China is rolling out a nationwide system of social control known as “grid management” in a revival of state presence in residential life that had receded as society liberalised during recent decades.
From smog-blanketed towns on the North China Plain to the politically sensitive Tibetan capital of Lhasa, small police booths and networks of citizens have been set up block by block to reduce neighbourhood disputes, enforce sanitation, reduce crime — and keep an eye on anyone deemed a troublemaker.
The rollout coincides with a broader tightening of state control over civil society and crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping.
“The grid management system is an attempt by the authorities to re-establish its control over individuals,” said Li Dun, an expert in public management at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “The aim is to reinstate the idea of upholding the party’s leadership.”
An earlier system of neighbourhood committees, which monitored every urban citizen, has declined since the mid-1990s as private housing became more common and social controls faded. “Grid management” also harks back to the baojia system of the ancient Chinese dynasties, when groups of neighbours were responsible for mutually enforcing proper behaviour.
During a recent journalists’ tour of Lhasa, officials credited grid management for the calm and order in the city. The mass troop deployment that followed a 2008 riot was no longer visible, although local residents said the heavy security presence was reinstated during Tibetan holidays or sensitive anniversaries.
As well as small police booths that stud residential blocks in Lhasa, there are police booths at the entrance to villages around the city, as well as much larger checkpoints set up like tollbooths on the roads leading into larger towns.
“The masses manage themselves and serve themselves, this is a Chinese characteristic,” said Qi Zhala, Lhasa’s party secretary.
The system is being introduced relatively late in Guangzhou, in the traditionally more freewheeling south. The city plans to hire 12,000 grid administrators so each can be responsible for 200 families. Like many government plans in China, the numbers appear to be based on the population of registered residents, not the migrants who swell into big cities.
“If a grid administrator is responsible for 200 families, he can roughly remember who is in his grid in one month’s time and grasp the basic information of each family in about three months’ time. In six months’ time, he can count every member of those families,” Guangzhou’s mayor, Chen Jianghua, was quoted as saying by Oriental Outlook, a magazine run by Xinhua.
“He will even have a clear idea of the numbers of migrant workers living in his grid and how much they are paying for their rent,” Mr Chen said.
Many of the armband-sporting neighbourhood watchers in Lhasa are beneficiaries of a national jobs programme. Mr Qi said their deployment had helped Lhasa eliminate “zero employment families”.
“If you can’t find a job for them in one block, you can move them to the next,” he said.
Deng Xiaogang, the second most senior Communist party official in the Tibet Autonomous Region, said grid management was not being used to keep migrants out of Lhasa but did acknowledge that “we might ask to see your ID”.
Rural migrants from other Tibetan areas are instantly recognisable by their different hairstyles and traditional, long-sleeved coats, and were blamed for the arson and violence of the 2008 riots.
One teenage boy from a rural area to the north of Lhasa said he was often stopped by police when he visited the city. “They check our ID and sometimes they curse at us,” he said. “It’s OK. I can accept being cursed at.”
Additional reporting by Luna Lin
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