“The Police’s Strength Is Limited, but the People’s Strength Is Boundless”

By Jessica Batke

This article originally appeared on ChinaFile.

To Supplement Law Enforcement, Local Governments across China Are Recruiting Citizen “Vigilantes”

In a video posted to a Chinese social media platform, young women in crop tops, Hello Kitty t-shirts, and jeans pose together in the middle of an empty, tree-lined road. Electronic dance music plays in the background, the singer crooning in English, “Tonight I wanna drown in an ocean of you.” Then, as the beat drops, the volunteers suddenly appear in crisp black uniforms, complete with caps, boots, and epaulets. They march confidently, determinedly, towards the camera, their feet hitting the pavement in time with the song.

These women are members of the “Shangrao Vigilantes,” an all-volunteer group that advertises itself as supporting and supplementing the local police. The Shangrao Vigilantes, named after the city in Jiangxi province in which they are based, also posted a similar video featuring male volunteers.

Additional social media clips show the Shangrao Vigilantes, and other similar groups, guarding school gates in order to keep children safe from street traffic, or, as dramatized in one video, to prevent attackers from entering school grounds. Other common activities include street patrols, waterfront patrols to prevent drownings, directing traffic, conducting traffic stops, and mediating local disputes, such as a conflict between two neighbors over the placement of an air conditioning unit.

In one video, over stirring music, a deep male voice intones, “Even though they are not police, they embody the volunteer spirit of communal governance, justice, bravery, and dedication.” Stills flicker across the screen, featuring black-uniformed individuals marching through the streets at night and staging group photos in front of police stations. “Fighting shoulder to shoulder with police forces, they come from all walks of life.”

In some ways, “vigilantes” are the opposite of what their name suggests: rather than rogue agents meting out street justice, they are individuals deemed trustworthy by authorities, working under the guidance of local police forces, deputized to surveil their fellow citizens. In recent years, as Beijing has encouraged the “masses” to take a greater role in public safety, vigilante groups—and their close cousins, “safety promotion associations”—have sprung up across the country, working with the police to conduct traffic stops, mediate disputes, or even “catch [suspects] on the spot.” Indeed, China’s police are likely in need of some help. Despite perceptions to the contrary, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) police forces are undersized and underfunded, and they must contend with a level of crime much higher than official statistics suggest. Volunteers likely serve as a bolster for law enforcement, taking on patrol duties and handling low-level incidents in the police’s stead. Keeping such cases out of police hands may also keep them off local crime registers, helping local officials make it seem like crime has dropped on their watch. But more than anything, these volunteers serve as another corps of eyes and ears to help the state enforce its vision of a “stable” society—one in which discontented citizens present no threat to the Party, their complaints having either been promptly addressed or promptly silenced.

Vigilantes and other safety promotion groups are merely the newest iteration of the Party-state’s effort to enmesh citizens in its broader grassroots surveillance and control project. Since the mid-2000s, authorities have employed “grid workers” to monitor the comings and goings in assigned quadrants of their neighborhoods, reporting any unusual or alarming incidents to their higher-ups, as part of a “grid management” system that aims to improve the provision of government services and quash illegal behavior, including protesting.

In 2013, with encouragement from General Secretary Xi Jinping, official media revived a mostly-dormant, Mao-era concept known as “the Fengqiao experience.” During the turbulent class struggle of the 1960s, Fengqiao, a town in Zhejiang province, “mobilized” residents to deal with the “enemies” in their midst; this often meant people informed on their own friends and family. Mao Zedong praised the effort as an example of the masses’ “[taking] part in the general work of public security.” When Xi invokes it today, the Fengqiao experience is less about intrafamilial betrayals or class struggle. Instead, it is deployed to valorize citizens’ monitoring of one another. As Lynette Ong writes in Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China, “during the Xi Jinping era, mass mobilization has been revamped as a political strategy to legitimize increased state control of society.” This has not only reinvigorated the influence of traditional local power brokers, such as members of local residents’ committees, but has also increased authorities’ appetite for deploying volunteers to monitor and report on their neighbors.

Beginning in the mid-2010s, localities throughout China began to establish hundreds of non-governmental associations dedicated to “safety promotion.” In southern China’s Guangdong province alone, the public security department claimed in late 2022 that 670,000 citizens had registered as members of nearly 200 such groups. This is equivalent to one in every 190 Guangdong residents, or more than three times the size of Guangdong’s regular police force. Even more recently, localities have seen the formation of similar, volunteer “vigilante” groups. Some such groups are set up by local Party Politics and Law Committees, though many of them are registered as non-governmental organizations—meaning their exact status remains somewhat murky, and it’s not always clear who established them.

But only in the last few years has Beijing moved to codify the integration of volunteers into local policing. In October 2022, the Party Congress work report—an authoritative document that communicates the Party’s priorities for the following five years—for the first time used the phrase “mass prevention and control” (群防群治). This term refers to ordinary people’s (“the masses”) involvement in public security work (“preventing” and “controlling” low-level crimes or other unwanted behavior). The term’s inclusion in the report signaled the Party’s elevated focus on citizen participation in managing public security concerns. In March 2023, the Ministry of Public security released a three-year plan emphasizing front-line, grassroots police work; the plan included the requirement to “develop and strengthen mass prevention and control forces; improve urban and rural (community) security associations in accordance with the law; actively cultivate ‘vigilantes’ and other such public safety-related social organizations; and encourage mass prevention and control forces to become redder, more organized, more informatized, and more youthful.”

To entice potential volunteers, authorities offer perks and sometimes even cash rewards. One safety promotion association in Shenzhen’s Bao’an District hands out cash to those who catch suspects. The Huiji district, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, awards “points” which can be spent in a “points mall.” One volunteer, describing his vigilante organization on Douyin, mentioned the discounts available to volunteers at hotels and stores, as well as “preferential policies” that offer unspecified benefits to parents enrolling their children in school.

But volunteers may also have more civic-minded motivations for joining up. Describing the “Chaoyang Masses,” a group of citizens in the Chaoyang area of Beijing who voluntarily inform the police about “suspicious” activities, Ong writes that volunteers “see the opportunities to serve as a genuine badge of honor. Albeit less ideologically charged, they are close cousins of the activists in the Mao-era, who were willing to devote themselves to the Party . . . Chaoyang volunteers receive financial rewards for clues provided to the police, but they are fundamentally motivated by a desire to serve the community and a sense of responsibility in maintaining neighborhood security.”

The volunteers who respond to these enticements appear to be a motley bunch—a mix of students, retirees, and middle-aged workers. One village government says its vigilantes are local cadres, Party members, and veterans, in addition to “mass volunteers.” The Shangrao Vigilantes aimed to cast an even wider net in their recruitment; in 2023 the group formed a “Didi Vigilante Brigade,” enlisting drivers from the ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing as volunteers who could report “clues” and other information in the course of their normal jobs.

Systematically recruiting taxi drivers fits in with the overall profile of “informants” that authorities have long depended on to provide information about the goings-on in a community. As Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese governance at Claremont McKenna College, writes in The Sentinel State: Surveillance and the Survival of Dictatorship in China, local officials often seek “stability-maintenance informants” among people working “jobs in which they can inconspicuously observe people and activities around them. Security guards, residential custodians, taxi drivers, bus drivers, sanitation workers, and parking lot attendants thus make especially desirable informants.”

Little surprise, then, that although such volunteer groups are nominally grassroots civil society organizations, they maintain close ties with law enforcement. At least some groups receive training from local police. Local Party commissions often provide ongoing guidance to them. One government website in Shenzhen describes the local safety promotion association as a branch of the Party Committee.

And authorities in locales across China have sought both software and physical infrastructure to better manage civilian volunteers. In one district in Beijing, the local Politics and Law Commission shelled out nearly two million renminbi (U.S.$275,000) in August 2023 for hats, armbands, and vests for the area’s “mass prevention and control” force. A district in Henan province paid almost 2.4 million renminbi (U.S.$330,000) in May that same year for an online platform with WeChat integration, allowing police to dispatch volunteers to a specific location and monitor their progress, while allowing volunteers to “report anti-terrorism clues” or upload video showing them “acting heroically for a just cause.”

Companies providing such software explicitly link it to “mass prevention and control.” On its website, Shenzhen Lolaage Technology claims that in just one district of Shenzhen city, Guangdong province, police use the company’s “visual management platform” to oversee more than 45,000 members of local “mass prevention and control” teams. Lolaage describes its products as “weaving a dense information network” and helping “to achieve overall social order throughout the area,” noting that “the police’s strength is limited, but the people’s strength is boundless.”

A graphic on the Shenzhen Lolaage Technology website touts “real-time video dispatching, one call and hundreds of responses.”

The strength of the police is certainly limited. Local forces have struggled with funding and manpower for years. “Much has been made of national budget figures showing that China spends more on internal security than it does on national defense,” writes Clark University Political Science Professor Suzanne Scoggins, but “the figures do not translate into a financial windfall for ground-level police.” The police only receive a portion of central-level funding allocated for “internal security” (additional recipients include the para-military People’s Armed Police, the Procuratorate, and the Judiciary, among others). At the same time, local governments often do not have the funds necessary to make up the budgets for their police departments. Central government-mandated caps on numbers of local government employees also hamstring police stations which might otherwise hire more officers. To get around this limitation, many localities have relied on “auxiliary police,” paying them lower salaries and offering them less training than sworn officers. Volunteers may create opportunities for further cost-cutting, by allowing police stations to drop a significant number of auxiliary police officers from their payrolls. Radio Free Asia reported in November that “authorities across the country are starting to lay off auxiliary police officers and merge local police stations with a view to outsourcing much of their daily work” to “vigilante” groups.

The PRC’s actual crime rate is almost certainly far higher than official statistics maintain, according to sociologist and criminologist Børge Bakken. “From central propaganda departments to local administrative police performance practices, crime numbers are manipulated in uncountable ways. . . For instance, it is impossible to have one of the highest global inequality measures plus an extremely high rate of stranger homicides, and yet claim one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.” This means that underpowered police forces are almost certainly facing more criminal activity than publicly acknowledged.

In some cases, volunteer organizations appear to be stepping into the breach. In Guangdong province, government procurement tenders show that police are indeed leaning on civil society to help with more serious crimes. In 2022, Nancun township (part of the provincial capital of Guangzhou) contracted with the Nancun Safety Promotion Association to help with more than 40 different tasks, such as “preventing and cracking down on homicide cases (including the detection of homicides arising from petty disputes, murders, explosions, etc.)” and “cracking down on gun violence, property theft, trafficking of women and children, gambling, and organizations bringing prostitution into the area.” Similarly, the website for a different Guangdong safety association lists catching and transferring suspects to police as one of the association members’ main duties, and describes monetary awards offered for particular deeds done or injuries suffered, implying that the safety association volunteers are indeed involved in something akin to police officers patrolling a beat. Another one of the Shangrao Vigilantes’ social media posts even features a drug bust: during the course of what is described as a “regular drone patrol,” the group discovers a rooftop full of opium plants. The volunteers then accompany police to the home in question, where police proceed to dispose of the plants and, based on tips from neighbors, bring the alleged cultivator to the local police station for questioning.

Volunteer police may also help deflate official crime statistics, whether or not they actually depress crime. As The Economist reported, China’s “miraculously” low crime rate is at least partially the result of intentional underreporting: “Apart from simply ignoring them, there are several ways to keep cases off the books. Neighbourhood committees, which are run by the party, occasionally manage disputes . . . Sometimes victims are encouraged to informally seek compensation from perpetrators.” Similarly, University of Macau Sociology Professor Jianhua Xu has shown that local police sometimes encourage area residents to call police stations directly, rather than the official emergency hotline, to keep offenses from being added to local crime tallies. One police officer told Xu, “We used to hand out pamphlets, asking people to report to our community police office, instead of calling the 110 hotline. For some minor cases, we could handle them in our community police office. You’d better not make our community look very unsafe.”

Maintaining a low official crime rate serves multiple political purposes in the PRC: It bolsters the image of the Chinese communist Party (CCP) as a competent and effective ruling party, and it helps local leaders in their quest for promotions. In another study, Xu notes that crime rates in the city of Guangzhou seemed to follow the political calendar, rising dramatically as new police chiefs took office and dropping steadily during their tenures, leading the author to conclude that published crime statistics should be “understood as part of a legitimization apparatus in China.” So, by simply managing lower-level issues before they get to the police, the work of vigilantes may both free up police for more serious work as well as keep crime numbers at a politically acceptable level. This means that reports from localities in Guangdong and Hunan provinces touting drops in crime following the formation of safety promotion associations only really convey a decrease in measured crime, not necessarily a decrease in crime itself.

Of course, the Party-state aims to quash popular protest as much as it does crime, and volunteers help with this too. Another government procurement notice for the Nancun Safety Promotion Association indicates as much: It noted that the group should work to persuade petitioners—individuals seeking redress from higher-level authorities, often for perceived injustices at the hands of local officials—to return to Nancun from Beijing. During sensitive periods, the Association would keep 24-hour watch over “key persons” (a euphemism for anyone the Party-state considers potentially politically threatening), of which, at the time of the contract in 2021, there were 24. Around the time of the 70th anniversary of the PRC, the Association would organize 300 people from each village to assist the police with guard duty, paying them 150-180 renminbi (U.S.$21-25) per day. A separate tender from 2022 directed the Association to carry out a variety of activities under the rubric of “stability maintenance”: monitoring and managing migrant workers and “key groups,” as well as “preventing and properly resolving mass incidents” (another euphemism for group gatherings, including peaceful protests, the government doesn’t like).

Even if these volunteer groups cost less than sworn police officers, or auxiliary police, local governments and Party offices still often contribute funding to their formation and maintenance. Just how much the Chinese government spends on these groups overall remains unclear. In Nancun, where a quirk of procurement rules means that government outlays to the area’s safety promotion association are made public, the town government spent more than 9 million renminbi (or nearly U.S.$1.3 million) between 2020 and 2023. China has hundreds of associations with similar names, and likely many more with different appellations.

Local businesses sometimes also contribute to such organizations. In 2021, during the opening ceremony for the Longhua District Safety Promotion Association in Shenzhen, a local Party official announced that 11 area firms had donated 5.8 million renminbi (U.S.$800,000) to the Association’s fund. The leaders of a local security company and a real estate company became the Association’s chairman and honorary chairman, respectively.

Ultimately, however, civilian volunteers should not be viewed simply as a low-cost replacement for the police. They function as yet another layer—in addition to the police, grid workers, facial-recognition cameras, and online monitoring and censorship—of the PRC’s surveillance regime. Writing about the importance of intensive, low-level human surveillance as part of this regime, Claremont McKenna Professor Pei notes the key role informants play in such a system: “[S]ocial trust is the bedrock of collective action and therefore, in a dictatorship, to be feared. Political spying thus kills two birds with one stone: it identifies potential threats to the regime and it sows distrust among the population.” Will vigilante groups and safety promotion associations, drawing volunteers from the communities they patrol, make residents feel safer, or more surveilled? Or both?

And what dangers might a phalanx of minimally-trained volunteers present to the public, or even to themselves? Are volunteers putting themselves in harm’s way when they “catch suspects on the spot”? Are they at risk of harming other citizens if they decide to over-zealously “defend law and order”? “We know in criminology, if you have unprofessional people doing all these things, they will be very corrupt,” says the criminologist Bakken. “It will be chaotic.”

And yet, even without formal law enforcement training, volunteers still play a critical role in the CCP’s control apparatus: that of a buffer. As Lynette Ong notes in Outsourcing Repression, having citizens conduct “repressive acts,” such as coercing two feuding neighbors to come to a settlement, generates less backlash than deploying the police for the same purpose. As Xi Jinping’s administration has consistently worked to insinuate itself ever deeper into citizens’ daily lives, it comes as no surprise that authorities want fine-grained, hyper-local intelligence about every corner of society. By taking on some surveillance and coercive duties, vigilantes can serve as something of a cushion between an overbearing state and the citizens it targets, while still providing the information—and control—the regime demands.

Vera Liu provided research for this article.