Volunteering for a day with China's most grassroots level of government

Andy Boreham
The juweihui is the lowest form of administrative governance in China, with thousands in Shanghai alone. 
Andy Boreham
Directed by Andy Boreham. Shot by Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Andy Boreham. Subtitles by Zhao Yuzheng and Andy Boreham.

You quite possibly heard the word juweihui (neighborhood committee) for the first time when novel coronavirus showed up in Shanghai a year ago. They were the workers running around your xiaoqu (residential compound) taking temperatures, supplying masks and ensuring everyone knew how to keep safe.

The juweihui is the lowest form of administrative governance in China, with thousands in Shanghai alone. Every single household is within the jurisdiction of one, including yours.

Its members, headed by the secretary, are voted in democratically every five years — exactly how is usually up to the juweihui in general and can include one vote per household, votes by neighborhood representatives, or some other arrangement. In my compound, only holders of Shanghai hukou (registered residency) can vote.

These neighborhood committees then work full time keeping one or more apartment complexes running smoothly on a daily basis. In Shanghai, they usually have fewer than 10 full-time staff in charge of the smooth running of communities with thousands of residents.

If you’ve got unruly neighbors, your juweihui will help you out. If you need to quarantine at home, it’s the juweihui who will ensure you have supplies and handle all your documentation. When someone knocked on your door last year to interview you for the latest census, that was your juweihui.

It’s a lot of work, which is why every juweihui also has a volunteer program. Volunteers are required to work at least four hours a month and can be asked to perform a myriad of tasks from collecting rubbish to visiting elderly residents at home.

I wanted to find out more, so I signed up for a day at the Guilinyuan Community in Xuhui District, a juweihui that administers three residential compounds with around 3,200 residents in total.

Its Secretary Hou Yaqin met me at the gate and welcomed me in with a hot cup of water. It was a cold morning, so I also donned a volunteers’ jacket. Before my water cooled down enough to sip, though, we were on our way. First stop: the trash sorting station to do an unannounced inspection.

According to Shanghai law, household waste needs to be sorted into four categories. Retired residents usually sign up to volunteer at the rubbish dumping areas on a daily basis, and as expected I found everything in order. I wondered if I, too, might become such a volunteer when I retire. It seems like a good excuse to chat and meet fellow residents.

By now the sun was shining bright, so Hou suggested we head to the next inspection site. “Whenever the weather is really good, like now, elderly residents like to get out in the sun and have a bit of exercise,” she told me as we walked toward another xiaoqu in her jurisdiction.

Like many residential communities, this one has an outdoor gym, of sorts, which elderly residents like to use to keep fit. But because it has moving parts, it needs to be inspected every week for loose screws or anything else out of the ordinary.

No problems there, so it was on to my next task: handing out handwritten 福 (good fortune) characters painted on red paper, a Chinese New Year tradition.

But surely work in the juweihui isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. This place is home to 3,200 people, after all, so there must be some problems or issues the committee face in their daily work.

“Of course there are issues,” Hou said. Just then we ran into an elderly resident hobbling along with a hand full of groceries. The secretary took the groceries from his hands and helped him to his apartment door, where he then had to slowly and painfully climb six flights of stairs — this compound was built decades ago and there are no elevators.

When we got upstairs we helped him open the door and put his groceries on the table. His wife, also over 80 years of age, came to greet Hou, who they know well. After the usual pleasantries, the topic swiftly changed.

“When will we be getting an elevator installed?” the man’s wife asked as her husband stood there panting. “Look at him, he can’t do this every day.”

The secretary spent about 20 minutes chatting with the couple about the hardships of installing elevators in such old buildings and assured them she was doing all she could liaising with the local government.

Shanghai’s government has installed elevators in numerous local communities over the past few years, but in some places it’s just not possible. I’m no expert, but I feel this might be one of those cases.

By about 4pm, after cleaning up rubbish, inspecting a creek, hanging posters, doing a safety inspection with a local police officer, visiting a resident on kidney dialysis and attending a meeting with experts about keeping the community green, I clocked off.

Secretary Hou reiterated how important volunteers are for juweihui in Shanghai and invited me to return whenever I have time.

I think I will, but first I’ve signed up to volunteer in my own juweihui.

Watch Andy's video to see what Shanghai's thousands of neighborhood committees do.

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