China's vigilant 'grandmas' keep tabs on neighborhood and miss nothing 'A brilliant system of social control'

August 12, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Chai Liyong and her husband Li Deqiang were troubled newlyweds.

He made only $15 a month, a very low wage for an urban Chinese worker. Ms. Chai, a country girl, could not find a job. They lived crammed into a two-room apartment with Mr. Li's elderly parents and their newborn child.

Eventually, Mr. Li started beating his new wife so badly that she fled with their son to her mother's home outside Beijing and threatened divorce.

But then along came 61-year-old Yao Jinglan, the iron-fisted "grandma" who directs the neighborhood committee for Peace and Morality Lane, a dozen four-story buildings in a three-block area of north Beijing where the young couple lives.

Grandma Yao and her chief lieutenant, 52-year-old Lu Jingding, told Mr. Li that he was lucky to have a wife because he was not exactly handsome and he was a little slow in the head.

Finding Ms. Chai at her mother's house, they told her they would see to it that Mr. Li no longer beat her and implored her to think of the effects of a divorce on her young son.

They also threaded Beijing's daunting government bureaucracy to obtain a business license for Ms. Chai so she could begin selling vegetables in a nearby free market.

"At first, I didn't understand why they were getting involved in our affairs," Ms. Chai said. "But then I began to understand what the grandmas were saying."

Ms. Chai returned to Peace and Morality Lane and set about making a relative fortune peddling vegetables. Her husband's temper improved. And now the young couple claims, as Ms. Chai put it, "We are living a harmonious life -- thanks to the grandmas."

Neighborhood committees and the "grandmas" and "aunties" who run them are a major means of grass-roots political control here, and almost everything about residents' lives falls within their purview. There are about 100,000 such committees in China's cities. In rural China, every village has a similar organization.

"It's really a brilliant system of social control," said a Beijing government worker. "It's like that British novel, '1984,' in which there're all those people whose only job is to watch the other people.

"A lot of people fear and hate their neighborhood committees because they can come in your house at any time and cause you a lot of trouble. But people have no choice but to accept them, because you need to get along with your neighborhood committee in order to get by."

The vast majority of neighborhood committee workers are older, retired women like Mrs. Yao, a squat 61-year-old who used to operate a smelting furnace and whose broad, quick smile belies a fierce attention to the lives of the 2,335 people under her watch.

It wouldn't occur to Grandma Yao that young newlyweds like Ms. Chai and Mr. Li, both 28, might resent her intrusion. It's inconceivable to her that she would not have been aware of their problems.

"Of course I know everyone in this neighborhood and everything that goes on here," Mrs. Yao offered with a confident laugh.

Part mother-confessor and part sergeant-at-arms, Grandma Yao is the main link between the 700 households of Peace and Morality Lane and the Communist Party -- a firm political link coated with a matron's sugar-coated, common-sense touch.

A survey conducted by a Beijing newspaper last year found that neighborhood committees tackle 156 different jobs, from picking up trash to taking care of workers' preschoolers.

The committees make sure every household is up to date on the latest Communist Party propaganda; organize round-the-clock security patrols; snoop on who lives where and who is visiting whom; wage public hygiene campaigns; monitor married couples' sex lives, and do not hesitate to get involved with family disputes, such as that between Ms. Chai and Mr. Li.

Though they serve modern Communist purposes, neighborhood committees echo a system employed in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a system in which every 100 households were supervised by a self-selected leader who was in charge of law and order, tax collections and community projects such as dike repairs.

After the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989, neighborhood committee workers fanned out to search households for stolen weapons and "counterrevolutionaries."

During last month's celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, the committees held neighborhood rallies, contests and songfests. Grandma Yao led a Peace and Morality Lane assembly in singing the tune, "Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China."

Chief among their functions is to disseminate the government's latest directives through political study sessions or by simply blaring them out over neighborhood loudspeaker systems. In this role, neighborhood committees "are the flesh and blood of the relationship between the [Communist] party and the masses," the Shanghai newspaper Liberation Daily recently advised.

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