China moves ahead with 'mass policing' plan for local communities

Local police stations are shut down as auxiliaries' jobs are taken over by community "grid" workers, vigilantes.
By Gu Ting and Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
2023.11.14
China moves ahead with 'mass policing' plan for local communities Local residents with red armbands, identifying them as security volunteers, keep watch near Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, March 1, 2017.
Jason Lee/Reuters

China is moving ahead with plans to shift local law enforcement from police stations to neighborhood "grids," where local volunteers and teams of vigilantes will enforce the law and residents will be encouraged to inform on each other.

The shift was heralded by a Public Security Ministry directive in March, calling for active integration of police stations into "grassroots social governance," through partnerships with local "vigilante" groups and local ruling Chinese Communist Party officials.

Now, authorities across the country are starting to lay off auxiliary police officers and merge local police stations with a view to outsourcing much of their daily work to neighborhood officials and local militias under the "grid management" system, according to several state media reports.

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.

Several police stations are to shut down in and around the southern province of Guangdong, "to effectively integrate existing police resources" and improve standardization, the Meizhou Daily newspaper reported.

Workers make armbands reading "security patrol" at a garment factory in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, China, Dec. 5, 2018.  Credit: Reuters
Workers make armbands reading "security patrol" at a garment factory in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, China, Dec. 5, 2018. Credit: Reuters

A Guangdong resident who gave only the surname Liao for fear of reprisals said there are two reasons for the move – one is to cut costs for cash-strapped local governments, but another is a shift to neighborhood policing and "stability maintenance," a system of coercion and surveillance that seeks to prevent acts of defiance against the ruling Chinese Communist Party before they take place.

"Stability maintenance measures are getting stricter and stricter," Liao said. "They will never streamline the stability maintenance forces."

China is no stranger to mass law enforcement, and the authorities have previously mobilized large numbers of local residents known colloquially as “red armbands” or “Chaoyang aunties” to act as their eyes and ears during major events and high-level political meetings.

But the new policing plan seeks to make such mobilization permanent, now that local officials have been granted law enforcement powers and are recruiting "grid officers" across the country to find out everything about residents in their small square of the "grid."

Several police stations in the eastern province of Shandong will also be merged, Shandong Toutiou Xinwen reported on Oct. 28.

‘Red mass prevention and enforcement’

A local resident familiar with the situation who gave only the surname Wang said the officers being laid off are most likely to be the auxiliary officers without civil service status.

"Currently each police station has about six or seven government-employed police officers and maybe 20 or 30 auxiliaries," Wang said. "Once they merge, there will just be the six or seven government police officers in a station, and the auxiliaries will be laid off to cut costs."

A person familiar with the matter who declined to be named said auxiliary police typically do the kind of community policing work that will now be taken over by grid officers.

"The auxiliary police can only take orders from the police station and carry out specific tasks like maintaining community order and helping the police with law enforcement duties," the person said. "But grid officers deal with residents all day long, and they are better than the police."

"They understand the dynamics of local communities on the ground," they said.

Police officers stand guard outside the Evergrande International Center in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, Jan. 4, 2022. Credit: David Kirton/Reuters
Police officers stand guard outside the Evergrande International Center in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, Jan. 4, 2022. Credit: David Kirton/Reuters

The closures and mergers come after the March "action plan" on policing called for the expansion of "red mass prevention and enforcement" forces similar to those mobilized during the Olympics and parliamentary sessions in Beijing in previous years, as well as local partnerships with "social organizations such as vigilantes."

The action plan also repeated Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's recent calls for a "Fengqiao experience," a reference to the mass mobilization of citizens in aid of law enforcement and to police people on the basis of “class struggle” during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. 

"Such social control will both strengthen the internal stability maintenance system and set up a volunteer police force, extending the use of Chaoyang aunties across the country to safeguard the regime," current affairs commentator Ma Ju told Radio Free Asia in an interview when the action plan was released.

A resident of a Shanghai community who gave only the surname Zhang said grid management is something like the board game Go.

"They have expanded the scope of their surveillance activities so it's as if they are playing Go, surrounding you piece by piece," Zhang said. "That's what they call grid management."

"If a problem emerges in the grid, they will surround it immediately – the people are regarded as the enemy – it's not a people's government any more," he said.

Xi sees ‘enemies everywhere’

Last week, Xi gave further official blessing to the "grid" system by marking the 60th anniversary of the "Fengqiao experience" under late supreme leader Mao Zedong with a visit to a number of organizations selected to take part in the expansion of "grassroots social governance."

The Ministry of National Security also called in a WeChat post for "a people's war to safeguard national security," citing the anniversary.

Veteran current affairs commentator Hu Ping said the idea of constant "struggle" is at the heart of the "Fengqiao experience" concept.

"In his mind, there are enemies everywhere," Hu said. "There isn't enough room in prison for so many people, so they are expanding [the restrictions of prison] into society at large."

"These organizations ... are mainly focused on politics [rather than crime]," he said of the organizations singled out for the "Fengqiao experience" under Xi.

"These are powerful controls, and a way to bring back the class struggles of the Mao era," Hu said.

A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of Mao Zedong's portrait on Tiananmen Gate, Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP
A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of Mao Zedong's portrait on Tiananmen Gate, Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

Independent political scholar Chen Daoyin said there is a key difference between Xi and Mao, however. Where Mao sought to stir up the masses and mobilize them in his name, Xi wants to shut them down.

"Xi Jinping wants to control everything through various means, including digitally, in ways that are already very technologically developed," Chen said, citing the proliferation of government and police tip-off hotlines to encourage people to inform on each other.

"Xi Jinping doesn't want to mobilize people: he wants to calm them down and control them, as if they were in prison," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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