Inside Job: neighbourhood watch

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: armband-touting public order volunteer

‘Young people do it too – as soon as they retire,’ Mrs Zhang reassures me as she hands me an armband and fishes about for a safety pin. ‘You have to wear an armband, or what are you doing?’ I’m also given a baseball cap, which feels like overkill, but apparently it looks good. I feel alert and ready.


Technically Mrs Zhang has retired from volunteering, but that’s not immediately obvious and there’s still a lot to keep a look out for. She started as a teenager and has racked up over 50 years of experience as a public security volunteer (zhianzhiyuanzhe, 治安志 愿者). They’re stationed in every residential compound across China, keeping an eye on all comings and goings. There’s no specific training; you learn on the job, she tells me. Duties depend on your age and experience, you generally patrol alone and for about three hours with shifts arranged via a register. Every staircase (danyuan, 单元) in a compound should have someone registered as a volunteer. If there’s a big event on in the city, all volunteers are drafted in and have to be on duty with their armbands (hongxiubiao, 红袖标).


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‘It’s a real hardship doing this job. Wind, rain, snow, heat – you have to go out in all of it,’ she tells me. Thankfully, it’s a beautiful day. The weather has brought everyone outside and no doubt the compound will be rife with springtime vice for us to crack down on.


People have used the compound for parking in and walking to the nearby subway station, but that’s not a big deal. I edge over to the card games and mah-jong tables surrounded by retirees to see if they’re illicitly gambling for money. No.


Everyone knows everyone, which is the main form of defence. Ironically, this makes me the main threat. I detect a distinct coolness in the dealings with the security guards (bao’an, 保安). They’re hired privately, paid for by the apartment service fees, whereas the volunteers are organised through the compound’s residents’ committee (juweihui, 居委会), which is a political structure.


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‘We report everything back in an annual report this thick [gestures an inch with finger and thumb] that’s broken down into the months,’ says Mrs Zhang. ‘They take the report and then can make posters about the things people need to look out for.’ She pauses and smiles: ‘Once one of the bao’an had his own motorbike stolen’.


There’s not actually anything to report today, which is (disappointingly) good. So I ask what sort of things could happen. ‘Thieves doing reckies, coming in a few times during the day to look for things to come back for at night. Kids dropping litter. We look out for fights, old people’s issues, youth issues, student issues, people being ill, family planning issues.’ It turns out there’s even a specialist volunteer who looks into family planning issues. Additional children have been reported on.


There’s a lady who’s not been feeling well today. Everyone wants her to go to hospital, but she’s not interested. I’m assigned to helping her up the stairs to her apartment as this is also part of the job, I learn. It’s abundantly awkward but does prove rather effective as she keeps stopping to compose herself for photos, meaning she’s not even out of breath at the top.


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I ask if there are any incentives for volunteers. ‘I got some washing powder once and some towels. How is it organised in your country?’ I try to explain that we don’t have public order volunteers in the UK. ‘But how are people monitored?’ Still by the retired, I realise – just without the armbands. Mrs Zhang explains there are still plenty of volunteers coming through: ‘The volunteers get old and die, then there are new ones, and when they die there are more new ones’.


And does everyone you intervene with do what you say? ‘Of course! We wear the armbands.’


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By: Frank Hersey
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