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Vigil Aunties

Long the exclusive domain of elderly gossips, neighborhood committees are looking to recruit new blood—but can they offer what millennials need?

05·30·2019

Vigil Aunties

Long the exclusive domain of elderly gossips, neighborhood committees are looking to recruit new blood—but can they offer what millennials need?

05·30·2019

“Everyone 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 co-workers 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 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 e lected 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.”

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

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,’”Beijing Party Secretary Peng Zhen reminisced to the media in the 1980s. Previously, public services were divided between independent bodies like “relief commissions,” “anti-burglary associations,” and workers’ unions. The juweihui not only centralized the services, but supposedly offered 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 whose only child has been in an accident—all while keeping everyone up-to-date on the latest adjustments to the family-planning and population policy.

The work of juweihui is perhaps most interesting when it borders on the invasive

“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 before the holidays, or helping illiterate residents fill out forms. On any given day, a member of juweihui may be tasked with tearing down fly-posters, 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.

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

As juweihui lack law enforcement powers, 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 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 “university-student 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.

Surveys among full-time employees in 36 neighborhood committees in Hangzhou found that 97 percent had considered quitting

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).

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

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 entry-level 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 good gaokao (college entrance exam) results or guanxi (social connections), residential committees offer the lowest rung to climb the ladder of government employment. After two years, workers are permitted to take the national civil service exam, after which many leave the juweihui.

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 then-girlfriend planned to work in her hometown, he hurriedly applied for a job with a residential committee there.

“In fact, I often don’t even know which department I should appeal to”

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 complains. “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.

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

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.”

Entry-level salaries begin at 2,000 RMB, rising to 5,000 RMB for those with more than a decade on the job

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.”


Vigil Aunties” is a story from our issue, “The Masculinity Issue”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.