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Xi Jinping’s recipe for total control: An army of eyes and ears

GILLES SABRIE / NEW YORK TIMES
                                Volunteers from a neighborhood committee stand watch on a street in Beijing on April 3. China’s leader Xi Jinping is reviving a Mao-era type of home surveillance campaign: more visible, more invasive, always on the lookout for real or perceived threats and potential unrest.
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GILLES SABRIE / NEW YORK TIMES

Volunteers from a neighborhood committee stand watch on a street in Beijing on April 3. China’s leader Xi Jinping is reviving a Mao-era type of home surveillance campaign: more visible, more invasive, always on the lookout for real or perceived threats and potential unrest.

BEIJING >> The wall in the police station was covered in sheets of paper, one for every building in the sprawling Beijing apartment complex. Each sheet was further broken down by unit, with names, phone numbers and other information on the residents.

Perhaps the most important detail, though, was how each unit was color-coded. Green meant trustworthy. Yellow, needing attention. Orange required “strict control.”

A police officer inspected the wall. Then he leaned forward to mark a third-floor apartment in yellow. The residents in that unit changed often, and therefore were “high risk,” his note said. He would follow up on them later.

“I’ve built a system to address hidden dangers in my jurisdiction,” the officer said, in a video by the local government that praised his work as a model of innovative policing.

This is the kind of local governance that China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants: more visible, more invasive, always on the lookout for real or perceived threats. Officers patrol apartment buildings listening for feuding neighbors. Officials recruit retirees playing chess outdoors as extra eyes and ears. In the workplace, employers are required to appoint “safety consultants” who report regularly to the police.

The Chinese Communist Party has long wielded perhaps the world’s most sweeping surveillance apparatus against activists and others who might possibly voice discontent. Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, the surveillance reached an unprecedented scale, tracking virtually every urban resident in the name of preventing infections.

Now, it is clear that Xi wants to make that expanded control permanent, and to push it even further.

The goal is no longer just to address specific threats, such as the virus or dissidents. It is to embed the party so deeply in daily life that no trouble, no matter how seemingly minor or apolitical, can even arise.

Xi has branded this effort the “Fengqiao experience for a new era.” The Beijing suburb in the propaganda video, Zhangjiawan, was recently recognized in state media as a national exemplar of the approach.

“Fengqiao” refers to a town where, during the Mao Zedong era, the party encouraged residents to “re-educate” purported political enemies, through so-called struggle sessions where people were publicly insulted and humiliated until they admitted crimes such as writing anti-communist poetry.

Xi, who invokes Fengqiao regularly in major speeches, has not called for a revival of struggle sessions, in which supposed offenders were sometimes beaten or tortured. But the idea is the same: harnessing ordinary people alongside the police to suppress any challenges to the party and uphold the party’s legitimacy.

The party casts this as a public service. By having “zero distance” from the people, it can more quickly gather suggestions about, say, garbage collection or save residents the trouble of going to court over business disputes. Instead, conflicts are hashed out by party mediators.

Xi frequently points to the Fengqiao experience as proof that the party is responsive to people’s needs and desires, even as he has smothered free expression and dissent.

It is also an effort to assert his political legacy. Top officials have hailed Fengqiao as an example of Xi’s visionary leadership, while scholars have described it as “a model for showcasing Chinese governance to the world.”

The campaign strengthens Beijing’s repressive abilities at a time of mounting challenges. With China’s economy slowing, protests about unpaid wages and unfinished homes have increased. Tensions with the West have led Beijing to warn of omnipresent foreign spies. The party has also tightened scrutiny of groups like feminists, students and LGBT rights activists.

In the name of Fengqiao, the police have visited Tibetans, Uyghurs and other minority groups in their homes, promoting party policies. Companies have been required to register their employees in police databases. Government workers have given “anti-cult” lectures at churches. Police officers and judges have been installed in elementary schools as “deputy principals of law,” keeping files on students’ perceived risk levels.

But by blocking even mild or apolitical criticism, the party could also erode the very legitimacy it is trying to project.

A Mao idea, repurposed

Xi’s interest in the Fengqiao experience dates back two decades, to when he was still ascending the ranks of power.

The year was 2003, and Xi had just been named party secretary of Zhejiang province in China’s east. China’s economic opening had brought great wealth to the province, but also led to rising crime. Xi was looking for a solution. According to official media reports, he turned to a small Zhejiang town called Fengqiao.

The town had entered party lore in the 1960s, after Mao exhorted the Chinese people to confront “class enemies,” such as landlords or rich farmers. In the official telling, Fengqiao residents at first clamored for the police to make arrests. But local party leaders instead urged the residents themselves to identify and “re-educate” the enemies.

Ultimately, nearly 1,000 people were labeled reactionaries, according to Fengqiao officials. They and their families had trouble finding work, going to school or even getting married. Mao declared the “Fengqiao experience” a model for the country. Not long after, he launched the Cultural Revolution, another mass movement that led to a decade of bloodshed.

After Mao died, the phrase fell out of favor, as his successors distanced themselves from the chaos of his rule.

Xi, though, embraced the phrase. His first visit to Fengqiao in 2003 was to the local police station, where he inspected an exhibition about the 1960s. Months later, he visited again and praised the idea of nipping problems in the bud. “Though the situation and responsibilities we face have changed, the Fengqiao experience is not outdated,” he said.

Xi’s call for more social control was part of a broader shift by the party, amid the rapid change of the 2000s, toward “stability maintenance” — a catchall term for containing social problems and silencing dissent.

After Xi became top leader in 2012, he redoubled that focus. Mentions of Fengqiao in state media became ubiquitous. Then came the coronavirus pandemic — and the government began tracking individuals’ movements down to the minute.

It did so partly through technology, requiring residents to download mobile health apps. But it also leaned on old-fashioned labor. Using a method called “grid management,” authorities divided cities into blocks of a few hundred households, assigning workers to each. Those workers went door to door to enforce testing requirements and quarantines, sometimes by sealing people into their homes.

State media hailed China’s early success in containing COVID as proof of the Fengqiao experience’s continued utility. Chinese research papers described Fengqiao-style policing during the pandemic as a model for crisis management around the world.

When people began to chafe at the restrictions — culminating in nationwide protests in 2022 — the granular approach proved its utility in another way, as the police used facial recognition cameras and informants to track down participants.

“The architecture is there,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who recently published a book about China’s surveillance state. “After three years of lockdowns, seeing how the system works probably gave them a lot of insights.”

A push to penetrate daily life

The COVID controls are gone. The stepped-up surveillance is not.

It is clear now that the government’s heightened intrusiveness during the pandemic was an acceleration of a longer-term project. Xi’s goal is to deploy the masses to bolster the party, as Mao had done, but without the turmoil. That is where technology and the police come in, to ensure people never slip out of control.

“This is the next iteration” of the party’s obsession with stifling unrest, said Suzanne Scoggins, a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts who has studied Chinese policing.

And Beijing is pushing to expand it rapidly. It has encouraged local governments to hire many more workers to watch assigned grids. Last month, the party also issued its first-ever top-level guidance on the management of such workers, calling for stronger ideological training and formalized rewards and punishments.

Those new grid monitors will supplement the extensive ranks of China’s surveillance workers, which on top of uniformed police and party workers also include as many as 15 million ordinary people recruited as local government informants, according to Pei’s research.

Beijing also deploys vast numbers of “security volunteers,” mostly retirees, during important political meetings or holidays. They are tasked with ensuring the streets look orderly: steering homeless people into shelters, scolding those who litter and alerting the police if they see suspected protesters.

On a recent Thursday in central Beijing, two residents stood on the sidewalk wearing red vests and name tags. They would be there for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, guarding their assigned grid unit of three apartment buildings, said one of them, Qi Jinyou, 76. Other duos were stationed regularly down the block.

Qi had joined about a year ago, after neighborhood officials called residents at home to recruit. In return, he received gifts like tissues or toothpaste. But he also felt a sense of duty: “We have to protect, right? Safety first.”

In Zhangjiawan, the Beijing suburb held up as a model of Fengqiao’s successes, some residents praised the increase in patrols. Near a billboard depicting a smiling Xi, a meat seller named Wang Li said that neighborhood officials often inspected for fire hazards like loose electrical wires, or reminded residents to go for health checkups.

Seeing police cars on patrol when she got off work late, she said, “I feel more at ease.”

‘To grind you down’

Others have seen how the approach can be used to try and compel obedience.

On the outskirts of Zhangjiawan, the government is demolishing and redeveloping several villages into a tourist attraction. By January, 98% of the roughly 1,700 households had agreed to relocate, thanks to village representatives who had visited homes more than 1,600 times, according to a social media post by the local government touting how the Fengqiao experience had “taken root.”

They “won trust with their professionalism, and intimacy with their sincerity,” the government said.

A villager named Mu was one of the holdouts. Standing outside the low-slung house that her family had lived in for more than 20 years, she surveyed the fields where neighboring buildings had already been flattened.

Party officials and representatives of the developer had repeatedly called and visited her family, urging them to move out, but she felt the compensation was too low.

“They don’t have a proper conversation with you. They just send people to grind you down,” said Mu, who asked that only her surname be used.

One night, as negotiations dragged on, men were stationed outside their home to intimidate them, she said. Their water supply was also cut off during the demolition of nearby buildings, but local officials did not seem to care about that, Mu said: “Not a single village official has come to ask, how can we help with this water problem?”

She and her siblings now drive into town to fill bottles with tap water.

The risks of empowering low-level officials to fulfill sweeping political mandates became especially clear during the pandemic. Under pressure to prevent infections, neighborhood workers at times prevented residents from buying groceries or seeking medical care.

Even high-profile political activists, for whom surveillance has long been routine, have felt the controls intensify. Wang Quanzhang, a human rights lawyer who was released from more than four years in prison in 2020, said that 30 or 40 people were watching his home in Beijing at any given time. He shared photographs of groups of men in black clothing sitting inside his building and following him on the street.

Several landlords had forced him to move out, under official pressure, he said. Authorities had also pressured schools not to let his 11-year-old son enroll, he added.

“We didn’t think that when they couldn’t chase us away from Beijing, they would start targeting our child,” he said. “After the epidemic, it’s gotten worse.”

The cost of control

The success of this labor-intensive approach hinges upon the zeal of its enforcers. That has often worked to the advantage of the party, which uses financial incentives, appeals to patriotism and sometimes threats, such as to their jobs, to mobilize officials and ordinary people alike.

But the reliance on an army of paid workers could also be the surveillance apparatus’s central weakness, as the slowing economy forces local governments to tighten budgets.

Already, some community workers and police officers have complained on social media of being overworked.

Even propaganda about Fengqiao has acknowledged the toll of making officials responsible for ever-smaller issues. One state media article lauded a police officer who, to resolve a dispute between neighbors, helped unclog a blocked pipe. “Suddenly, a large amount of sewage and feces sprayed onto his head and body,” the article said. The residents, the article continued, “felt both pity and gratitude.”

The party’s tightening grip could also stifle the dynamism that it needs to revive the economy. A fried chicken vendor in Zhangjiawan, who gave only her surname, Ma, said she had not made enough money to pay her rent for three months, in part because constantly patrolling officers prohibited her from setting up her cart on the sidewalk.

“If the economy suffers, then there will be security problems,” she said. “People need to eat. If they get anxious, things will get messy.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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