears of heightened surveillance in Hong Kong

The teams are being likened to China's 'red armband' brigades of state-sanctioned busybodies

Two Beijing residents with red armbands, identifying them as security volunteers, stand on duty beside a road in the central part of the city, Dec. 12, 2013. Hong Kong’s first “care teams” have been likened to China's "red armband" brigade of state-sanctioned busybodies. Credit: Reuters

Hong Kong's plan to send "care teams" into residential neighborhoods has sparked fears that Communist Party controls and surveillance will extend further into people's lives, with patriotic recruits wielding power and information along the lines of local officials and volunteers who already do the government's bidding in mainland China.

Chief Executive John Lee, who was "elected" unopposed following changes to the electoral rules earlier this year, first announced the move in his October policy address, saying the teams would "take part in community-building" across Hong Kong's 18 districts.

"The 18 districts in Hong Kong will be delineated into sub-districts, based on which we will widely engage local organizations and groups to form Care Teams to pull together all sectors including young people and ethnic minorities to take part in community building," Lee said in October.

The first teams, who have been likened to China's "red armband" brigade of state-sanctioned busybodies, will be deployed in Tsuen Wan and Southern districts early next year, Lee said.

According to a document submitted to the Legislative Council by Lee's administration, the government has just begun the selection process for "care team" members.

Justice secretary Paul Lam told lawmakers in a paper slated for debate on Dec. 12 that the "care team" workers will play an important role at district level, including as "potential trainers" for the government's "rule of law" education program, which draws on a similar campaign in mainland China under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

As well as responding to immediate community needs, "Care Teams can help the Government disseminate information to the public and report the views of the public to the Government," the document said.

Eyes and ears

This remit has drawn immediate comparisons with neighborhood and residential committees in mainland China, who operate as the ruling Communist Party's eyes and ears in neighborhoods and residential apartment blocks.

Care teams must be "patriotic and love Hong Kong [and] will support and follow the Government's leadership," it said, adding that they will be set targets in the form of Key Performance Indicators.

According to a report on the pro-China Singtao Toutiao news website, total funding for each district team has been set within the range of H.K.$800,000-1,200,000.

A member of a neighborhood party committee keeps watch in a street near the Great Hall of the People on the opening day of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, May 22, 2020. Credit: Reuters

Online critics of the plan said the districts are covered by district councils and rural committees, which already receive government funding to offer community services.

However, the last District Council election in 2019 resulted in a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates, and was widely seen as a ringing public endorsement for the pro-democracy movement despite months of disruption and clashes.

Lee said in his policy address that the councils would be reformed after their term expires in 2023 to comply with the principle of "patriots ruling Hong Kong," which has resulted in a Legislative Council packed with pro-China voices since December 2021.

“Red armband volunteers”

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the teams will play a similar role to neighborhood and residential committees as well as "red armband" volunteers, all of whom report developments in their communities back to the authorities.

They will also be tasked with transmitting government propaganda to people in residential areas, he said.

"It's exactly the same kind of thing as the Chaoyang aunties [with the red armbands] or the neighborhood committees," Sang said. "The purpose is to implement the party's instructions and help the party achieve certain things."

"They want them to be their eyes [on the ground]," he said. "They've already deployed them across the whole of China: now they want to import them into Hong Kong."

"The point is to completely wipe out any fight by the people of Hong Kong for freedom and democracy; they want to stifle it using the grid-based management methods [already used in China," Sang said.

In July 2021, China empowered local officials at township, village, and neighborhood level to enforce the law, as well as operating a vastly extended "grid management" system of social control in rural and urban areas alike. 

According to directives sent out in 2018, the grid system carves up neighborhoods into a grid pattern with 15-20 households per square, with each grid given a dedicated monitor who reports back on residents' affairs to local committees.

“Spies everywhere”

Neighborhood committees in China have long been tasked with monitoring the activities of ordinary people in urban areas, but the grid management system turbo-charges the capacity of officials even in rural areas to monitor what local people are doing, saying, and thinking.

"This will mean that their spies will be everywhere, right next to you," Sang said. "They will be watching everything you do, which cafes you go to, where you walk, even if you make rude comments about government policies."

"They can shadow you and even report you," he said.

China's "red armbands" have been dubbed the biggest intelligence network on the planet by social media users, and have supplied information that has also led police to crack major organized crime, according to state media reports.

Hundreds of thousands of these citizen security guards are mobilized to check the ID of passers-by in Beijing ahead of major political events, including major Community Party anniversaries and celebrations.  

“Cheerleaders in disguise”

Yau Tsim Mong district councilor Leo Chu, who is a member of the Democratic Party, said the care teams are likely to engage in political study sessions too, including the study of Xi Jinping's personal brand of ideology.

"These care teams will likely become government cheerleaders in disguise," he said. "[This job] is limited to known supporters of the government."

Some Twitter comments on media reports on the "care teams" appeared to agree.

"Patriotism will be the top prerequisite for members of these teams, who will most likely serve as the eyes and ears — and maybe even muscle — of the CCP henchmen in the city," user @Byron_Wan commented.

@5Apostate2 replied: "They already have district offices and rural committees that receive govt. funding. Now, another layer of jobs for the boyz and girlz."

Pro-China mobs were blamed for bloody attacks on protesters and train passengers in Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019, at the height of the protest movement. 

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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