International media coverage of China’s coronavirus lockdown has frequently characterized its effectiveness in combatting the spread of the disease as due to the overweening powers at the disposal of an authoritarian state. But local social mobilization may have been just as crucial in reducing spread of the virus, aided by neighbourhood and village level semi-state organizations that have detailed knowledge of local communities and can mobilize networks of volunteers, as well as acting to enforce social norms and state rules.
Reports from Wuhan in lockdown described infection surveillance at neighbourhood level, with resident committee workers and volunteers taking temperatures of residents, and limiting mobility into and out of residential areas. The committees also coordinated supplies of food in particular neighbourhoods, including to people in quarantine. After all transport in the city was halted and private cars were no longer allowed on the streets, resident committees were in charge of taxis to ferry local people to hospitals. The records committees maintain on who is resident in each neighbourhood were doubtless of assistance in the massive contact tracing efforts carried out in the city, with 9,000 people in the city of Wuhan alone involved in conducting such work during the lockdown. The WHO’s February 2020 study of China’s response to coronavirus noted the important role played by community organizations.
This article draws on fieldwork I conducted community organizations in China—called resident committees in urban areas and villager committees in rural areas—as well as media reporting on how containment of the virus was carried out. Rather than an account of the role actually played by the committees in coronavirus control (which will have to await future studies) I analyse how a distinctive approach to local governance embodied in these organizations contributed to China’s response.
Initial reports from other parts of the world indicate that the mobilization of local social organizations may also have been crucial in limiting the spread of the virus. South Korea and Taiwan have local committees similar to those in China, drawing on historical Chinese models of statecraft. In the Indian state of Kerala, widespread membership in various organizations linked to the state—such as unions and women’s organizations—contributed to speedy mobilization against the virus. Vietnam has also acted effectively to limit infection, with no deaths reported so far, and undoubtedly organization at the grassroots contributed to this outcome.
Every neighbourhood and village in China has a ‘basic level organization’, an institutional form mandated in the 1982 Constitution. While the urban and rural variants have different histories and functions—for example, the villager committees exercise the collective land rights of rural villagers—they have a parallel form and some similarities. Each has jurisdiction over a designated territory with a population ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand people. Not formally part of government, they act as an intermediary between local residents and the state as a mechanism of self-government, organizing and representing the people in the neighbourhood or village, and channelling complaints and concerns from residents to local government. Committees are responsible for implementing various state policies, including administering non-employment related welfare benefits. I argue that the way these institutions link citizens to the state via place-based membership (formalized in the hukou household registration system) makes ‘local citizenship’ primary and gives social relations a strong role in determining what such citizenship means in practice. Below I focus primarily on the urban committees, given that cities have been the main location of coronavirus spread in China.
Urban resident committees have existed in some form since the early years of the communist government, founded in 1949. Since that time, they have predominantly been staffed by women, and depend on an extensive network of volunteers, also mostly female and generally middle-aged or older. While they were a marginal form in the period of Maoist ‘high socialism’ when around 90 percent of urbanites were incorporated into ‘work units’—each a productivist mini-society that provided cradle-to-grave services—the importance of resident committees increased in the post-Mao era (1978- ). In the 2000s, in the wake of the decline of the state sector and concomitant extensive layoffs, these committees were renamed ‘community resident committees’ and given an expanded role including administering non-employment related welfare targeting the poorest urbanites (such as people with disabilities) and the unemployed.
Typically, resident committees have an office space in the neighbourhood for the administration they conduct, which means they are accessible to residents in a way that local government is not. They may also provide community facilities, such as space used for meetings, social gatherings and activities of local social organizations (calligraphy clubs, seniors’ and disabled groups etc.). In their ideal type, the jurisdiction of a resident committee will coincide with a residential community with a defined, gated perimeter, thus making a distinction between insiders and outsiders in physical layout. However, gating has a complex history in the China context, which is beyond the scope of this article, but in short, should be viewed as productive of local membership, not just based on excluding outsiders—although during coronavirus lockdown, committees certainly played such a role.
Each committee generally has three or four elected officers, some of whom may be paid while others serve on a volunteer basis. Today, many if not most resident committees will also have a number of paid staff called ‘social workers’ (although in many places these staff do not have the kind of training this title implies), reflecting a national push to ‘professionalize’ these institutions over the past decade. The level of financial, human and material resources of committees depends greatly on the neighbourhood they are situated in. Their precise form also varies depending on the history of local implementation of the national regulatory and institutional framework—China’s polity is much more decentralized than is often assumed.
In a seven-month ethnography of two resident committees in urban Tianjin, a large coastal city in northeast China, I observed how resident committees’ work blurs distinctions between neighbourly care and concern, on the one hand, and state surveillance and control, on the other. This hybrid character is interpreted by observers in very different ways. Considered as an arm of an authoritarian Party-state, resident committees extend the reach of the state at the grassroots, potentially into every household. But these committees can also be a platform for community self-government and coordination as well as for neighbourly solidarity and for input to government from below. Occasionally, they may even become a site of collective resistance if neighbourhood interests conflict with plans by local government or developers, for example.
In my fieldwork, I observed both of these aspects. Resident committees are expected to keep track of the people in the neighbourhood—especially those seen as a security risk, such as members of the banned Falungong group, ex-convicts and repeat petitioners. They are a direct channel to inform and exhort residents about new rules and practices advocated by the authorities, both through posting physical notices in buildings and now through digital means, such as neighbourhood level WeChat groups. To carry out their work effectively, committees develop networks of volunteers, mostly middle-aged and older women, while also working closely with informal authority figures in each neighbourhood. This broader ‘activist’ network serves as a mechanism for circulating and enforcing community norms, which could be related to compliance with lockdown rules for example. While official discourses around the community being a ‘big family’ can be seen as the authorities taking advantage of neighbourliness—enlisting gendered forms of unpaid care in the service of the state—I witnessed instances in which the committees were important in mobilizing help for residents facing health and family crises.
In my experience, the legitimacy of the committees depends significantly on the perception that they are working for the welfare of the community; in this context, negative local gossip about committee leaders can act as a source of pressure on them. Thus the face-to-face character of this form of governance can give local citizens opportunities to hold committee leaders to account, albeit in limited ways. Such a dynamic was evident when Vice Premier Sun Chunlan went to inspect the work of one Wuhan committee at the beginning of March following several weeks of lockdown. A woman in the neighbourhood leaned out of her window and repeatedly shouted, ‘It’s all fake!’ A clip of this incident went viral, expressing the frustrations of Wuhan citizens. In my fieldwork, I heard similar accusations of fakery and ‘going through the motions’ (as opposed to doing real work)—in much less high profile situations—highlighting how residents expect committee leaders to ‘do real things’ for their neighbourhoods.
What I find intriguing is that even though the local and national state in China strictly constrain the public sphere and the scope for political action, the face-to-face politics of resident committees and the social space they provide can enable certain forms of citizenship and participation. In times of emergency, the mere existence of local platforms for collective action—including physical space—may contribute to speedy and effective responses, create a rationale for local solidarity that could mean vulnerable people receive the supplies and care that they need. Of course this is not always the case; but the potential is there.
This insight seems particularly acute in the UK, where local government and community groups have been gutted by a decade of austerity—and look where that has got us in terms of a response to the pandemic.
Woodman, Sophia. 2018. ‘All Citizenship Is Local: Using China to Rethink Local Citizenship’. In Citizenship and Place: Case Studies on the Borders of Citizenship, edited by Cherstin M Lyon and Allison F Goebel, 253–84. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Woodman, Sophia.2019. ‘Dissent below the Radar: Contention in the Daily Politics of Grassroots Organizations’. In Handbook of Protest and Resistance in China, edited by Teresa Wright, 91–103. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Sophia Woodman teaches sociology at the University of Edinburgh and is interested in local and radical forms of citizenship.
Photo caption: A small lane in a Tianjin neighbourhood houses the office of the resident committees, sited in the one-storey temporary building on the left of this picture behind the parked taxi.