‘Young people do it too – as soon as they retire,’ Mrs Zhang
reassures me as she hands me an armband and fishes about for a safety pin. ‘You
have to wear an armband, or what are you doing?’ I’m also given a baseball cap,
which feels like overkill, but apparently it looks good. I feel alert and
Technically Mrs Zhang has retired from volunteering, but that’s not
immediately obvious and there’s still a lot to keep a look out for. She started
as a teenager and has racked up over 50 years of experience as a public
security volunteer (zhianzhiyuanzhe, 治安志 愿者).
They’re stationed in every residential compound across China, keeping an eye on
all comings and goings. There’s no specific training; you learn on the job, she
tells me. Duties depend on your age and experience, you generally patrol alone
and for about three hours with shifts arranged via a register. Every staircase
in a compound should have someone registered as a volunteer. If there’s a big
event on in the city, all volunteers are drafted in and have to be on duty with
their armbands (hongxiubiao, 红袖标).
‘It’s a real hardship doing this job. Wind, rain, snow, heat – you have to go
out in all of it,’ she tells me. Thankfully, it’s a beautiful day. The weather
has brought everyone outside and no doubt the compound will be rife with
springtime vice for us to crack down on.
People have used the compound for
parking in and walking to the nearby subway station, but that’s not a big deal.
I edge over to the card games and mah-jong tables surrounded by retirees to see
if they’re illicitly gambling for money. No.
Everyone knows everyone, which is
the main form of defence. Ironically, this makes me the main threat. I detect a
distinct coolness in the dealings with the security guards (bao’an, 保安).
They’re hired privately, paid for by the apartment service fees, whereas the
volunteers are organised through the compound’s residents’ committee (juweihui,
which is a political structure.
‘We report everything back in an annual report
this thick [gestures an inch with finger and thumb] that’s broken down into the
months,’ says Mrs Zhang. ‘They take the report and then can make posters about
the things people need to look out for.’ She pauses and smiles: ‘Once one of
the bao’an had his own motorbike stolen’.
There’s not actually anything to
report today, which is (disappointingly) good. So I ask what sort of things
could happen. ‘Thieves doing reckies, coming in a few times during the day to
look for things to come back for at night. Kids dropping litter. We look out
for fights, old people’s issues, youth issues, student issues, people being
ill, family planning issues.’ It turns out there’s even a specialist volunteer
who looks into family planning issues. Additional children have been reported
There’s a lady who’s not been feeling well today. Everyone wants her to go
to hospital, but she’s not interested. I’m assigned to helping her up the
stairs to her apartment as this is also part of the job, I learn. It’s abundantly
awkward but does prove rather effective as she keeps stopping to compose
herself for photos, meaning she’s not even out of breath at the top.
I ask if
there are any incentives for volunteers. ‘I got some washing powder once and
some towels. How is it organised in your country?’ I try to explain that we
don’t have public order volunteers in the UK. ‘But how are people monitored?’
Still by the retired, I realise – just without the armbands. Mrs Zhang explains
there are still plenty of volunteers coming through: ‘The volunteers get old
and die, then there are new ones, and when they die there are more new ones’.
And does everyone you intervene with do what you say? ‘Of course! We wear the