Return of “Shihuzhang” System Sparks Fear of Feudal Despotism

A Sichuan city’s adoption of Yuan Dynasty-style community policing has inspired fears of a return to the despotism of yesteryear. Zigong is the last municipality that has launched a test of the shihuzhang, or “captain of ten households” system, in which a “captain” assumes responsibility for the governance of ten neighboring households. The shihuzhang The system was first adopted during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD), but its roots go back even earlier, to the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 770-475 BC). Zigong is not the first site to implement a shihuzhang system in contemporary China. The neighboring city of Zigong, Neijiang, Fujian’s Wenzhou, the provincial capital of Yunnan, Kunming, and Xinjiang have similar programs. Infographic posted by a Neijiang government WeChat account indicate that captains are primarily responsible for enforcing the “routinization” of China’s zero-COVID policy by publicizing it, tracking returning migrant workers, and scanning and reporting health codes and travel histories of the residents During the lockdowns, captains are expected to “calm and reassure” their neighbors, deliver groceries and monitor compliance with home quarantine. In addition, captains are tasked with mediating minor conflicts, monitoring security risks, and collecting suggestions to pass on to higher-level cadres. Unlike the community volunteers deployed to “mobilize the masses” (identified by political scientist Lynette Ong), shihuzhang captains are explicitly linked to the Party system: they are a grassroots extension of the “five-level organizational system” run by street-level Party committees. Online reactions to the reinstatement of shihuzhang they were largely negative, with a number of commentators seeing it as a sign of political regression:

Wusm911: It means they are petrified. They have begun to study how nations fail.

Rossmonica6: They have turned the nation into an impregnable prison, while they fantasize about returning to the golden age of the Qianlong Emperor.

Likritz5585:Shihuzhangthe [Song Dynasty-era] baojia system, i lianzuo [the collective punishment of entire families or clans] all are resurrected.

Stand-in man Qian Pu: That’s it [their way of] saying that residential committees are not strict enough? Do they need a more popular level organization to rule and police the masses? What are they afraid of?

Fennude70875769: This has been happening in Xinjiang for a long time. Is called “10 homes, one unit” and they have to sign a pledge to accept it!

uUnderTheWall:D*mn, it’s really called the “ten household captain system”. Now I’m starting to suspect that people within the system are dealing ruguanxue [“barbarians-at-the-gate theory”] like a real school of thought, as if they were playing at running a postmodern nomadic empire.

Jam79922967: I used to think we had regressed to the Cultural Revolution; I had no idea that we had gone all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty. Wait, no, the Qin Dynasty! We drive backwardsskrrt skrrt! [Chinese]

In an essay in Chinese for the German channel Deutsche Welleveteran reporter Chang Ping broke the story shihuzhang, and linked it to Mao Zedong’s admiration for Qin Shi Huang’s “ruling the people” style, implicitly connecting them to the current zero-covid policy. Chang Ping wrote: “More than a few people see the Cultural Revolution-era sit-ins against cadres and teacher strikes as a form of democracy and freedom: the people and the government on the same level. This it is a misunderstanding of the art of “ruling the people”. This is not an equality based on rights, but rather one based on the universal slavery of the emperor. Once we understand this, we can understand why they establish unnecessary blockades, why they lock everyone in their homes or field hospitals as prisoners, and why Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua, the regime’s former hunting dogs, will rot in prison.”

Reviews of shihuzhang from inside China they have been heavily censored. In a now-deleted WeChat essay, the author compared the adoption of the shihuzhang system to the growing use of “digital bilges”, ostensibly a tool in the fight against COVID, to track citizens without their consent:

The public should not be denied their dignity. Why would anyone want to treat a shihuzhang captain like family? Privacy is a refuge that protects dignity. Who would be willing to let a captain into their home on a daily basis? Adults have the right to decide their own behavior. They are not children and have absolutely no need for a captain to impose discipline on their lives.

Of course, we’re not just talking about adults. In today’s society, even intellectually mature children would not be willing to accept captains. There is no significant difference between these captains and “digital sentinels”, that is to say, they do not need to exist.

I don’t need a random neighbor to control my life to be a complete person in thought and deed, nor do I need them to come to my house to “chat” for no reason. In my eyes, we are all equal. Constructions like “shihuzhang captains” only serve to give people who get inflated with the slightest power another chance to use their deranged minds to destroy this whole thing. [Chinese]

Nor have the censors been spared the essays they distribute shihuzhang in a positive light. In a piece that has now been removed, the author suggested that the system could serve as an important avenue for young people to rise through the ranks of the Party. Almost one in five of China’s 107 million urban youth are unemployed. (Official data do not track rural unemployment.) Competition for public sector jobs, perceived as more stable and less arduous than in the private sector, is fierce. More than 2.1 million people appeared for the civil service examination this year— a 35 percent increase over last year — for a chance at one of the 26,000 jobs offered through the exam. Many ambitious students seek alternative paths to officialdom such as the xuan diao program (“recruitment and transfer”) that sends young graduates to act as administrators at the lowest rungs of rural governments in exchange for the promise of quick promotions later on. As Victor Shih, a professor of Chinese political economy at UC San Diego, told the Financial Times: “We are seeing a greater number of students interested in these hey ceng [grassroots] positions, even in the best universities in China [….] You wouldn’t see the kind of numbers we’re seeing this year without the job market being so poor.” An extract from the censored essay referred to at the beginning of the paragraph shows that similar pressures can drive students to volunteer as shihuzhang captains:

These numbers made me think that the “captain of ten households” system might one day become a major alternative route for college students to enter the nomenclature, in addition to the possibility of a million test in the function public Despite the current preference for recruiting “community-level cadres, network management workers, current or former employees of government agencies, organizations or institutions, military veterans, and party members,” it is possible that once the system is institutionalized, graduates college students facing a competitive job market could be hired as heads of ten households, in the same way university graduates are hired as village officials.

Of course, there is much less competition for captain positions, a lower position with more openings to fill, than for clerkships. However, it is not out of the realm of possibility that capable individuals could use this grassroots position as a launching pad for their careers. [Chinese]

The discourse around the return of shihuzhang is an example of the increasingly contentious zero-covid policy as the pandemic moves into its third year. In Beijing, protest art was scrawled on the walls of COVID testing booths warned people to become “sleepy” to routine tests. In Xinjiang i Tibet, discontent with the repressive measures used to combat the outbreaks went viral after residents of both regions took to Weibo to plead for help. On October 4, passengers at Xishuangbanna Airport in Yunnan approached officials carrying weapons in hazmat suits after being subjected to a rapid closure. A commentary on Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall aptly captured the sentiment in some corners: “Dr. Li, I saw that the WHO issued a statement today I say that the pandemic is over, but looking around me, I have the feeling that it is very long [pandemic prevention and control] ‘Chain“it has already taken shape”.

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