You've seen them all over Beijing: elderly volunteers positioned at a strategic point in a neighborhood, armed only with a red band wrapped around their bicep. They may seem docile, but they're actually some of the city's more empowered citizens.
Charged with keeping a watch over every last corner of the city, Beijing's "public security volunteers" continue to grow in massive numbers, illustrating how neighborhood representations of authority help preserve the city's law and order.
Beijing has over 850,000 real-name registered public security volunteers, said municipal comprehensive management office deputy director Xu Jihui.
Comprising over 4 percent of the city's current registered population of 20 million, signifying that one out of every 25 people in Beijing spends their free time watching their neighbors. There are so many of these people that Chaoyang is able to fill each of its square kilometers with 277 of its own public security volunteers.
Even though China touts itself as being "extremely safe," the use of public security volunteers has continued to grow over the years, drawing close to doubling their number from the Post-Revolutionary Era when they comprised just 2.5 percent of the city's population in 1953. This year's number marks a six percent increase from 2009 when the city enlisted 800,000 public security volunteers to help the city with its National Day festivities.
The importance of self-policing by the public is clear to city authorities like Beijing municipal Party committee secretary Cai Qiru who described the goal to "mobilize the masses to manage the city." And, along with these massive numbers, control has also been kept.
Beijing's public security volunteers have become such a force in the city that each district has been characterized with their own unique name: the "Haidian Netizens," the "Fengtai Advisory Group," the "Dongcheng Watchers," and the "Xicheng Dama" whose 70,000 members comprise one-twentieth of the district's population.
And then there's the "Chaoyang Masses," a group so famed for their role in aiding police that netizens have dubbed them the "world's fifth information gathering organization," ranking alongside such peers as the CIA and Mossad. The Chaoyang Masses are credited with providing information leading to the drug arrests of many of Beijing's celebrity residents, most famously being Jaycee Chan.
You may usually see public security volunteers just standing around, but they do much more than that. The 60,000-strong Chaoyang Masses are responsible for giving local police an average of 20,000 tips every month.
But what are these tips? Do they signify a prevalence of crime in Beijing? To get a small glimpse behind the scenes, the conference provided details behind the Chaoyang Masses app, a way for Beijing residents to report suspicious activity while simultaneously be considered to win a cash prize.
Statistics show that in the first month the Chaoyang Masses app went live in February, authorities received 2,000 tips, 400 of which were deemed valuable. This one-fifth of police tip-off resulted in the arrests of 25 suspects, three people held for administrative punishment, and the elimination of 87 "hidden dangers."
But public security volunteers aren't just used to augment the oversight of the local police. As Tuesday's conference on municipal management and prevention of mass gatherings explained, Beijing is equipped with a standing force of 1.4 million personnel that are available for "mass gathering control."
With the city continuing to prioritize the importance of public security volunteers, it seems we'll continue to see a rise of red armbanded-grannies sitting on Beijing's street corners. And even if the information handed over to police are largely not used, the conference justifies their huge number by calling them "the most effective way of managing control in the city's hutong" due to their ability to quell disagreements and money disputes.
As the Beijing News reports, public security volunteers continue to play a valuable role in the city because "The social situation is becoming increasingly complex, and the security requirements of major events are large."
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