Why China Is Dusting Off the 'Work Unit' System
One morning early this year, I received an unexpected knock on my door. Opening it, I found myself face-to-face with a group of neighborhood cadres from the local residents’ committee. They wanted to ask me to take on a more active neighborhood-management role.
Their enthusiastic pitch wasn’t random. To strengthen its ability to manage and oversee the grassroots level of society, China has launched a major effort to recruit so-called “danweiren,” or “work-unit people” to participate in community management. As a university professor and party member, I was a natural candidate.
From the early 1950s until the late ’70s, the “danwei” — typically translated as “work unit” — was the heart of Chinese urban life. Almost all urban residents belonged to one of these highly regimented and largely self-contained organizations, which generally existed within strict geographic confines and provided amenities for nearly every aspect of their members’ lives — from work and school to food and social activities. They were how individuals became the screws binding together the giant socialist machine, and in those days, almost everyone was a “work-unit person.”
This system greatly simplified urban governance. The city government only needed to deal with the various work units — which were only superficially different from one another — and rarely had to directly interact with individuals. Indeed, there was no concept of the individual in society, since work units kept a firm hold on their employees. Therefore, as long as urban officials could keep control over their city’s work units, it was easy to maintain social order.
The economic reforms introduced in the late ’70s inevitably impacted the work-unit system, however — especially the relationship between work units and individuals. To supporters of China’s modernization drive, dismantling the work-unit system was a significant and necessary step in the country’s socioeconomic transformation, but it also meant sacrificing the foundational unit of urban governance. Today, work units — where they exist at all — have lost their social functions. Work-unit people are free to choose where they live and what social activities they participate in. They’ve become “shehuiren,” or “society people.”
China’s urban officials have struggled to adapt to this new reality. During discussions with local officials, I realized many still harbor lingering concerns about the potential negative impact of outsiders and the country’s so-called floating population of migrants on their communities, and they’re desperate for a governance strategy to meet these challenges — preferably one they feel comfortable with.
A party member hangs a “Party Family Branch” sign in a community activity room in Zaozhuang, Shandong province, on June 29, 2012. VCG
Seeking to fill the void left by the collapse of the work-unit system, since 2017, local governments across the country have begun actively encouraging the few remaining individuals that could still be termed work-unit people to help manage their communities. However, current work-unit people are a very different breed than they were before. They are an altogether more elite group, since the country’s few still-intact work units are concentrated in government, public institutions, and state-owned enterprises. Generally, today’s work-unit people are highly educated, earn above-average incomes, and are disproportionately drawn from the ranks of the Communist Party.
The return of work-unit people to community management is part of a broader push to strengthen the reach of party organizations and improve awareness of conditions on the local level. Reporting to local party organs, work-unit people are expected to directly participate in all kinds of community management-related activities, everything from neighborhood patrols and rubbish collection to teaching midday classes and offering medical, legal, or financial advice. They’ve been called the “red blood cells” of the state apparatus — carrying the will and interests of the party like oxygen to the country’s various governing organs.
Together, they form a sizeable network and resource pool that the party can draw on. According to Qian Xian, an official outlet run by the Beijing branch of the Communist Party, by the end of 2018, 717,300 party members from government agencies, enterprises, and institutions around the city were reporting to the subdistricts and communities where they live.
To spur work-unit people in their efforts, local party committee branches no longer classify data, such as lists of party members, as confidential or branch property. They now generously share this information with communities, making it easier to locate neighborhood party members. Some areas even request local party members hang “Party Member Family” signs on their front doors. In this way, their professional identities extend to their places of residence.
The government is so confident about involving work-unit people in local community management in part because it views them — an elite group with strong ties to the party-state — as being on its side. However, their status can sometimes lead to conflicts of interest, reducing the model’s effectiveness.
In the summer of 2018, while conducting fieldwork in a city in northern China, I witnessed a significant dispute between a homeowner committee and the property company that ran their building. Problems between such committees and property companies are commonplace in China and can involve anything from parking space allocation to property management fees and sanitation issues.
In this case, I noticed that in its dispute with residents, the property company skillfully targeted the work-unit people on the homeowner committee. It contacted their workplaces in a variety of ways, including by writing letters, making phone calls, and even dispatching people to visit in person and lodge formal complaints. It didn’t matter that the complaints were groundless or unrelated to their jobs, the goal was simply to silence this potentially powerful force and convince them to back down.
These tactics are effective, because, in Chinese work-unit culture, nothing is more important than keeping a low profile. No work-unit person wants to be known as someone who causes trouble by standing up for their rights or the rights of their community, since such a reputation can be very detrimental to their career prospects within the party-state. Although work units encourage their staff to participate in community management, they do not want to get dragged into any potential social disputes involving their employees.
Property companies know this and use it as a weapon to selectively remove work-unit people from the opposition. In this case, the homeowner committee eventually dispatched a group comprised of private business owners and self-employed individuals as their representatives in negotiations with the property company.
Urbanization and marketization have restructured Chinese people’s public lives. After decades spent reacting to these trends, the government is now trying to get ahead of the curve. Yet, while the objects of governance have changed, the core logic of the government’s social management techniques hasn’t. It still dreams of reviving work unit-style governance for the 21st century.
This push comes at a time when the tentacles of the party and government are still pervasive and reach deep into the private sphere. In fact, with the assistance of technology such as mobile internet and big data analysis, the government can now arguably organize and mobilize the population to a degree once thought impossible. The impact this power will have on the relationship between the people and the state remains to be seen.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
This story was originally published by Sixth Tone.
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