Reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, China mobilizes citizen spies, vigilantes to “maintain public order” and suppress religion.
Large groups of citizens, loyal to the party and serving as informers and enforcers at the grassroots level, can be seen almost everywhere in China today. They are easily recognizable by the red armband they wear prominently. The so-called “red armbands,” mobilized masses and cadres for patrolling and inspecting, have become the instrument that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to monitor the community, especially dissenters and religious believers.
The appearance of these zealous citizens enforcing a moral and disciplinary code on their fellow citizens reminds many of past Chinese social movements, like the Fengqiao Experience or the Boxer Rebellion.
The Chinese authorities have recently revived the Fengqiao Experience, a Mao-era method of using massed groups of citizens to monitor and reform, through re-education, review and explanation, those who are labeled as “class enemies” under the guise of maintaining public order.
Another historical precedent was the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). The Boxers (literally the “Fists of Harmony and Justice”) were a Chinese secret society that led the rebellion against colonialism and Christianity. Political commentator Wen Zhao sees a common thread: “What the Boxers and the Fengqiao Experience have in common is that both are forms of mass violence manipulated by those in power to commit outrageous acts in the name of truth and glory.”
Who, then, are the targets of this latest mass movement against “enemies” of the CCP? In a copy of a community government plan accessed by Bitter Winter, several target groups are listed, such as households to be or having been relocated; religious people; Xinjiang or Tibet-related groups; and petitioners. The document calls for constant monitoring of these groups, and “strengthening investigations of key villages and key persons.”
One red armband member from a local community told our reporter he was instructed to report more than common criminal behavior. As a red armband member, he was to ask detailed questions of residents about their family members’ religious beliefs, the people who visit their homes, and how long visitors have stayed with them. He was advised to pry into all kinds of matters, whether big or small, to learn everything he can. The transient population and religious venues are the primary targets of their investigations.
The mobilization of citizen enforcers can be seen everywhere. Over the last year, a team of over 3,000 “red armband” personnel was recruited in the Airport Economic Zone of Guangdong province’s Jieyang city.
They can also be found in every type of community in every province. In December 2017, more than 530 Meituan couriers (Meituan is the local online food ordering and delivery service similar to Uber Eats) in Wenjiang district of Chengdu, the capital of southwestern province of Sichuan, began wearing red armbands. They also installed the “Wenjiang Police Network Red” app on their cellphones, connecting them directly to the state surveillance apparatus. While delivering food, these couriers act as the government’s intelligence officers and information officers. As soon as they discover any “adverse signs,” they take photos and upload them to the app to notify the police.
The Wenjiang government is promoting the development of red arm bands across sectors. The authorities have asked community police officers and grid administrators to recruit security and cleaning personnel from shopping malls, stores, parking lots, and other public venues They are to be organized as security “activists,” forming a red armband mass-prevention and mass-governance system.
Churches and religious meeting places, in particular, have felt the heavy hand of the red armbands. For example, in May, officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau of Huaiyang county in the central province of Henan arrived at a government-approved Three-Self church for an inspection. The officials ordered several personnel wearing red armbands to guard the church. They were told to monitor the content of the preacher’s sermon to ensure it remains within government-prescribed parameters. They were also to enforce the regulation that believers are forbidden to wear special clothing for religious activities, and that church bands are not allowed to give performances. The red armbands were instructed to photograph and upload real-time photos of church activities. Believers report that red armband members now come to their Three-Self church often to monitor and conduct inspections.
A Three-Self church believer in Xinjiang reported a similar situation. She says that high-definition surveillance cameras have been installed in her church and that people who wear red armbands are seen regularly conducting surveillance.
The red armbands also act as police informers. In September, police from the Changzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau, in Jiangsu Province, stormed into the home of a member of The Church of Almighty God. An officer produced candid photos of the believer and claimed that they had been monitoring her for a long time. Later, the Christian recalled that she had seen a man wearing a red armband loitering near her home for long periods of time before she was arrested.
Another example of red armband harassment of religion occurred far from a church building. On April 28, Panshi Church Private School in Zhengzhou city, Henan Province, held a spring outing. The school’s teachers took the children to a park and sang songs in praise of God. Unexpectedly, red armbands from the residential subdistrict office discovered them, demanded to speak to their leader, and ordered them to leave immediately. If they refused, the red armbands would call the police.
One house church Christian told reporters helplessly: Every time there is a gathering, we must try to bypass the surveillance of the red armbands. When singing hymns, or talking to each other, we don’t dare to use a loud voice because these red armbands are everywhere. The red armbands are said to exist for maintaining public order, but people know that criminals are not the only target of the government’s so-called “maintenance of stability.” In fact, the main purpose is to conduct surveillance on religious people, dissidents, and “sensitive” persons defending their rights.
Some commentators have observed that in the face of the declining Chinese economy, traditional methods of maintaining social stability are getting more expensive. Hence, the renewed interest in the Mao-era schemes that involve the public.
The cost-saving nature of these methods is consistent with the party line coming from the mainstream Chinese media regarding the red armbands. Examples of their propaganda include: “Support issues, don’t support people; replace subsidies with awards” and “Find a shortcut to alleviate the insufficiency of the police force effectively.” Fengqiao and red armbands appear to be an excellent way to get a police state on the cheap.
Reported by Lin Yijiang