For China’s Urban Residents, the Party-State Is Closer than Ever

A Q&A with Taisu Zhang

In a recent working paper, scholars Yutian An and Taisu Zhang argue that local urban governments in China emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with far more muscle and clout than they have ever had before. Unlike in the past several decades, the sub-district (jiedao, 街道, the lowest formal level of government) and the neighborhood community (shequ, 社区, technically self-governing entities below even the sub-district) now function as robust units of social control.

Though the central government had long considered—and vacillated over—giving more authority to the jiedao and shequ, the onset of the pandemic definitively tipped the balance in favor of providing these entities with greater resources and allowing them to act with more agency. This shift means that the Party-state is more present in people’s everyday lives, able to both provide services and conduct surveillance at a highly granular level.

Taisu Zhang recently spoke with ChinaFile’s Jessica Batke about this momentous change in how the Party-state interacts with its citizens. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jessica Batke: The thesis of your working paper is that the Chinese government’s reach into urban citizens’ lives expanded drastically over the course of the pandemic. The main way this happened is that the central government dictated that districts, which sit just below municipal governments in the administrative hierarchy, delegate many of their tasks and responsibilities down to the lowest levels of government, the jiedao and the shequ. But what were the jiedao and shequ empowered to do before COVID?

Taisu Zhang: The paper’s thesis is that COVID was, we think, a qualitative change, but also that there was quite a bit of buildup to COVID. Without the buildup, COVID likely would not have had this big an effect on the way local governments actually operate.

Prior to 2010, the Chinese government’s reach into local affairs was not terribly expansive. In urban centers, everything substantial was operating at the district level. And especially all of the rule enforcement [entities], including the chengguan [the Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, a sort of supplemental, unarmed police force in urban areas, charged with keeping order on the streets], were operating at the district level as their main command center. They had a presence below the district level, but that presence reported up to district-level authorities.

Right around the time that the current regime came into place [in 2012 and 2013], it began exploring ways to “descend” the overall power and influence of the government further, especially in urban centers. It began thinking, “Can we give more direct law enforcement powers to sub-districts?” And this became a common theme in top-down directives and policies over the next couple of years.

But we would also argue that actual implementation on the ground was pretty uneven. And there was a visible hesitation to do this too fully. The government had a vision of going all the way down, but it had resource constraints. Not all city governments and district governments were terribly happy to do it either, because then they would lose some of their own power.

If the central government had wanted more of this “descent” to happen, what else had been preventing it?

There are various layers of principal-agent problems [whereby a lower-level power, or agent, can take action on behalf of a higher-level power, or principal—sometimes not to the principal’s liking]. The most direct one is, if you begin delegating powers to sub-districts in this more robust fashion, districts and cities are going to have a harder time managing their agents on the ground, and they’re going to have to be more comfortable with more discretion being wielded at a lower level. And it was not clear that all city governments liked that; some of them quite visibly didn’t want to invest too much in doing so.

At the central level, they too have a control and monitoring problem. This is true of every single central government in Chinese history. They always have an uneasy relationship with their agents on the ground, because they’re always worried that the agents are going to abuse their powers, or be corrupt and cause problems that are going to come back to the center at some point. So they want control and monitoring over local agents. But the further you descend, obviously, the monitoring problems go exponential. If you go from district to sub-district, the overall costs of monitoring might triple or quadruple.

This meant that prior to COVID, even though this kind of law enforcement delegation to sub-districts was constantly being discussed, or partially in progress, or in extra experimentation in some localities, there was also always a visible hesitancy—not just on the behalf of some city governments, but also even on behalf of the center—of how far they wanted to actually push it.

The second part of the narrative is what to do with shequ, the neighborhood communities, which are the absolute lowest level of governmental presence. Basically everyone has encountered these entities. If you live in any kind of neighborhood compound in any major city, there’s going to be a shequ in there somewhere. When I was a kid, you ordered milk delivery from the shequ, and that was basically it. It seemed to have no other substantial powers, except they might be responsible for helping you repair a faulty power line or something like that.

Part of the reason for that kind of functional ambiguity is that the shequ are defined nominally in the law as local self-governance entities. So in theory, they shouldn’t be used as units of government administration. In practice, of course, that was never true. The government always knew that it had the capacity to tap the shequ if it really needed to. But prior to 2011 or so, first of all, there wasn’t much top-down demand for doing so. And second, if you think the principal-agent problem is bad at the sub-district level, then going all the way down to the neighborhood communities makes it 10 times worse.

I’m thinking of different ways to describe what the shequ were doing before the COVID-related changes took place. And the way you talk about it makes it kind of sound like 311 in New York, which you call if your garbage didn’t get picked up or something.

I think that describes most neighborhood communities. That said, in places that have a record of social unrest or local activism, like homeowner activism, it’s not hard to imagine that a higher-level state apparatus would tell the local shequ they needed to be on the watch and report back, and so on. But even then, the shequ isn’t supposed to enforce any rules, but mostly just report certain things upward. I think even that reporting function was pretty marginal in most places up until about the mid-2010s. Up until the mid-2010s, every single shequ I had ever encountered in Beijing was staffed by retirees who were 65 years old or older. And if you want to use shequ as really robust monitoring entities, that’s not the way to go.

Then around 2015, that began to transform as well. There was more talk in central-level policy documents about this thing called wanggehuaguanli (网格化管理, grid-like management), which envisioned using these neighborhood communities more as public security and social control nodes. There began to be talk of giving them more expansive monitoring powers, having them assist in law enforcement, and so on and so forth.

Is there a reason why this started happening around 2015?

Well, they had talked about it, and even experimented with it in various places from 2010 onwards. The first mention that we found actually goes all the way back to 2007. So it was a slow trickle; we’re talking about a top-down, centralized bureaucratic state here. They always wanted more information-gathering at the local level, but, given the level of staffing, and given the legal embarrassment of using these things too aggressively, and given the massive escalation problems they would have to incur if they really began to power the shequ, they never took that plunge.

But around 2010, that began to change. I think it’s mainly because this current regime is much more about overarching systemic control than the previous ones. Also, perhaps it’s their general insistence on stronger, more uniform, more systemic law enforcement. So we have a lot of things going on at the same time. But in terms of actual investments, whether they were going to send down the material resources—either money, personnel, or equipment—to actually make shequ somewhat powerful, or even whether there was a consistent rhetorical commitment to expanding the role of shequ in central policy documents, it really wasn’t all that clear.

There were stronger signals sent in 2015. And then somehow, in 2017 and 2019, in some of the central policy documents, the language weakens a little bit on how much they want to empower the shequ. Clearly, this has all been envisioned, and had been experimented with in various places, but a full-blown decisive commitment to this vision was still not completely there prior to 2020.

So then we get COVID. And with COVID, everything just fundamentally changes almost overnight. Within a year of COVID, there has been full-blown delegation to sub-districts as full law enforcement entities. They’re getting command powers over law enforcement personnel and over chengguan, especially at the jiedao level.

And then, at the neighborhood organization level . . . this is what everyone was really experiencing during the lockdowns in China. The shequ became completely activated as a unit of control. They gained coercive power. They were charged with enforcing rules and enforcing lockdowns. They were charged with enforcing health codes wherever you entered. So these guys go from being pretty invisible 10 years ago to now being the way in which you encounter governmental authority on a day-to-day basis.

Some of my friends and I have been arguing about how gradual this change was. Some of them think that I’m overselling how dramatic it was, that the buildup was more gradual than I’m allowing. Others actually think the opposite, that I’m underselling the functional change. So there’s not a ton of agreement, partially because there hasn’t been a ton of attention paid to this yet.

I thought your swim gear analogy was really helpful in thinking about this. You and your co-author write, “Imagine a person who changes into swim gear, walks up to a river, and then hesitates over whether to actually jump in. A strong gust of wind knocks him into the river, and he swims across. Without the gust of wind, there was at least a substantial chance he would not have jumped in at all, but without the preparations beforehand, he almost certainly would have climbed back onshore after being knocked in, instead of swimming across.” This analogy doesn’t resolve the question of how drastic or gradual the change was, but it helps underscore the necessity of the pre-COVID preparation in making the change possible.

I talked with urban governance scholars, and other urban planning scholars, and a couple of legal scholars, and the one thing that everyone realized was that if it hadn’t been for the preparation before COVID, COVID would have likely had the same effect as . . . you must remember SARS, right?

Yes, of course.

So SARS didn’t have any lasting impact, I think, on the way that local administration runs in China—not in any kind of institutionally permanent way or in any observable fashion. Without any preparation, COVID might have looked a lot more like SARS [from a governance standpoint]. Which also means that we might have had less zero-COVID, and not for as long. I do think that the government’s full-blown commitment to this for three years was on the back of quite a bit of preparation. They didn’t know they were preparing for COVID, but without that slow institutional buildup, they wouldn’t have been able to make use of COVID in the way that they did.

Looking at local governance in China right now, compared to, let’s say, 2011—in the final years of the previous regime—I think no one can deny that the difference is really dramatic. The feeling of how close the state is to you has just fundamentally changed.

Looking at local governance in China right now, compared to, let’s say, 2011—in the final years of the previous regime—I think no one can deny that the difference is really dramatic. The feeling of how close the state is to you has just fundamentally changed.

Back in 2010, I was still running around trying to do ethnographic research there. And I don’t know if people even remember this now that China’s become a big state regime, but back then, especially in like 2008, 2009, the complaint was that the state wasn’t aggressive enough. There was just no rule enforcement in all kinds of localities. There was randomness, there was lack of uniformity. In a lot of places, public order was pretty poor. Public security was pretty poor. You couldn’t count on the police to actually do anything. So back then, a lot of the complaints were that China just didn’t have much of a local rule enforcement apparatus. Everything was ad hoc at the local level.

And now everything is formalized and institutionalized. I took a trip to China in 2019 and then in summer 2022, and it just hit me in the face last summer how big the change was. Previously, I hadn’t even known where my neighborhood committee was. I didn’t know who was staffing it. If I needed any kind of documents, or new licenses, or anything, I went to district-level offices. The only business I ever had with my sub-district office, sub-district government, was getting my personal ID renewed, and that was a long time ago. These were not entities in your everyday life. And all of a sudden, you’re dealing with them all the time.

You say in the paper that the zero-COVID level of daily surveillance and monitoring isn’t going to continue on in the same way it has been (though the government can ramp back up at any time they choose to). But you also seem to think that these new local government powers are not going to be rescinded. Why is it likely that the jiedao and shequ will retain their new social control functions?

On the most facial, shallowest level, these powers are created by documents that are not limited to the COVID context. Throughout our paper, we distinguish between documents that speak directly to the COVID context and documents that speak a more generalized language. And all these things [we’ve been talking about], from the descent of law enforcement down to sub-districts, to the activation of shequ, these are in general documents. They’re meant to be durable at least until they’re overturned. They don’t just automatically run out with the end of zero-COVID. They’re not tied to COVID in any shape or form. COVID makes no appearance in any of these documents. Clearly, for right now at least, the plan is to keep these policies in place.

Politically, the basic fact of the matter is that the Party-state’s relationship with the population got quite strained at the end of last year. The tensions were higher than they had been for quite some time, and on a much larger scale. So if you’re wondering, “What is a good time to give up my monitoring powers?” This is not the time. Unless China somehow enters a surprise period of great economic prosperity, I doubt the government is going to feel comfortable enough to take its foot permanently off the gas.

And you think that’s true despite the cost, right? Not only the cost of staffing and supplies at the local level, but also the cost to the higher levels of government to train and monitor the lower levels and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That sounds really, really expensive. And it sounds like you think they’re willing to keep making that investment.

I think they have to at this point. Because again, if they take their foot off the gas right now they’re running the risk of losing information access to an urban population that is probably quite a bit unhappier at the moment than what it has been for some time. So they can’t risk it.

If they take their foot off the gas right now they’re running the risk of losing information access to an urban population that is probably quite a bit unhappier at the moment than what it has been for some time.

Of course, what makes this super awkward is exactly as you said—that this is such a huge cost. For every dollar you spend directly injecting capacity into local governments, you have to spend at least another dollar, or possibly two, at the higher level, monitoring that dollar on the ground. Your costs are always doubled or tripled, and if you’re going right down to the neighborhood level . . . how many neighborhood organizations are there in China? The precise number is something like two million. The cost is just astronomical. And it’s also happening at the same time that local government finances are in a tighter crunch than they’ve been in recent decades. You’re escalating administrative costs at the same time that you’re going into a fiscal crunch.

So it has to be very uncomfortable. But I also think that there’s an overall sense of vulnerability, a sense that things are not going terribly swimmingly at the moment, which will strengthen the government’s resolve to go down to local levels. You might call it a vicious cycle, where the tenser the situation is, the more you want to monitor, but at the same time, the more you monitor, the more you can see how tense it is. It escalates.