They are often seen wearing a red armband patrolling residential neighbourhoods of Chaoyang, the biggest district of Beijing, which is home to nearly 3.5 million people. On a sunny late autumn afternoon, they will sit with a group of retirees in the sun and chat away. But when an individual of interest turns up, their attention quickly diverts to them.
In Chinese media and official police statements, these vigilante neighbourhood watchers are called the “Chaoyang masses”. Last week, the state-owned Global Times went a step further, quoting internet users as saying the mysterious group “could match four famous intelligence [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 a part of its daily social fabric. They help run their neighbourhoods by picking up litter and guiding those who are lost. They also observe, listen and follow every clue that might lead to a potential legal case. The rise of the Chaoyang masses exemplifies the extraordinary ability of the ruling Communist party to mobilise grassroots forces to keep the vast country running, but also to keep its populace in check.
Last week, when the “piano prince” Li Yundi was detained for allegedly hiring a sex worker, Beijing police credited the “masses” in Chaoyang for tipping them off. Internet users were once again fascinated by the role of these vigilant citizens in bringing down yet another celebrity. Discussions about them quickly erupted on social media.
So far, the hashtag: #Who exactly are Chaoyang masses? has been viewed at least 310 million times on the Chinese social media site Weibo. “Bravo, Chaoyang masses, you are unsung heroes!” wrote one commenter. “How did people know that it’s a prostitute and her customer? Why not a married couple, friends, hookup buddies?” questioned another.
To longtime Beijingers, the name Chaoyang masses is not unfamiliar, even though they are not the only force running the city’s neighbourhoods, said Ka-ming Wu, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who studies the rise of these volunteers. “They are often retirees and female. Many would call them grassroots governing agents for the party state, but grannies themselves speak of their service in terms of contribution and honour.”
Ling Li, an expert in Chinese politics and law at the University of Vienna, said the hyperactivity of these neighbourhood watchers is primarily the result of the expansion of state-sponsored public procurements of social services from private individuals or entities.
“Although such services may be procured also for the provision of social aids, they are predominantly used to help maintain social stability: for instance, intelligence collection, neighbourhood surveillance, post-incarceration monitoring and other crime prevention activities,” Li said.
According to state media, more than 850,000 such volunteers were registered across Beijing in the summer of 2017. In different districts, they have tailor-made names, too. For example, in Xicheng distract, 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, Beijing police developed a mobile phone app with the same name, offering citizens a tool with which to provide tipoffs. By then, Chaoyang district officials had claimed that about 130,000 names had already been registered with them – 277 people per square kilometre. On average they provided close to 20,000 tipoffs every month, for sins ranging from terrorism to drug use and theft.
Earlier this year, a Beijing community police officer told a Chinese newspaper that if neighbourhood watchers on the lookout for prostitution find a girl who always goes home in high heels and short skirts at 2am-3 am with different men, “then it’s time for us to step in and check what exactly she does”.
According to the same newspaper report, Chaoyang volunteers are paid 300 yuan to 500 yuan (£35-£60) a month. And if accidents happen in the line of duty, volunteers receive up to 1.2m yuan (£136,000) insurance compensation as well as an additional subsidy.
In recent years, neighbourhood watchers have often been credited with turning in prominent artists and celebrities. These include the 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 as early as 1974 detailing the way they assisted the police in the arrest of Soviet spies.
But not every volunteer is happy at the association with spying, or the claims of financial reward, said Wu. “The state wanted to create an impression that there are gender, class and ethnic internal enemies and emphasise the securitisation of urban life, but most volunteers I spoke to were just there to kill time and keep the community clean and nice.”
Nevertheless, the authorities began to promote them, releasing a set of cartoons for them in 2015. In 2017, China’s president, Xi Jinping, spoke fondly of them when inspecting Beijing. “Where there are more red armbands, there is extra safety and peace of mind,” he said.
“[The Chaoyang masses] have three magic weapons,” 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 hard to discern, and they are good at reasoning.”