Xi's eyes and ears: The red armband brigade

A public security volunteer wearing a red armband helping to keep an eye out for trouble while the Communist Party leadership holds its twice-a-decade congress in Beijing.
A public security volunteer wearing a red armband helping to keep an eye out for trouble while the Communist Party leadership holds its twice-a-decade congress in Beijing.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • While Chinese President Xi Jinping and his elite team chart the nation's future at their leadership conclave in Beijing, his citizen army of red-armbanded foot soldiers is keeping an eye out for trouble outside.

Stationed on street corners, in front of shops and outside bars, civilians with armbands labelled "public security volunteer" have deployed across the capital as the Communist Party holds its crucial twice-a-decade gathering.

These formalised neighbourhood watch patrols come out in full force during special events such as the party congress, which is being held mostly behind closed doors and will likely hand Mr Xi a second five-year term when it ends tomorrow.

"We're in the business of improving people's quality of life," said Madam Ma Shuying, a 60-year-old party member who was patrolling the area underneath a bridge in Beijing's city centre. "We're here to give community members a sense of security," she said, beaming.

There are 850,000 registered public security volunteers in Beijing, the city said this summer.

Despite their striking "volunteer" armbands, many of the patrollers approached by Agence France-Presse appeared not to be serving the people for free.

Two armband-wearers who were helping to direct traffic in a busy commercial district appeared bewildered when asked whether they were volunteers.

"We're working," said a woman who looked harried as she pointed a driver to a parallel parking spot.

"They just gave us these armbands to wear."

However, some of the neighbourhood patrollers were truly volunteers, claiming no benefits other than the joys of the job.

Standing outside a shopping centre, a 68-year-old who gave only his surname, Ren, started volunteering during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Like many volunteers, he was impressed by Mr Xi's lengthy opening speech last Wednesday, part of which was dedicated to the fight against graft.

"The problem of corruption has not entirely been solved, but the general mood is different," he said.

"In the past, whenever you went to the supermarket during holidays you would see officials splurging, and everyone knew they were spending public funds."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Xi's eyes and ears: The red armband brigade'. Print Edition | Subscribe