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Power of China's neighborhood committees

Updated: 2012-10-16 20:11

The community committee's function has continued changing with the country. Wang Ru reports.

Wang Zhenxiang was shocked the moment he opened the door of the room from which the mysterious stench emitted.

The tiny apartment was like a dump. It was piled with putrid trash to the point there was hardly room to walk inside.

The apartment belongs to a man in his 60s, who has a hoarding problem. He can't bear to throw anything away, he says.

Nobody knew why the building had smelled so rancid until neighbors asked Wang to investigate.

Wang called a truck and helped the man's children clean the apartment. He also persuaded the children to take their father for counseling.

Such strange experiences are everyday for Wang, a 56-year-old who has served the community Party committee since 2003. He is the committee's secretary and leads 17 colleagues to take care of various tasks at the Xiaoguan community in Beijing's Chaoyang district. It's one of the city's largest, with 8,500 households of 20,000 permanent residents.

The neighborhood committees — aka juweihui — arose as "autonomous urban grassroots civil organizations" in the 1950s.

Actually, the juweihui are the lowest level of government in charge of civil affairs. They're watchdogs, who enforce such policies as family planning, mobile population management, crime prevention and census administration.

But most urban people today, especially employed youth such as 27-year-old Mao Dan, have few connections to the committees.

Mao, who lives in a Beijing commercial residential community managed by a professional property-service company, views the committees as nothing more than "family-planning" and "population census" agents.

"I have no clue where our committee is located," she says.

"I've heard it's an easy job. All they do is stamp documents and collect fines."

That was perhaps true a decade ago.

But the acceleration of urbanization has brought the committees' primary purpose back to serving residents, especially those in need, rather than simply enforcing government decrees.

Wang spent the entire night of the July 21 downpour that killed dozens in Beijing pumping water out of the basements to prevent flooding.

Wang and his colleagues work around the clock. They undertake such tasks as organizing free hobby classes; coordinating secondhand exchange markets; removing illegal advertisements; ensuring sanitation; and organizing 500 volunteers to care for the elderly and those living with physical or mental disabilities.

"We must deal with civil affairs, no matter how trivial or important," he says.

"And residents' voices must be heard, whether they offer praise or sling abuse."

Wang joined up after passing an open recruiting exam, which the government started requiring upon realizing the job not only required patience and time but also management and professional skills.

"Community work is tough," Wang says.

"You can't do it without dedication, patience and interpersonal skills."

Most of Wang's colleagues are younger than 35 and have bachelor's degrees.

A newcomer this year is 23-year-old Ren Xiaoqian, who has two bachelor's degrees — one in law and one in business administration. She earns 1,700 yuan ($270) a month.

"It's an ideal way for me to learn how to communicate with different people and other social skills," she says.

A practical benefit of joining up is acquiring the two years of work experience necessary to take the national civil servants' exam. Another is receiving Beijing household registration.

Wang says: "I totally understand why many young people, especially men, do this for two years and then leave."

But some stay.

Yang Jinghui, the deputy director of Huixinli, another large community near Xiaoguan, has spent the last while working to exterminate American white moths — an invasive species that has been killing trees in the city.

The 38-year-old also joined the community's first batch of committee members in 2002. He had worked after graduating from college in 1995 as an auto insurance salesman, which was a high-paying job as car sales boomed.

"That job didn't fit me," he recalls.

"I'm an introvert and am not good at communication."

So, Yang decided to apply for the community job.

"It seemed relatively easy," he says.

"I thought it wouldn't take much time, and there wouldn't be much dealing with demanding clients."

But Yang quickly found it was a tough gig that required engaging all kinds of people and problems.

"It's much harder than selling insurance," he says.

He says some residents complained when a vegetable vender built a stand that obstructed pedestrians and tossed trash on the ground.

Yang talked to the vendor, who angrily relocated.

"I thought: Problem solved," he says.

"Then, residents complained it was inconvenient to buy vegetables and asked me to find another seller."

He was once beaten — and his life was threatened — by an angry resident, who wanted Yang to certify construction of a family hotel, which was illegal and beyond Yang's authority.

Yang's monthly salary is 2,800 yuan, which he says is the highest it has been in the field in Beijing.

"I felt exhausted and thought about quitting a few times," he recalls.

"But I dispelled the thoughts whenever I recalled the retired 70-year-old woman whom I succeeded. She worked wholeheartedly for more than 40 years and left with smile."

The job reflects society's progress and problems.

One important responsibility is to distribute social security and welfare to low-income households, people with disabilities and the unemployed.

Wang says: "While it delights and comforts me that more people are benefiting from the government, it makes our job harder."

One of the challenges is the vagueness of the neighborhood committee's role.

"According to the law, our core mission should be supervision and coordination of civil affairs, but we often act more like law enforcement and property managers," Wang says.

One of his greatest headaches is the prevalence of the banned practice of group-renting.

"It poses serious security and sanitation problems," Wang says.

"But we can't stop them or find the government department that should."

Wang says his work would be impossible without enthusiastic volunteers, most of whom are retirees.

His greatest concern is the sunset of the age in which "a neighbor is better than a relative", he says.

"In the old days, neighborhoods were important social platforms, and neighbors helped and cared about one another. But people don't even know who lives next door, anymore. I'm worried: Will the youth still be willing to serve their neighborhoods when they come of age?"