TThey are often seen wearing a red armband patrolling the suburbs of Chaoyang, Beijing’s largest district, which is home to nearly 3.5 million people. On a sunny afternoon in late fall, they will sit with a group of retirees in the sun and chat. But when an individual of interest appears, your attention is quickly diverted to him.
In the Chinese media and in official police statements, these vigilant neighborhood watchers are referred to as “Chaoyang masses.” Last week, the state-owned Global Times went a step further, quoting internet users as saying that the mysterious group “could coincide with four famous [agencies], the CIA, MI6, KGB and Mossad ”. Some jokingly called it “the fifth largest intelligence agency in the world.”
For years, volunteers in the Chinese capital have become part of their daily social fabric. They help manage their neighborhoods by picking up trash and guiding those who are lost. They also observe, listen and follow every clue that may lead to a possible legal case. The rise of the Chaoyang masses exemplifies the extraordinary ability of the ruling Communist Party to mobilize rank-and-file forces to keep the vast country running, but also to keep its population at bay.
Last week, when “piano prince” Li Yundi was arrested for allegedly hiring a sex worker, Beijing police credited the “masses” of Chaoyang for warning them. Once again, Internet users were fascinated by the role of these vigilante citizens in taking down another celebrity. Discussions about them quickly broke out on social media.
So far, the hashtag: # Who exactly are the Chaoyang masses? has been viewed at least 310 million times on the Chinese social media site Weibo. “Bravo Chaoyang masses, you are forgotten heroes!” wrote a commenter. “How did people know that she is a prostitute and her client? Why not a married couple, friends, connection partners? asked another.
For longtime Beijing residents, the mass name of Chaoyang is not strange, although they are not the only force running the city’s neighborhoods, said Ka-ming Wu, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who study the increase in these volunteers. “They are often retirees and women. Many would call them grassroots government agents for the party state, but the grandmothers themselves speak of their service in terms of contribution and honor. “
Ling Li, an expert on Chinese law and politics at the University of Vienna, said the hyperactivity of these neighborhood watchers is primarily the result of the expansion of state-sponsored public procurement of social services by private individuals or entities.
“Although these services can also be purchased for the provision of social benefits, they are used primarily to help maintain social stability: for example, intelligence gathering, neighborhood surveillance, post-incarceration monitoring and other crime prevention activities,” he said. Li.
According to state mediaMore than 850,000 of these volunteers registered in Beijing in the summer of 2017. In different districts, they also have custom-made names. For example, in distracting Xicheng, the western part of Beijing with nearly 1.3 million people, they are called “Westside Mamas.” And in Tongzhou, in the east, they are called “The Common People of Tongzhou”.
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, which offers citizens a tool with which to give clues. By then, Chaoyang district officials had claimed that some 130,000 names had already been registered with them – 277 people per square kilometer. On average, they provided about 20,000 notices each month, for crimes ranging from terrorism to drug use to robbery.
Earlier this year, a Beijing community police officer said a chinese newspaper that if neighborhood watchers in search of prostitution find a girl who always goes home in high heels and short skirts in 2 am-3am with different men, “then it’s time for us to step in and check what exactly he does.”
According to the same newspaper report, Chaoyang volunteers are paid between 300 and 500 yuan (between 35 and 60 pounds sterling) a month. And if accidents occur in the line of duty, volunteers receive insurance compensation of up to 1.2 million yuan (£ 136,000), as well as an additional allowance.
In recent years, neighborhood watchers have often been credited with turning to prominent artists and celebrities. These include Hollywood actor Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee, who was arrested on drug-related charges in 2014. The Chaoyang masses have also been praised for keeping an eye on foreign agents, with news reports from 1974 detailing how in which they assisted foreign agents. police in the arrest of Soviet spies.
But not all volunteers are happy with the association with espionage or financial reward claims, Wu said. “The state wanted to create an impression that there are internal enemies of gender, class and ethnicity and emphasize the security of urban life, but most of the volunteers I spoke with were there to kill time and keep the community clean and pleasant. ”.
However, the authorities began to promote them, releasing a cartoon set for them in 2015. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke fondly of them when he surveyed Beijing. “Where there are more red bracelets, there is more security and tranquility,” he said.
“[The Chaoyang masses] they have three magic weapons, “he declared Xia Ke Dao, a Wechat account under the official People’s Daily, last week after the arrest of the now disgraced pianist Li. “They come in large numbers, they are difficult to discern, and they are good at reasoning.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism