Up close with China’s elderly “red band volunteers”

Mr. Tan and Mr. Li, Beijing retirees in their 60s and 70s, are best friends who enjoy getting together on the weekend to protect the neighborhood.

Each Sunday afternoon shift brings forth new challenges for the two men, who’ve been watching their slice of Chaoyangmennei Street for more than 10 years, seated at a sidewalk station with a flag and two folding chairs. There’s foot traffic to direct, lost tourists to set straight, passing neighbors who might linger awhile and chat, and—Tan beats his chest proudly as he says this—the opportunity to be the eyes on the ground, the front-line witness and reporter of any wrongdoing, suspicious activity, or public safety incident to the local police.

“As residents of this community, it’s up to us to unite together and protect our homeland,” says Tan, referring to not only himself and Li but around 200 neighbors, mostly fellow retirees, whom he claims to have beaten out for the coveted Sunday slot in the zhiyuanzhe (volunteer) program run by the Chaonei Toutiao residential community. Nationwide, the China Volunteer Service Federation (CVSF) claims to have 4 million volunteers registered on their online recruitment platform. The actual total population may be much bigger, as this number does not include volunteers recruited offline from the neighborhood, nor all the independent outings organized by companies, schools, party committees, and military units to fulfill a community service requirement or build team rapport.

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Armband Army is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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