Editor’s note: Wang Defu is an associate professor of sociology at Wuhan University, whose current research focuses on urban and rural lower-level governance.
ZHEJIANG, East China — Party Secretary Hu is your typical “neighborhood auntie,” who works in the neighborhood in the eastern Shaoxing where 20th century writer Lu Xun was born, now aptly named Lu Xun Native Place Community. Having worked in local neighborhood committees for two decades, she proudly claims that she can recognize any resident just by their voice, and that she knows every house and its inhabitants. Now close to retirement, she’s finding a new and vastly different crop of community workers is coming to take her place.
Neighborhood committees sit at the bottom of China’s state structure, hierarchically the urban equivalent to a village. They are officially “self-governing,” but in practice receive “guidance” from the subdistrict office. Committee cadres have a range of responsibilities, from mediating disputes to assisting government agencies with, for example, distributing welfare subsidies or enforcing family-planning limits. The past year or so, one of their main tasks has been COVID-19 prevention and control, at various times enforcing lockdowns and promoting China’s vaccination campaign.
Hu’s successor is Zhang, a woman in her 30s who has served as the new director of the neighborhood committee for a year and a half. Though most neighborhood committee directors double as community party secretaries, the subdistrict office persuaded Hu to stay for another term as party secretary to guide Zhang in her new role. Whenever we asked Zhang detailed questions about the community, she would turn to Hu for help.
It’s easy to understand why Zhang thinks highly of her mentor. During our visit, several residents came to Hu’s office to report certain issues or simply to have a chat. Their conversations exuded a sense of intimacy that usually only exists between old friends — there was no sense whatsoever of a distinction in authority. Hu recalled fondly: “When I walked down the road, people would greet me and invite me to eat at their house. When it would rain, someone would voluntarily hand over an umbrella. These memories give me the most happiness.”
A community worker on the job in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2020. Zhang Chang/CNS/People Visual
From “auntie” to “community worker”
Generally speaking, urban neighborhood committees in China have undergone three major generational transitions.
The oldest generation, mainly middle-aged and elderly women who worked part time, were quintessential “neighborhood committee aunties.” They were even sometimes called the “small-feet detective squad” as some once had their feet bound when young and were engaged in detecting suspicious activities in the neighborhood. Outside of their committee duties, they were mainly homemakers or worked in labor unions and women’s federations.
Although paid in subsidies rather than wages, committee positions afforded a political and social status that attracted new recruits. Urban residents had limited mobility at the time, so neighborhood cadres were able to establish close relationships within a society of acquaintances. However, they had minimal authority, as neighborhood committees in those days performed only basic functions, and employers played the dominant role in residents’ lives.
This generation gradually withdrew from the stage in the 1980s. The second generation emerged in the mid to late 1990s as the first full-time cohort. As state-owned enterprise restructures laid off tens of millions of workers, neighborhood committees offered some people a new avenue of employment. At the same time, because employers no longer intervened in every aspect of residents’ lives, neighborhood committees suddenly had to assume a number of new functions, which in turn created job opportunities.
These neighborhood cadres were far more professional than their predecessors. They virtually all had to pass through formal recruitment procedures and sign employment contracts. No longer paid in living subsidies, they received actual wages. They could also work in other communities in the city instead of staying in their own neighborhood. Twenty years later, most of this generation have already retired, or, like Hu, are on the verge of retirement.
During our fieldwork in Shaoxing, we met others like her. Secretary Zhu from Huayuan Community and Secretary Wang from Shenyuan Community were also the oldest community cadres in their respective subdistricts. They have more than a few things in common: They are all women, they were once laid-off workers, they joined neighborhood committees during the city’s development of new residential communities around the turn of the millennium, and all will retire after their current term. Secretary Zhu said: “We’re the only ones left from our cohort. When we retire, all will be passed down to the younger generations.”
The phenomenon is not limited to Shaoxing — community cadres in cities throughout China are passing on the baton. Of the cities we visited, Hangzhou, also in Zhejiang, and Shenzhen have essentially completed this generational turnover, with millennials forming the bulk of community workers. In other cities this change is still underway, with some elders continuing to work as community cadres in old city districts and rural townships.
The generation of “neighborhood aunties,” once a signature of urban life in China, is collectively withdrawing from history’s stage. A generation of educated and professionally trained young “community workers” has arrived. They joined these committees as early as the beginning of the 21st century, while more were recruited in the last decade.
In 2005, the government issued a document encouraging college graduates to pursue grassroots work. Through incentives related to salaries, promotions, as well as civil service and postgraduate study opportunities, the proposal aimed to ensure that at least one college graduate would work in every rural village and every urban community within three to five years.
Over the past decade, cities have raised the threshold for community workers, to the point that being young and having a college degree are now standard requirements. This period also roughly corresponds to a massive influx of college graduates on the job market as the result of increased enrollment.
Prime or plateau?
Community work is now considered a decent job in cities around China. In Shangcheng District, Hangzhou, we found that the vast majority of community secretaries and directors were almost all college graduates born in the 1980s. Having worked for about 10 years, a considerable number of them have received promotions and are in the prime of their working lives.
But this is when they hit a bottleneck. During our fieldwork in Hangzhou, a community secretary born in 1984 said anxiously of his peers: “Many of the talented ones have left ... Among those who stayed, about seven or eight really good ones are quite resentful.”
Many find the space for professional growth limited. Once they make it to the role of secretary or director, they have essentially reached the top of the hierarchy. Should they wish to rise to subdistrict offices or other administrative departments, they must compete for the few available places via strict examinations. In a subdistrict office we visited in Foshan, in south China’s Guangdong province, only two staff members had been promoted from community secretaries in the past five years.
In Hangzhou, the neighborhood cadres who transfer to a subdistrict office still get the same salary, benefits, and job status as community workers unless they pass the civil service examination. A former neighborhood committee director, for example, had recently been appointed to oversee estate management in old communities in a certain subdistrict. He didn’t consider this to be a promotion, as his salary hadn’t increased at all — unlike his workload.
A community worker takes a break in an office in Beijing, June 2020. He Guanxin/People Visual
For those who stay on within the neighborhood, they also have little hope of earning a higher salary. Despite their accumulating work experience, their wage increase is usually limited to between 100 and 200 yuan ($15 and $30) every few years. Cadres and those with intermediate social work accreditation tend to earn more than ordinary workers, but few can obtain such certification. A community cadre in Hangzhou earns about 5,000 yuan in post-tax income, which is relatively high compared with the other cities we visited. But there is scarcely any room for further increases, and the average college graduate in Hangzhou earns nearly 50% more.
Nor do they find satisfaction from honorary incentives. As the Hangzhou community secretary born in 1984 told us, by the time they assume a leadership role, most talented workers have obtained honors at all levels — municipal, provincial, and national. Any other honor is of limited significance, because they bear little relation to their wages or promotions. The only mobility for top performers is to move between different neighborhoods, like transferring from an old and complex community to a new and simple one.
However, the reality is usually the opposite: The more skilled a community worker is, the more likely it is they’ll be assigned to a difficult neighborhood. In Hangzhou, we encountered a community secretary in his early 30s who had just transferred to a challenging community. While he was top-ranked at his original job for many years, within a year of being transferred, he found himself under tremendous pressure. On the day of our fieldwork, he had been chastised to tears by his superior because of a mistake. He confided various grievances in us, and was already considering throwing in the towel.
In the cities where the generational turnover happened relatively early, the first cohort of community workers to be recruited after graduation have already hit their professional bottleneck. Unless we introduce better policies soon, the outstanding talents of this group may soon be lost. Moreover, there are many other places where community workers still have limited job security and meager compensation.
As residential communities continue to evolve, well-rounded community workers capable of specialized services are indispensable for meeting the public’s ever-changing needs. These workers enter their prime and become invaluable resources after several years on the job, so it is of the utmost importance to improve their employment system and facilitate their growth.
A version of this article was originally published by Industry Study. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A community worker promotes virus-protection measures at a community in Shanghai, Feb. 5, 2020. Hu Haibao/People Visual)