VIGIL AUNTIES

居委会里故事多

The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter -

They ar­range trash pick­ups, soothe un­ruly se­niors, and pro­vide the ba­sic level of govern­ment ac­cess for most peo­ple. China's res­i­den­tial com­mit­tees, though, face a short­age of new blood, as dis­il­lu­sioned mil­len­ni­als won­der: Can they re­ally serve the peo­ple?

E “very­one who comes to the neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tee has their own story,” says Ms. Song, as she up­dates her lo­cal com­mit­tee’s Weibo ac­count.

Many peo­ple view neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tees ( juwei­hui) like Song’s as the pre­serve of the old, the mid­dle aged, and the idle. “When I took the re­cruit­ment exam, I thought so too,” Song ad­mits. In­stead, other than the se­nior man­age­ment, many of her co­work­ers are mem­bers of the “post-80s and 90s gen­er­a­tion,” as mil­len­ni­als are known in China.

And the re­cruit­ment exam is no mere for­mal­ity, ei­ther. Along with the writ­ten exam—which in­cludes ques­tions on Marx­ism, “Party build­ing,” and Chi­nese so­ci­ety, as well as a writ­ten es­say—there is a phys­i­cal exam and in­ter­view to pass, on top of man­age­ment and peo­ple skills to mas­ter.

“My es­say ques­tion was to write about role mod­els,” Song re­calls. “I wrote about my grandma, who was warm­hearted and help­ful to her neigh­bors. At that time, I didn’t think I could pass the exam…i cer­tainly didn’t think that the work of the neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tee would be so com­pli­cated.”

For­mal­ized at the PRC’S first Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress in 1954, the juwei­hui and its ru­ral coun­ter­part, the vil­lage com­mit­tee ( cun­wei­hui), are of­fi­cially the most ba­sic level of China’s govern­ment, act­ing as the “the bridge be­tween the Party and the govern­ment and the peo­ple.” As stip­u­lated by the 1982 Con­sti­tu­tion, they are headed by lo­cally elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and are re­spon­si­ble for “pub­lic and char­i­ta­ble ser­vices, me­di­at­ing civil dis­putes, as­sist­ing pub­lic se­cu­rity, and re­port­ing the needs and sug­ges­tions of the pub­lic to the peo­ple’s govern­ment.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bei­jing Party Sec­re­tary Peng Zhen, these com­mit­tees were es­sen­tial for cre­at­ing a so­cial­ist state. “Chair­man Mao once told me, ‘All kinds of peo­ple in the city ought to be or­ga­nized,’” he rem­i­nisced to the me­dia in the 1980s.

At the time, pub­lic ser­vices were di­vided be­tween in­de­pen­dent bod­ies like “re­lief com­mis­sions,” “an­tibur­glary as­so­ci­a­tions,” and work­ers’ unions. Not only did the juwei­hui pro­vide more cen­tral­ized ser­vices, but also sup­pos­edly more demo­cratic el­e­ments than feu­dal “neigh­bor­hood watch” sys­tems. Briefly re­placed by “revo­lu­tion­ary com­mit­tees” dur­ing

the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, juwei­hui re­turned dur­ing the re­form era, but found their in­flu­ence lim­ited. No longer or­ga­niz­ing Maoist masses, they were de­ri­sively nick­named “CEOS of the Al­ley” by young­sters. How­ever, in­creas­ing ur­ban­iza­tion means that the juwei­hui still have an im­por­tant role to play—they now main­tain watch over a “grid” se­cu­rity sys­tem used in about 60 per­cent of cities, ac­cord­ing to Nankai Univer­sity’s Zhou Wang.

The work of juwei­hui is per­haps most in­ter­est­ing when it bor­ders on the in­va­sive. “I’m mainly in charge of fam­ily plan­ning, but in fact, that is only a small part of what I ac­tu­ally do,” claims Mrs. Hu, a talk­a­tive mem­ber of the Wu­long Res­i­dents Com­mit­tee. Her du­ties in­clude ev­ery­thing from keep­ing tabs on child­birth to vis­it­ing the fam­ily of an only child who’s been in an ac­ci­dent—all while keep­ing ev­ery­one up-to-date on the lat­est ad­just­ments to the fam­ily-plan­ning and pop­u­la­tion pol­icy.

“I’ve heard it’s an easy job,” one Bei­jing res­i­dent told China Daily in 2010. “All they do is stamp doc­u­ments and col­lect fines.” In­deed, many juwei­hui tasks in­volve eas­ing the bur­dens of ev­ery­day bu­reau­cracy. Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tions re­quire that even the most rou­tine re­quests be writ­ten down, signed, and stamped— whether it’s as­sur­ing a lo­cal in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial bureau that a new busi­ness will not cre­ate dis­tur­bance; ac­knowl­edg­ing to a court that its sub­poena has been de­liv­ered; or au­then­ti­cat­ing com­pen­sa­tion claims af­ter some­one ac­ci­den­tally put their cash in the laun­dry.

Down­times, says Mrs. Hu, are “very idle, busy times are very busy.” Although the work is of­ten te­dious, it can some­times be re­ward­ing— es­pe­cially when it in­volves, for ex­am­ple, help­ing dis­abled res­i­dents put up cel­e­bra­tory cou­plets to mark spe­cial oc­ca­sions, or help­ing il­lit­er­ate res­i­dents fill out forms. On any given day, a mem­ber of juwei­hui may be tasked with tear­ing down fly­posters, eras­ing graf­fiti, pro­mot­ing bet­ter san­i­ta­tion, or­ga­niz­ing classes for se­niors, tack­ling a trou­ble­some res­i­dent, keep­ing a look out for crim­i­nals, or deal­ing with the af­ter­math of a ma­jor weather event.

As juwei­hui lack the le­gal pow­ers of law en­force­ment, they are not al­ways able to as­sist with the is­sues that they are as­signed to solve—a prob­lem rarely ap­pre­ci­ated by res­i­dents al­ready ex­hausted with the bu­reau­cratic gaunt­let. Some can get an­gry, even abu­sive. Hu some­times com­pares her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to be­ing a sur­geon on the tele­vi­sion se­ries Grey’s Anatomy: “The charm of this work is that, ev­ery day, we come into con­tact with dif­fer­ent de­part­ments when [there’s a prob­lem with] the heat­ing sup­ply, or an il­le­gal build­ing ex­ten­sion; [or] the roof is leak­ing, or no one is sweep­ing up the trash.” On the other hand, this means co­or­di­nat­ing ac­tions be­tween dif­fer­ent par­ties, who may be hos­tile to the idea of tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity. “In fact, I of­ten don’t even know which depart­ment I should ap­peal to,” says Hu.

Some older res­i­dents com­pare younger bu­reau­crats to “uni­ver­si­tys­tu­dent vil­lage of­fi­cials,” re­fer­ring to the univer­sity re­cruits who work on “the front­line of grass­root-level” pol­i­tics in ru­ral ar­eas. But this is not an anal­ogy that car­ries much weight with Mr. Zhang, a former juwei­hui mem­ber, who says the two jobs have lit­tle in com­mon.

In the coun­try­side, Zhang stip­u­lates,

grass­roots of­fi­cials can lease land, help fel­low vil­lagers with en­tre­pre­neur­ial schemes, and gen­er­ally achieve a sense of ac­com­plish­ment that com­mit­tee work can hardly mea­sure up to. “A good juwei­hui will…share ex­pe­ri­ences and re­ceive var­i­ous eval­u­a­tions, but there are few ma­te­rial re­wards,” young Zhang com­plains. The pet­ti­ness of neigh­bor­hood pol­i­tics, com­pli­cated by home­own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions and com­mer­cial prop­erty man­agers, is an­other headache for juwei­hui work­ers. “Why was he as­signed to that task? Why is this per­son in that po­si­tion? And why was the work pushed on me?” he re­called. “There’s a lot of ex­plain­ing to do and in the end, no one un­der­stands.”

Zhang is not alone in his job dis­sat­is­fac­tion: Re­search sur­veys con­ducted by the au­thor among 200 full-time em­ploy­ees in 36 neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tees in the coastal city of Hangzhou found that 97 per­cent had con­sid­ered quit­ting. In a sur­vey of 54 juwei­hui work­ers, only 7.3 per­cent said they were sat­is­fied with their work, while 23.6 per­cent were dis­sat­is­fied, and 60 per­cent felt it was just “mid­dling.”

The big­gest draw­backs to the job, ac­cord­ing to re­spon­dents, were that they lacked recog­ni­tion for their ef­forts (63.6 per­cent) and low pay (49.1 per­cent). Per­haps a bit iron­i­cally, some found the work too tax­ing (29.1 per­cent), while oth­ers con­versely com­plained about long pe­ri­ods of in­ac­tiv­ity (23.6 per­cent).

Aside from the age im­bal­ance, many se­nior juwei­hui mem­bers also per­ceive a “gen­der gap.” Ac­cord­ing to the Zhe­jiang Depart­ment of Civil Af­fairs, its com­mit­tee em­ploy­ees are 61 per­cent fe­male. Due to the na­ture of their work, though, em­ploy­ees usu­ally find them­selves com­ing in con­tact with el­derly, dis­abled, un­em­ployed, drug ad­dicts, low-in­come house­holds, and other “so­cial cor­rec­tion ob­jects.” Male staff are more de­sir­able be­cause they can help deal with un­ruly res­i­dents, as well as pro­vide the man­ual la­bor the job of­ten calls for.

The neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tees are some­times seen as a less stress­ful al­ter­na­tive to the highly com­pet­i­tive civil-ser­vice exam—although en­trylevel salaries are ex­tremely low, some 76 per­cent of grad­u­ates view of­fi­cial­dom as the ideal ca­reer, thanks to its gen­er­ous so­cial ben­e­fits and “iron rice bowl” job se­cu­rity.

For those with­out the gaokao (high school test) re­sults or guanxi (so­cial con­nec­tions) to land a job in the civil ser­vice, res­i­den­tial com­mit­tees of­fer the low­est rung to climb the lad­der of govern­ment em­ploy­ment. Af­ter two years of ex­pe­ri­ence, juwei­hui work­ers are per­mit­ted to take the na­tional exam, af­ter which many leave.

Oth­ers re­gard it as a tran­si­tional job or a route to ac­quire a lo­cal hukou (house­hold res­i­dence). One re­spon­dent “wanted to slow down for a cou­ple of years and get my CPA cer­tifi­cate.” An­other needed “to get some ex­pe­ri­ence here while I pre­pare for the civil ser­vice exam.” Zhang had been trained as a teacher, but be­cause his girl­friend planned to work in her home­town, he hur­riedly ap­plied for a job with the Wu­long com­mit­tee.

Five years later, Zhang left for a job with a much higher salary and longer va­ca­tion time. “I am mar­ried now, with chil­dren,” says Zhang, whose wife is preg­nant with their sec­ond child. “I also need the hol­i­days to visit my par­ents’ home­town. The neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tee be­came busier af­ter 2015, with less leisure time and more over­time.”

How­ever, many mil­len­nial mem­bers leave in two years or less. In the juwei­hui where Hu works, three new re­cruits have quit within the last two years. “The sense of ac­com­plish­ment means noth­ing to young peo­ple,” she dis­par­ages. “They only value their own in­ter­ests nowa­days.” An­other

em­ployee, who asked not to be named, re­torted that, “2,000-3,000 [RMB] of your wages are just enough to live on; buy­ing a house in this city is im­pos­si­ble.” En­try-level salaries be­gin at 2,000 RMB, ris­ing to 5,000 RMB for those with more than a decade on the job. Un­for­tu­nately, 63.6 per­cent of re­spon­dents re­quired monthly in­comes of at least 4,500 to 6,000 RMB, while 20.1 per­cent said they could live with 4,000 RMB.

The “sense of ac­com­plish­ment” that some juwei­hui mem­bers re­port can prove elu­sive, too. “When you’re fac­ing 30, 40, or even more res­i­dents scold­ing you, how can you keep your tem­per in check, not get ner­vous, and get ev­ery­one to calm down and lis­ten?” asks Song. “The chal­lenge then is to quickly or­ga­nize your words so as not to stut­ter.”

Solv­ing one prob­lem of­ten cre­ates an­other. China Daily de­scribed the ex­pe­ri­ence of Yang, a deputy di­rec­tor of a neigh­bor­hood com­mu­nity in Bei­jing who faced com­plaints that a vegetable seller was il­le­gally ob­struct­ing pedes­tri­ans and cre­at­ing a mess. Af­ter per­suad­ing the re­sent­ful ven­dor to move, “I thought: prob­lem solved,” Yang told the news­pa­per. “Then, the res­i­dents com­plained it was in­con­ve­nient to buy veg­eta­bles, and asked me to find an­other seller.”

Though juwei­hui are not seen as a tempt­ing choice for grad­u­ates, Song in­sists there are ways to make the job ful­fill­ing. “When I ar­rived…i couldn’t take to the job very quickly, and was very stressed,” she says. “Later, I found a way to re­lieve the pres­sure by keep­ing a di­ary on Weibo, dis­cussing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with ne­ti­zens.”

She sees Weibo as an im­por­tant valve for re­leas­ing her job’s pres­sure, and op­ti­misti­cally as­pires to “be­come a hot topic, with my neigh­bor­hood com­mit­tee di­ary searched on Weibo. I could have the chance to be­come a wanghong [in­ter­net celebrity].”

Be­fore he quit, Zhang had also tried to make a greater so­cial im­pact through his job at the Wu­long com­mu­nity. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he trav­eled through Ti­bet and came up with the idea of spon­sor­ing a pri­mary school in Ny­ingchi county. “When the com­mu­nity sec­re­tary asked if I had any cre­ative sug­ges­tions, I sug­gested we do­nate money and clothes to the school,” Zhang says.

That kind of ide­al­ism, though, “didn’t go well,” ac­cord­ing to Zhang. “In the first year, my col­leagues and I were the only ones who do­nated money. Ac­tiv­i­ties which are only char­i­ta­ble and do not ben­e­fit res­i­dents are not pop­u­lar in the com­mu­nity.” Things im­proved the fol­low­ing year, when the com­mit­tee or­ga­nized food events, mar­ket­ing the project as “char­ity for pro­mot­ing ed­u­ca­tion” at the com­mit­tee’s an­nual par­ent-child event.

Many grad­u­ates like Zhang end up leav­ing juwei­hui think­ing that there’s too much time-wast­ing and use­less form-fill­ing. “But there’s no other way. That’s the way it works,” Zhang says. Still, he ad­mits that he some­times misses the ful­fill­ment from his old job. “When you re­ally solve the mat­ter, when you help res­i­dents re­pair a wa­ter block­age, or as­sist with fix­ing a sink­hole in the court­yard, when the neigh­bors thank you, it’s im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe the sense of ac­com­plish­ment.” For Hu, the sat­is­fac­tion is even sim­pler: “It’s when I walk to work ev­ery day, say­ing hello to low-in­come res­i­dents sell­ing food, to un­cles rest­ing by the road­side, to san­i­ta­tion work­ers sweep­ing the streets.”

With five years on the com­mit­tee, young Hu is al­ready some­thing of a vet­eran. “My abil­ity to solve prob­lems, and bal­ance all the re­la­tion­ships re­quired, is now bet­ter,” she says. Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced the whole gamut of re­ac­tions—from dis­sat­is­fac­tion to grad­ual ac­cep­tance—she even chides the younger re­cruits like an old hand.

“Young peo­ple, don’t com­plain about your work ev­ery day, don’t com­plain why you, and not some­one else, have to do the work. You should be grate­ful… We are young. This is a pre­cious learn­ing op­por­tu­nity. Don’t be afraid of suf­fer­ing—we are much bet­ter off than our par­ents when they were younger.”

BY JU­LIA ZHOU (周钰)

Res­i­dents could also go to the juwei­hui to bank their sav­ings in the 1960s

A Guiyang juwei­hui or­ga­nizes el­derly res­i­dents to make dumplings dur­ing the Chongyang “Se­niors” Fes­ti­val

Chil­dren write mes­sages to their moth­ers for Mother's Day at an event or­ga­nized by a He­fei juwei­hui

Ma­chines now of­fer a lot of juwei­hui ser­vices at one com­mu­nity in Xuzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince

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