Neighborhood committees turn capitalist in China Ex-snoop network trying to help people instead of hurt them

BEIJING — BEIJING -- Members of China's neighborhood committees used to be known as "KGB with tiny feet": nosy, elderly women who padded about in tightly bound shoes spying on local residents for the Communist Party. During the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, they helped expose and punish "Capitalist Roaders."

More than two decades later, many neighborhood committee members are "Capitalist Roaders." Instead of pouring out mind-numbing propaganda and trying to keep China faithful to Mao Tse-tung's Communist vision, they provide much-needed social services and oversee a network of small, community-related businesses.


"In the past, we were more involved in ideological work," says Tong Meirong, 71, who heads a neighborhood committee in southeast Beijing about a mile from the city's Temple of Heaven Park. Now, she says cheerfully, "as we increase our businesses, we make more profit."

The evolution of the neighborhood committee from Orwellian, snoop network to an increasing role as social service provider and entrepreneur mirrors some of the changes sweeping across this nation of 1.2 billion people. In the 1950s, the government established the committees to serve as thought police, maintaining social order, settling arguments and disseminating the Communist Party line.


Zhang Yundeng, a 62-year-old retired lumber factory worker, recalls how the committee that Tong runs once forced perceived enemies of the state to stand with their heads bowed for a half-hour and confess their "crimes." After Mao's death in 1976, the Great Helmsman's ideology faded and a very different ethic emerged: making money.

As the government dismantles its exorbitant, cradle-to-grave social service system known as the "Iron Rice Bowl," many committees are trying to help people instead of hurt them. Some, like Tong's, provide nursing home care and job placement for the laid-off state-owned-enterprise workers whose jobs have been sacrificed to build a more efficient, market-oriented economy.

Tong's council employs one worker to clean the neighborhood's dusty streets. Earlier this year, the Beijing government hired 1,800 others to help committees with various duties, such as cleaning homes and resolving domestic disputes.

Residents say the new services -- including a day care center -- make life more convenient and mark a big improvement over the days when council members spent so much time destroying people's lives.

"I like the committee better now," Zhang tells guests over peanuts, sunflower seeds and hot tea in this third-floor walk-up. "In the past, they looked for trouble where there was none. Now, it's more important for them to make money and submit it to higher authorities."

Since 1989, Tong's committee has opened at least seven businesses, including a laundry shop, a clothing manufacturing operation, a barber shop, two grocery stores and a breakfast shop. Last year, the committee made about $5,100 -- a tidy sum in what is still a poor country.

The council uses profits to subsidize services and pay members' salaries, which have risen from $5 a month in 1993 to $21 today due to the success of its businesses. The committee has also used revenue to install anti-theft gates, purchase vegetables for elderly shut-ins and provide day care for 14 children.

The 34 committee members work out of a small, red-brick office with a concrete floor off a narrow Beijing lane. Beneath a hanging fluorescent light, they work from simple wooden desks overseeing a community of 419 households whose members live in apartments provided by state-owned machinery and car manufacturing plants.


While the committee is no longer as interested in politics, it maintains a close eye on residents. Members help enforce the nation's one-child-per-family population policy. They also assist police trying to maintain China's crumbling household registration system, which is intended to restrict people from moving around the country but doesn't work very well anymore.

"We have many activists spread all around this neighborhood and they will inform us," says Tong, who wears the kind of shapeless blue and gray coat favored by Mao and is retired from Beijing's Capital Iron and Steel Co. "We always wander around in the streets, so we can easily recognize a stranger's face."

As in the past, the committees remain an extraordinary repository of information. Asked about the number of elderly in the neighborhood, one member rattles figures off the top of her head: 222 are over age 60, 17 over age 80.

"It's a census-taker's dream," says Allen Choate, who has visited neighborhood committees in 14 cities as director of program development for the Asia Foundation in San Francisco.

And that may be the committees' saving grace. For while some like Tong's are adapting to China's evolving economic landscape, others are disappearing in what might be termed "death by irrelevance."

As more apartment buildings go up in Chinese cities, tenant and property management associations are replacing neighborhood committees. And in more affluent areas, residents have less need for the committees' basic services.


China has 100,000 committees, but the numbers are declining. In Shanghai, there are a third fewer neighborhood organizations.

"Economic reform in post-Maoist China has led to an atrophying of [some of] these residence committees to the point where they are marginalized," Choate says. "People just don't really care about them much anymore."

But given the Chinese government's need to keep track of its rapidly changing society, neighborhood committees may still be the best organizations to do so. Choate also notes that some residence panels are reinventing themselves as citizen advocates on such issues as environmental degradation -- a matter of widespread concern in a country where the drive for wealth has severely damaged air, water and land quality.

If some committees allow residents to express their opinions to China's authoritarian leaders, they might finally fulfill the role Mao claimed he envisioned for them: "to pass the voice of the people upward."

"Whether or not that's feasible," says Choate, "the court is still out."

Pub Date: 11/28/98