CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
« Work in the residents’ committees is difficult. We’re in the middle of everything. » [1]

1This article looks at the tensions in the daily working lives of the officials in the residents’ committees in Beijing that are part of the reform known as “neighbourhood community building” (shequ jianshe). Residents’ committees are “a mass organisation for self-government at grassroots level” (jiceng qunzhong zizhi zuzhi) [2] created in 1954 to ensure local neighbourhood monitoring. They were traditionally made up of “activist” residents, who were not members of the Communist Party but who demonstrated dynamic support for maintaining moral and political order in the neighbourhood. [3] However, most of the social control and organisation was performed by the work units (danwei), in other words, the public employment sector. [4] These marginal bodies, which were affiliated with the “peripheral institutions” [5] of socialist-authoritarian regimes, became progressively more central in China during the reforms. In the context of economic liberalisation, urban management based on work units has evolved towards local government based on place of residence. [6] In the 1980s, services for those in need were progressively developed at the neighbourhood level. In the 2000s, regulations officially refer to the pluralisation (duoyanghua) of society and the emergence of social problems (shehui wenti) in the introduction to a new policy: “neighbourhood community building” (shequ jianshe). The residents’ committees, responsible for this new “community building”, thus saw themselves as having to provide both administration (guanli) and services (fuwu).

2This reform is generally analysed from a theoretical perspective that opposes state and society, or describes new local “governance” in China. [7] For Benjamin Read, residents’ committees, as the “root of the Chinese state”, are an updated organisation that is an attempt to move closer to “society”. [8] Jean-Pierre Cabestan refers to the issue of residents’ committees being reformed and becoming increasingly participative “experiments” but does not go into detail about the concrete functioning of these organisations. [9] In China, studies on residents’ committees are most often conducted within the field of public administration (gonggong guanli) and focus on the theory of “neighbourhood communities” (shequ) and provide prescriptive analysis, with field studies serving as simple verifications of preconceived theoretical frames. [10] These institutional approaches to residents’ committees do not take into account how neighbourhood communities shape government locally. More critical research has adopted a Foucauldian framework to account for this new bio-politics; [11] however, such studies do not manage to avoid the bias of the intentionality of the state. My research thus draws on a qualitative study based on local discourses and practices, in order to describe the dynamics of the introduction of administrative norms through the concrete actions of the residents’ committees. This ethnographic approach breathes new life into studies on government and public policy in China, by revealing the norms and practices of officials in residents’ committees, and by taking into account the local social environment. [12] This article focuses on the political stakes of the participative bureaucratisation of residents’ committees, studying both the power effects that play out on the officials, and those produced through their work. It thus moves away from any kind of binary, statist, authoritarian or normative perspective.

3The process of professionalisation of residents’ committees is characterised by an ambiguity. The move towards salaried positions for officials is part of a trend towards a street-level bureaucracy. [13] But the residents’ committee remains defined as a “self-governing grassroots organisation” elected by inhabitants every three years. It is not officially connected to the administrative hierarchy. This ambiguous professionalisation, described as participative bureaucratisation, has fundamental power effects on officials and on their work. The legitimacy of these officials is complex because they are subject to a “double dependency”: [14] their position with regards to the local administration, which is both uncertain and demanding, but also their integration within the community that they are supposed to be representing.

4This article is based on ethnographic fieldwork in three contrasting areas in Beijing (old neighbourhoods in the centre of town, former industrial neighbourhoods from the 1960s-1980s, and more recently built neighbourhoods). Conducted between 2007 and 2009, the fieldwork involved conducting 76 in-depth interviews with employees of residents’ committees and 200 interviews with residents regarding administrative work in these neighbourhoods, as well as first-hand analysis of official documents and participant observation data.

5The article considers the process of participative bureaucratisation within the framework of the policy of neighbourhood community building, drawing on the sociology of the “guichet” [15] and the Foucauldian notion of subjectification. What kind of power effects does participative bureaucratisation in residents’ committees have over the work of officials? What style of government emerges from this kind of participative bureaucratisation? The residents’ committee, as the representative of Chinese administration in these neighbourhoods, participates in the formation of the state through its quantitative task of executing the public policies of the census and birth control. It also has a secondary qualitative role in listening to the problems of residents. As a result of the introduction of salaries into a grassroots organisation, this position has become “blurry”. [16] The blurriness or the ambiguity of participative bureaucratisation has transformed the members of these committees into on-site auxiliaries of the administration. Yet, alongside this there is still a participative discourse around neighbourhood communities and local democracy (jiceng minzhu).

6This article analyses the specificities of governing through the neighbourhood community; specificities linked to the ambiguous professionalisation of the residents’ committees. Somewhere between a representation of the administration and a local office, the residents’ committee has become professionalised by integrating administrative norms. This professionalisation leads to unstable employment, funded and appropriated by the administration which thereby maintains its control: career prospects outside the neighbourhood community are rare. This professionalisation is accompanied by the social disqualification of officials, who are subject to a lack of recognition from most of the population they “represent”, except for the most dependent members of the community. The ambiguity of this unstable, unacknowledged status which is subject to both pressure from above and to local constraints, nevertheless leads officials to construct a specific professional ethos as the point of contact between the Chinese government and those it governs. This strategic position perpetuates the participative bureaucratisation of the residents’ committees.

The appropriation of a “self-governing grassroots organisation” by the Chinese administration

7In China, the residents’ committee is officially defined as a self-governing grassroots organisation but a dynamic of professionalisation has been encouraged to grow in the context of the policy of building neighbourhood communities (shequ jianshe). Between the state’s efforts towards rationalisation, and the discourses of “local democracy” (jiceng minzhu) in neighbourhoods, the status of the residents’ committees remains ambiguous. Professionalisation guarantees the hierarchical power of the administration over the everyday work of employees, providing the former with local auxiliaries without giving these auxiliaries the possibility of being officially part of the administration. This ambiguity is at the heart of participative bureaucratisation.

Advent of non-official administrative employment within the neighbourhood communities

8As the local body for bureaucratic representation for the population, the residents’ committee has been a part of the history of the People’s Republic since its beginnings. Under the work unit regime, the residents who were members of the committee were responsible for supervising the individuals who did not belong to a work unit. When urban organisation ceased to be based on public-sector work units (danwei) the approach to population management that had prevailed between 1970 and 1990, in which the residents’ committees were responsible for groups outside the context of the danwei, was reconfigured. In the 2000s, the administrations sought to re-establish links with the population based on the “neighbourhood community” (shequ) concept, defined by housing units, which was intended to increase social connectedness. Since then, neighbourhoods have been managed at the level of local administration as part of community building (shequ jianshe). Since 2004 the discourse on social harmony has permeated the local policy of the neighbourhood communities through an emphasis on assistance to “weak and vulnerable groups” (ruoshi qunti). Local administration has been rationalised to include a street-level body at the same time as it is attempting to renew its popular image, concentrating on service provision and the satisfaction of needs. In theory, the notion of neighbourhood community represents an institutional innovation that combines public action with participative discourse. Concretely, the administrations have appropriated the shequ level in order to delegate tasks to the residents’ committees without actually integrating the committees into the administrative structure. My interviews with the officials on the committees show that they themselves do not question the ambiguity of their status; it is part of this “specifically Chinese” system (zhongguo de guoqing).

9In Beijing, the residents’ committees have been revitalised, professionalised and perform a combination of functions. Each office is situated within a neighbourhood community whose borders are drawn by the administration according to geographic and demographic criteria. The area of intervention has become progressively larger.


“We are moving towards a smaller number of residents’ committees in the town. The borders of neighbourhood communities take in larger and larger areas, which can be between 1000 and 3000 households.” [17]
“Now we must manage much more massive populations than before.” [18]

11The committee officials work in cooperation with the street bureaucracy (jiedao banshichu), to whom they provide field data.


“Normally, all levels should be aware of peoples’ economic and social problems. […] The residents’ committees work at the grassroots level. We are in direct contact with ordinary people [laobaixing]. We know what they think, how they behave.” [19]

13The use of plaques, official signs and logos for the “neighbourhood community” around the office indicates just how much these residents’ committees have become bureaucratised.


“We are more systematised [xitong] than before.” [20]

15Both the inhabitants and the members interviewed mention the improvement of working conditions, as well as the modernisation of infrastructure, financed by the town.


“In 2001, there were only seven of us, we were in the neighbourhood community office of the danwei and it wasn’t easy. But in 2002 we moved, and our working conditions improved. In 2003 there were 14 of us working for the shequ.” [21]
“The surface area is 310 metres square. Now the criteria are for at least 300 metres squared, and not 200 which dates back to 2005.” [22]
“Today, their abilities and their functions in this role have increased. Before, they were all old men.
Their offices were very small. Now they have better working conditions.” [23]

17Moreover, it is clear that there is a greater use of electronic equipment. Each office has computers that are connected to the internet and to the street office via an intranet system.


“Before, we didn’t have computers, we had to go and inform the residents in person. So we had to go and knock on all the doors, speak to everyone. We didn’t put up as many announcements.” [24]

19The reform accentuated the principles of efficiency, specialisation and qualification.


“Before, the members of the residents’ committees were elderly […]. Now, the state recruits employees who must be efficient.” [25]

21Since the community-building reform, residents’ committees have functioned on the basis of division and specialisation of tasks.


“It has become a much more honed, more meticulous job.” [26]
“Before, the residents’ committee didn’t have as much to do, compared with today. […] At the same time, before, they also had less work.” [27]
“Before, the working conditions were less practical. But we didn’t have so many different aspects to manage at the same time.” [28]
“The evolution of the residents’ committee has meant that we have become government agents [zhengfu jiguan]. Before that wasn’t the case. Now all the staff are subject to specific criteria.” [29] “Of course, before, there were residents’ committees, but they weren’t like now. They looked after everyday affairs. […] Before, we didn’t have any cultural activities, our residents’ committee didn’t have anywhere to organise them.” [30]

23The director of the committee (zhuren) is in charge of overall coordination. He or she is supported by an assistant director (fuzhuren). Each staff member is responsible for a specific area. One such area concerns security and mediation (zhibao), in cooperation with the police (paichusuo). A second area of responsibility provides the link between the residents’ committee and another mass organisation, the Women’s League (fulian), which “defends and promotes women’s rights” [31]. A third concerns family planning and birth control, while a fourth focuses on neighbourhood entertainment. A fifth is responsible for social welfare; the managers are trained in civil affairs (minzheng), i.e. social welfare and support for the elderly or for “vulnerable” persons. Hygiene (weisheng) and the preservation of the environment constitute the sixth area of responsibility. [32] In concrete terms these areas overlap. Similarly, the relationship between the residents’ committees and the Chinese Communist Party is ambiguous; the office of the director of the residents’ committee is often shared with the secretary of the local branch of the Party.


“Here is our Party Secretary [shuji], he looks after members’ activities […]. Above all propaganda: education for communists. In our shequ, there are two leaders, the director of the residents’ committee and the secretary of the Party branch.” [33]

25In several of the neighbourhoods where this study was conducted, the directors of the residents’ committees were also Party secretaries. This accumulation of positions reveals the interconnectedness of these two institutions. [34] The residents are accustomed to this.


“A residents’ committee is not independent from the Chinese Communist Party, no state organisation can be separate from the Communist Party in this country, it’s a single party. It’s like that for the whole administration and the government. Officially they are not together. But in fact, not at all.” [35]

27As for the employees, the elderly volunteers of the old days (who essentially just performed surveillance and propaganda missions) have been replaced by a younger, more qualified team. Recruitment is more and more selective, and based on abilities and qualification levels.

Photograph 1

The residents’ committee team in a former industrial neighbourhood, 2011

Photograph 1

The residents’ committee team in a former industrial neighbourhood, 2011

Source: Photograph from neighbourhood community website.


“Now, our work is much more in-depth. We are obliged to have a certain level of education, compulsory knowledge.” [36]
“Before, the employees in the residents’ committees were mostly retirees, but now it is mainly young people with a high level of education. We all generally have a bachelor’s degree. The lowest level is at least secondary qualifications.” [37]

29Moreover, in a context of high urban unemployment, finding jobs for young graduates is a problem in China today. The neighbourhood employment sector is thus a way for this generation to achieve the stability they seek.

30Mainly recruited through entrance exams, employees generally undertake several months of internships in the neighbourhoods and are trained to use new information and communication technologies. These officials are employed on three-year contracts, with a monthly salary varying between 1,000 and 1,800 yuan (figures for Beijing in 2008-2009 [38]), only barely higher than the minimum wage.

31The local role of this body remains ambiguous because it is also at the heart of participative discourse, as the “local democracy” slogans (jiceng minzhu) demonstrate. Theoretically, the shequ is an administrative zone managed by a threefold structure: the residents’ committee (jumin weiyuanhui), made up of members living in the neighbourhood and elected by the residents; the “work station” (shequ gongzuozhan), comprising employees recruited by the administration above; and the local branch of the Communist Party (dangwei zuzhi). [39] In reality these structures are porous and few residents’ committees are actually composed of locally elected residents. [40] Elections are held every three years and the municipalities say they are evolving towards the goal of direct suffrage by the residents. However, my study in Beijing in 2009 shows that the candidates remain pre-selected by the street office. Most local habitants are not interested in these elections. Most residents’ committees are composed of salaried individuals who are involved in both the work station and the committee. However, the accumulation of these two forms of recruitment – elections by the residents (minxuan) every three years, and recruitment via the civil servants in the street office who have pre-selected the candidates for election – is a further constraint on the residents’ committee officials and makes them all the more zealous.

32Officially the street office “provides guidance to” (zhidao) and does not “direct” (lindao) the work of the residents’ committees. But the street office is nonetheless an authoritative body.


“We have no power. […] The government guides [zhidao] our work […]. It is not our superior […].” [41] “The residents’ committee is under the influence of the government. […] But above all we adapt to the needs of the inhabitants, we help them. […] We represent the residents in their relationship with the government; they go through us to ask things of the government […]. We went to Japan to study the local system. It’s different. They really are autonomous [zizhi].” [42]

34A product of administrative decentralisation, the street office directs “community-building” (shequ jianshe) by coordinating the residents’ committees. Although the latter are theoretically responsible for organising local life, they are overwhelmed by administrative tasks. In Beijing, the work of residents’ committees is made up of two thirds administrative tasks and one third work on behalf of residents. [43]


“The local office directs us. If they introduce a new policy, the person responsible for that area in the residents’ committee is summoned to a meeting.” [44]

36The hierarchical relations between the residents’ committees and the administration are strict: far from encouraging autonomy, “neighbourhood community building” has made the committees administrative auxiliaries. The residents’ committees have no budget; the municipality provides all the basic materials (offices, working equipment).


“The residents’ committee has no money. It comes from the street office. We can never use money or give any to the residents. The money comes from above and what we get is intended for a specific task.” [45]

38Moreover, the civil servants in the street office regularly summon the committee employees to meetings and demand activity reports. In this hierarchical relationship the employees demonstrate concern and diligence. The fear that the officials of the residents’ committee have of being downgraded is similar to that of the “pettily uniformed” in the disadvantaged areas described by Hoggart: an employee who sets themselves apart from the masses but remains haunted by the risk of social regression. [46] This encourages the submission of officials to their hierarchy. The autonomy that is theoretically granted to them under organic law is limited in the neighbourhoods of Beijing by the administrative annexation of the community structure.

The social disqualification of the residents’ committee officials


“Harmonious society […], it’s simple to say, but difficult to do.” [47]

40Constrained by the bureaucratic relationship and by short-term work contracts, officials carry out orders “from above”. The participative bureaucratisation of the residents’ committee leads to a form of social disqualification according to Paugam’s definition. [48] This occupation is characterised by precarious conditions and extensible working hours. There is no path for promotion towards other levels of the administration. [49] The officials, who are not civil servants but casual workers, describe a job that is “tiresome” (xinku), underpaid, [50] and lacking in prestige. Certain tasks, in particular executing government policies, do indeed appear to be subject to significant pressure because they are associated with very high expectations. [51] These officials say they have no notion of time, their work is characterised by an elasticity that depends on the circumstances. It has a dual nature, being both routine (they never intervene outside their zone of responsibility and have their own offices), and unpredictable (they must be aware of and resolve any incidents). Their working hours are fixed [52] but they must remain available in case of emergency.


“If there is a fire in the night, I must go and assess the situation with the firemen.” [53] “Here we are always very busy.” [54]

42As a result there is significant fatigue due to overtime hours, low salaries, and the daily management of complaints and criticism. Some officials, with higher education degrees, see this as a drop in status and hope eventually to change jobs.

43Moreover, the direct contact with the inhabitants represents a significant difficulty because the social work sector is still not very developed in China.


“It isn’t easy, it’s very difficult in fact. […] We would not have believed it would be so difficult and that there would be so many things to manage. The most difficult thing is that we only have little problems to manage, but there are a lot of them. If you want to do it well, then it’s difficult. […] Because it’s human work, in direct contact with people.” [55]
“My salary is not very high, a little more than 1,000 yuan. The work is not valued very highly; our living conditions are quite low. We are very busy, there are many different functions, so it isn’t very gratifying. Personally, I would say that we have to take care of all the problems in peoples’ lives. You have to like being in contact with people.” [56]

45The introduction of administrative norms is not accompanied by in-depth training in public policy practice. Let’s take the example of a recent housing estate in which the residents’ committee comprised five employees to manage a population of more than 10,000 residents. In March 2007, my study traced the beginnings of the committee, founded barely ten months earlier without much attention from the residents. The few information sheets put up in the housing estate were not often read and the basement office was not very visible. Shortly afterwards, the committee director took maternity leave but was not replaced. The employees experienced enormous difficulties in carrying out their missions. The officials confessed that they did not feel like they had enough assistance, but they did not dare complain to their superiors.

46Participative bureaucratisation leads to the specific subjectification of employees, who describe their job as “acceptable” by default. However, this employment is suited to individuals over 40 years old who have low levels of qualification, particularly former public sector employees who were laid off (xiagang) during the reforms.

47Moreover, there are a number of symbolic objects that help to bring this structure closer to the administration. The stamp used to issue certificates, the official logo with their name, or the plaque at the entrance to the office: all contribute to a feeling of responsibility. These elements play an important role in officials’ acceptance of constraints and their attachment to the job.

48Finally, the rewards bestowed by the administration as well as the politeness and respect afforded them by a section of the population may constitute additional factors in self-esteem. In spite of being very demanding and poorly remunerated, employees say that on the whole they are satisfied with the job. The assistant director of a recent neighbourhood committee recounts the details of the first time she organised a cultural event.


“Above all, don’t tell the others. If I came in at 8am this morning it’s because of the stress. I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I was afraid that there wouldn’t be enough participants. And then I had to find solutions in case there was a last minute problem. […] On that score, I feel above all that I succeeded, I feel that I am capable of organising events for so many people. I tell myself ‘you did it, you succeeded’ […] I am exhausted by this work, I do a huge amount of overtime. Sometimes I say to myself ‘Why do you do all that? You don’t even live in this neighbourhood’. But the idea of knowing that I can, that I can manage all these different things at once, it’s a very pleasant feeling.” [57]

50The participative bureaucratisation of the residents’ committees has allowed for the reintegration of a large number of people who were previously struggling. However, this professionalisation has not been accompanied by an integration of the committees into the administrative structure. It remains “below” the administration, confirming the disqualification of committee officials. Thus the participative bureaucratisation of the residents’ committees has introduced a form of unstable employment, and justified it through a discourse of autonomy and the “neighbourhood community”.

51Above all, this participative discourse enables the administration to place a (sacrificeable) intermediary between itself and the population. In keeping with the objective of a harmonious society, complaints and criticisms are attenuated by the establishment of a buffer body, an interface between the administration and the population. The public often complains that the administration “doesn’t manage” (bu guan) the problems. The residents’ committees, in the front line, are directly responsible for the residents. The participative bureaucratisation of the residents’ committees has turned out to be useful for the administration because it provides officials in the field who are not integrated into the administrative structure, and this unequal power relation is not questioned by the officials.

Poor recognition of the residents’ committee officials leading to legitimacy issues

52Participative bureaucratisation has power effects that are linked to the insecurity and overwork of the residents’ committees. A second source of power derives from the relationship with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. My fieldwork enabled me to document a lack of recognition of the officials, who attempt to have some of the residents “participate” in order to legitimise their “popular” identity.

Participative bureaucratisation responsible for the lack of recognition

53The perception of the residents’ committees by the inhabitants of Beijing reveals a lack of legitimacy on the local level, although some inhabitants – often the elderly or those in difficulty – appreciated the assistance and cultural services they provide. The daily activities, services, and small gifts to the residents encourage favourable opinions among some of those in “weak and vulnerable groups” (ruoshi qunti).


“My residents’ committee looks after the residents better and better. For retired people over 80 years old, they celebrate our birthdays, they bring us a cake and small gifts.” [58]

55According to many elderly people who are present during the day and who interact with their committee, professionalisation has improved the quality of the services provided. Moreover, these more elderly residents, or those in social hardship, recognise the efforts of the officials to provide attention and entertainment.

56However, the main criticisms concern the non-official link with the administration – which distances the employees from the neighbourhood – and the inability to resolve problems or defend the residents. Most studies criticise the lack of independence of the employees in the management of local affairs, and accuse them of inefficiency: “they have no power”. A second criticism concerns professionalisation as a factor in distancing the neighbourhood. Since the officials are only rarely residents in the neighbourhood they manage – particularly in affluent areas, which more clearly distinguish their borders with other neighbourhoods – they do not really know (bu liaojie) the context.


“How can it be possible that our residents’ committee, which is supposed to represent us, could be made up of people from outside? It isn’t logical, they do not live here, they do not know this place. How dare they pretend to defend my interests?” [59]

58In the older neighbourhoods, the residents’ descriptions tend towards a certain nostalgia for the residents’ committees of the past, which were made up of residents who (inefficiently but voluntarily) helped resolve local problems.


“Before, it was better, the committee members didn’t have salaries, they did it out of personal interest.” [60]
“Before, the members lived here, they were residents. The inhabitants all knew how to find them to resolve their problems, even at night, after work.” [61]
“Before, the members of the residents’ committees didn’t earn any money, they didn’t have a salary until the 1990s. They were people who had no work, or retirees who took on this activity for the sake of the community, the residents. I have a lot of respect for these people, who really knew all the families in their neighbourhood and their situations. They were very close to the inhabitants and ensured order was maintained. For example, I remember that I accompanied my mother to help in the collection of hygiene fees. It was a very tiring task, but these people accepted it and took it seriously. They really wanted to help the residents, to resolve their problems. They knew their situations and yet they didn’t have the means they have now. Now, the name has changed, and the residents’ committees have been absorbed into the shequ. It’s really not as good. Before, we had neighbourly relations, because the members of the residents’ committee were also long-term residents, so they knew the situation in the neighbourhood. Here, they are no longer residents because they have a good salary so they obviously live in a block of flats […]. They have good working conditions but we don’t have the same relationship with them. There is a relationship of unequal authority, they are like bosses and we’re lower down, they are part of the administration. They get their salary from the local office, so they’re also part of this administration.” [62]

60Thus, in spite of the bad press residents’ committees had as spies in the socialist system, these former committees, made up of long-term residents, had social links with their neighbours. Today, the inhabitants discredit the committee officials since they have become paid employees.

61There is also the vague role of “managing people” (guan ren). The poor recognition by residents contributes to an indifference and functions that are difficult to specify.


“The residents’ committee does all sorts of things.” [63]
“The residents’ committee looks after peoples’ lives, peoples’ problems.” [64]
“The residents committee looks after ordinary issues […]. It must be useful to the residents. For any issue, we ask them […] If they can’t help, they refer us higher up.” [65]

63Strongly stigmatised as bureaucratic, under-recognised and despised for not being efficient, officials concentrate their contact efforts on a specific part of the population – the “weak and vulnerable” – in order to legitimise their participative role. The search for contact contributes to a role that is marginal and vague, but thanks to which the committee officials are not solely perceived as administrators. Moreover, generally speaking, the residents rarely question the existence of this body; they consider it “useful, if problems arise”.

How to encourage residents “to participate”?

64The resident committee officials are supervised by the civil servants of the Chinese administration, but must also maintain connections with the residents, according to the committee status as a grassroots organisation.

65The residents’ committee is not a body that the population truly demands. Indifference appears to be the general attitude of residents towards it. This is linked to a difference of rhythm for residents with jobs, who are rarely brought into contact with the committee officials during the day. Most of the residents attest that they solicit the officials only for administrative formalities (residence certificates, nulliparity certificates). This encourages officials to seek out contact as part of a participatory process (canyu). The dress of the officials reflects this; unlike the administration offices in which civil servants wear suits or uniforms, the residents’ committee employees do not follow any particular dress code.

66Without a “service counter” the daily tasks of the officials take place inside the office (answering the telephone or calling other members about a problem to be resolved, issuing certificates) and outside, in direct contact with residents (frequent door-knocking to enquire after a worrying situation, proposing assistance and service to elderly and handicapped people).


“You have to get out. The people aren’t in the office, they’re outside.” [66]

68Outreach requires the de-politicisation of ordinary conversations. Conversations in the streets with residents are about health, the weather, children’s studies, or gossip.

69Officials try to cultivate personal relationships with the residents and rely on the network of “volunteer” residents (zhiyuanzhe) to organise their work, particularly in the old neighbourhoods. The volunteers have surveillance and security tasks or are involved in entertainment. Continuing the tradition of activism, calls for volunteers by the committee officials maintain the illusion of a participatory system. According to my fieldwork, residents rarely propose their services of their own accord: officials call on people who have been identified for these tasks. The volunteers come from “weak and vulnerable groups” (ruoshi qunti), particularly the elderly, who are present in the neighbourhood during the day. They rarely refuse the position because it is in keeping with socio-psychological motivations: attachment to the neighbourhood, and social status conferred by the red armband they wear. Those who receive state benefits are “obliged” to become volunteers in return for this assistance. The participative action that brings together the committee officials and their volunteers can be understood from a Goffmanesque perspective. On the one hand, the officials “play their part”, relaying the administration to the inhabitants, and on the other some residents participate in the game, sometimes by “acting as if”, [67] whilst others remain indifferent to these attempts at appropriation. This theatre of local participation presents an image of the “harmonious neighbourhood community” (hexie shequ).

70However, the personal relations between the committee officials and the residents of the neighbourhood can also lead to insults and mockeries. For example, the assistant director of one former industrial neighbourhood committee came from Shandong province, so she spoke the Beijing dialect with a marked accent. This was often the subject of pejorative remarks made by the residents behind her back. [68]

71The legitimacy of the residents’ committees in these Beijing neighbourhoods is subject to the scrutiny of the inhabitants. Yet the borders of these zones, these so-called “neighbourhood communities”, essentially make the current committees administrative bodies, for all except the elderly or those in social difficulty who play the participation game.

The construction of a professional ethos within a territorialised and differentiated context

72Does participatory bureaucracy in these residents’ committees lead to a crisis in local government? The results of my ethnographic study reveal a specific professional ethos. Norms integrated over the course of training in administrative work (such as management “by numbers”, studied by Wang Di), but also in participatory tasks (such as tact) are realised in the practices and “skills in doing” of the officials. These methods of management maintain the differentiated and territorialised character of para-public action within the neighbourhood communities.

Inventory, surveillance and prevention: ensuring the transmission of social control


“Everything starts because there are so many Chinese […] really too many.” [69]

74In China, the imaginary associated with overpopulation justifies the transmission of social control to organise society. Maintaining order remains one of the principle concerns of local authorities who delegate a significant role in the census and surveillance of the population to the residents’ committees. The latter are thus responsible for social order on the local level.

75In Beijing, the neighbourhood is a site for propaganda. [70] Banners bearing slogans concerning the regime are recurring elements in the urban landscape. The explicit inscription of official norms into public spaces is performed by the committee officials: on banners, blackboards, and public notices on walls and in doorways. The population must be sensitised to urban norms, information and advice in terms of civility, protection of the environment and security.


“Today, the police noticed that the entry doors to your courtyard house [71] and your windows had not been closed. In order to ensure the security of persons and goods, we ask you to kindly close and lock your doors and windows.” [72]

Photograph 2

General security advice from the police, transmitted by the residents’ committee, old neighbourhood, 2009

Photograph 2

General security advice from the police, transmitted by the residents’ committee, old neighbourhood, 2009

Source: Photograph by Judith Audin.

77Not only are the residents’ committees responsible for the spatial circulation of official norms, but the main task of officials is to centralise information between the administration and the inhabitants. The committee officials transmit official information throughout the neighbourhood: new regulations, meetings, census announcements, openings for enrolments in the crèche or for social welfare, job offers, and so forth.


“The residents can come and collect a ‘contraception pack’ for free at the residents’ committee office”. [73]

79The officials also transfer information upwards, by passing on local information to the administration. The census, normally carried out by the Office of Statistics, is delegated to the residents’ committee. Every official presentation of a neighbourhood begins with the population statistics.


“[The census] is specialised according to sex, age and so forth. We use a computer and the statistics are updated every month. We know the birthdays on each day. We also know who has problems with their health, blood pressure. […] We investigate. […] We call the residents. […] Sometimes they don’t want to answer.” [74]
“This neighbourhood community is in an old neighbourhood in Beijing. […] The zone includes five apartment buildings and 2,600 rooms in one-storey buildings. The population at the latest census is 2,084 households, some 6,266 individuals. Of these, 1,223 households are long-term residents, some 4,093 people. There are 7 minority groups, 318 people […]. The zone is home to 1,082 people over 60 years old, 19.7% of the population. There are 796 people over 65 years old, 206 people over 80 years old. There are 807 long-term residents over 60 years old, including 20 elderly recipients of the urban minimum wage [dibao]. There are 12 elderly persons living alone, 2 without descendants, and 97 people who receive an old age pension. There are also 89 unemployed persons, 58 who are being re-employed, 334 whose retirement is managed locally, 111 who receive the dibao, 3 low-income households, 8 people in total. There are 141 disabled people, of whom 23 receive the dibao, 9 receive municipal assistance to people in difficulty, and 8 receive a disability pension. […] The migrant population is 619 people.” [75]

81The key populations are the elderly, women of child-bearing age, and struggling urban residents – the unemployed, the poor, the disabled and the unwell. The neighbourhood community carries out the administrative census in order to identify the social profile of the neighbourhood and its “at risk” populations.

82In practice, the population census is a difficult task because it requires going door-to-door or calling residents by telephone and asking them for specific information. This is therefore tedious for two reasons. Firstly, residents are rarely in their homes during the daytime, which obliges the officials to remain late in the evenings to reach them. Moreover, urban residents are careful about sharing information.


“Many people don’t understand why we’re asking them to fill out all that. […] And then, who will get their hands on it?” [76]

84The census meets with mistrust from the residents, who draw the line between what they are prepared to volunteer to the administration and what concerns their private lives.

85Moreover the residents’ committee officials play the role of moral entrepreneurs, [77] along the lines of their old propaganda role. They provide assistance to the local police who regularly ask them for information on suspicious individuals (drug abuse, disorderly conduct). [78] In return, the police supervise the events organised by the committee.


“There are security problems but no really dangerous situations. The residents’ committees and the local police co-operate, they belong to the same authority.” [79]

87An important aspect of maintaining order is birth control and prevention. If the criteria that are imposed are not respected, the employees in the residents’ committees are the first people held responsible. Every woman over fifteen years old living in a particular zone must obtain a “woman of child-bearing age” certificate. Subsequently she must provide information about her family and sex life: marriage, first child, contraception etc. The committees organise campaigns for education and prevention (free distribution of condoms, contraceptive pills, IUDs and pregnancy tests).


“We provide administration and services. For example, birth control, it’s administrative because we regularly record women who are pregnant or who have given birth. But it’s also a service because we also provide free gynaecological consultations.” [80]

89Each committee organises activities on public health/hygiene and security risks. In old neighbourhoods, priority was given to the prevention of fires resulting from the use of coal in winter. [81] In 2002-2003 during the SARS epidemic in China, the residents’ committees were given preventative tasks, including cleaning public spaces, overseeing population movements, conducting inspections, and monitoring cases of contamination.


“We had to put residents presenting symptoms of the illness into quarantine.” [82]
“We did not let anyone leave without a valid reason. If there was a household with a family member who was affected by the illness, we sent them to the hospital and we shut the rest of that family up in their house, without permission to leave. We brought them food and so forth. We also had to provide information about hygiene to the residents.”

91Through these public health preventative measures, the committee officials suggest ways of “living better” to the residents, which suggests a form of bio-politics. [83] But this role is essentially pragmatic and limited in its extent.

92Standardisation does not only take place through exchanges with the police and the health system. Civilisation policies have been carried out by the residents’ committees as a legacy of their former role in policing moral and social mores. The governmentality of the Chinese state has been directed, over the course of these reforms, towards control of both population size (through birth control), but also its “quality” (suzhi). The committee officials attempt to civilise the residents in order to bring them “up to par”, [84] to make them conform to an ideal-type of urbanity. The Beijing Olympics accelerated and amplified this moralisation. The committee officials organised campaigns to cultivate minds and the norms of civility (wenming). For example, on 18 May 2007, a teacher from a specialised institute of “manners” presented the residents with the rules of politeness, propriety, and self-presentation.


“We invited a specialist in makeovers to show the elderly people how to take care of their appearance […]. All our events are intended to raise people’s awareness.” [85]
“The policies of reform and openness brought problems. The first were the people; concerning their human and cultural qualities, their learning of morals, we had to improve the standards. The level of general culture is still very low. There are people who refuse to read books, who think that culture is useless.” [86]
“There are several types of people, their qualities are not the same. For example, there are people who push into queues for the bus. Human qualities are very important in China. We pay attention with the Olympic Games coming up, because there are minority groups that could have a bad influence on the way people see China. So the residents’ committees are taking care of it […] Politeness is important in China, in its long history, its rituals etc. But at the moment there is an education problem […] I mean that long-term residents of Beijing [laobeijing] are polite, but the migrants have different habits.” [87]

94Finally, the work of any residents’ committee must focus on supporting marginal groups. The committee’s selection of requests for help goes hand-in-hand with the fight against fraud. Awarding social assistance is based on collective surveillance by the whole community – a legacy of the socialist period (see Photograph 3). In China, the procedure for a request for state aid involves surveillance and in-depth investigation.


“I have received the dibao for two years: 330 yuan per month. It’s not simple to get it. You have to go yourself to see the residents’ committee, or else no one will take care of you […] You have to be from Beijing; if you aren’t then you aren’t eligible for this assistance. […] I’m unemployed and I’m sick, I’m diabetic […] I have to go to the hospital twice a month, and the residents’ committee checks to see that I’m still sick.” [88]
“The people who receive the dibao, it’s because they can’t find work, so because they are sick […]. To get it, you have to go and see the residents’ committee, fill out the forms and provide the documents, for example medical prescriptions. Generally you have to be over 35 years old. The committee sends these documents to the Office of Civil Affairs. After about six months you receive the payments. The committee puts up a notice informing the residents and they are asked for their opinion of the recipient […] I haven’t had any problems but for other people, payments have been suspended because other residents reported them.” [89]

96The committee officials investigate the lives of those who ask for assistance, on the look-out for any material fraud (having a mobile telephone, eating meals with fish or meat, keeping pets) or moral fraud (political opposition). In the neighbourhoods, solidarity and surveillance are interconnected in terms of the attribution of social assistance. [90] The only legitimate recipients are those who can justify their inability to work.


“If you’re 20 years old, it’ll never happen. It’s a question of being able to work. If someone is 30 they’re able to work, so you have to actively look for a job. We can’t give the dibao to everyone […] We can’t give the state’s money to young people who have never tried to work, it takes time to prove that you can’t work.” [91]

98Moreover, social assistance is organised territorially, and unequally distributed at the local level. This leads to “competition” between people asking for assistance in former industrial areas, and very concrete criteria by which to judge their legitimacy. [92] “Mass surveillance” is thus considered necessary.


“[The dibao] reinforces people in their laziness. If the state gives you money, you’re never going to look for a job.” [93]

Photograph 3

Public request for the urban minimum wage (dibao) for a 43-year-old woman and her 11 year-old daughter, old neighbourhood, March 2009

Photograph 3

Public request for the urban minimum wage (dibao) for a 43-year-old woman and her 11 year-old daughter, old neighbourhood, March 2009

“Concerning the family who have submitted an application for dibao, this neighbourhood community has implemented the protocol for the public notice of the request for 7 days. You are all invited to exercise your surveillance. Reasons given for the application: widow, unemployed, heavy burden, difficult life history.”
Source: Photograph by Judith Audin


“Neighbourhood surveillance is normal. We can award assistance only to the most serious situations. If we give it to one person, another person doesn’t get it, so we have to be very careful about who must receive it.” [94]

101The selection of the “poor” for the attribution of dibao payments demonstrates a form of power over the most vulnerable. In China social assistance has been updated by individualising social welfare combined with a strategy of making recipients accountable.

Supporting the weak and the vulnerable: activities, mediation, and social work


“It’s meticulous, gentle but also harmonious work.” [95]

103This quotation suggests that solicitude has become a norm of administrative work: officials perform “benevolent” [96] surveillance and demonstrate a requirement for tact in local government.

104The objective of events that are both festive and educational is to encourage “friendly and fraternal” relations between inhabitants. The residents’ committee coordinates social entertainment events in the neighbourhood in the context of developing personal services, with a focus on the problem of the aging population. It’s about “channelling” the dynamism of individuals into “healthy” collective recreational practices by cultivating Chinese political and cultural folklore. The employees of the residents’ committees monitor the evolution of social groups in their neighbourhoods and attempt to link any new leisure activity to the policy of their shequ. The committee officials plan the installation of tables and benches in public spaces so that residents can play mah-jong, chess, or cards. Indoor spaces are made available for them to practise “suitable” activities for free. The residents are encouraged to participate in activities which combine culture and sport with education and awareness-raising about government policies. Despite this support for government policies and a general patriotic tone, the festive aspects of the events are real. The free activities (choirs, ping-pong, dance) are open to all and for the older residents hark back to the memory of communist culture. Whether they are members of the Communist Party or not, those over 60 years old appreciate these activities and see them as collective. This generation has remained attached to group sociability and solidarity, considering it healthier than individualism, which they associate with egoism and “bourgeois mentality”. To this can be added a concern for their bodies and general health. Transformed into providers of social activities, the committee officials try to encourage sociability and the integration of single or dependent people. There are regular public shows or collective outings and they aim to “entertain the residents and bring them closer to each other”. [97] The funding of bus outings involves partnerships with businesses – shop factories – which ensures low prices. The outings are rarely organised on the weekend because employees do not work on these days and this time is reserved for family visits. Participants rarely say they are satisfied; the outings rarely have any novelty. But they continue to enrol for them, despite their complaints. This role as a provider of social activities is an element that contributes to the legitimacy of the residents’ committees.


“We organise activities and cultural events with a view to bringing residents together. So they start to get to know us and will be more cooperative in our more formal administrative tasks.” [98]

106They manage to reach certain groups in particular; the generations that lived under Mao or who were socialised by the danwei system find common references in this and appreciate time spent with their neighbours. However, the style of these events remains quite different from the leisure activities of other generations, who are more demanding and more autonomous in their practices.

107Beyond being an attempt to bring the residents’ committee and the residents together, the organisation of these events demonstrates a desire to display the solicitude of the Chinese state.


“Human rights in China are widely criticised. But in fact, human rights are important to us and we respect them […] fundamentally.” [99]

109This discourse illustrates the compassionate role of the residents’ committees which support vulnerable individuals, in order to “keep them alive”.


“Just over 100 people receive the dibao. Often the recipients are junkies, that sort of people […] we have to stop them dying. If the state doesn’t help them, they will die.” [100]
“It is enough that there are people, that there is life and we are responsible. […] We seek to protect the quality and to preserve the life of the people in our neighbourhood.” [101]

111The residents’ committee takes care of the disabled people in the neighbourhood.


“You see these objects. They are handmade by our disabled residents […] There are more than 100 disabled people in this shequ […]. People who are not able to survive by themselves, the state looks after them. We have moved from administration to human services.” [102]

113Social assistance to the most disadvantaged reflects the objective of establishing a social equilibrium and, at the same time, sorting and categorising the (urban) vulnerable population, and excluding others (migrants). The employees speak maternally about “taking care” of the disadvantaged; solicitude has become one of the policies for the re-founding of the welfare state in China.

114This compassionate tendency is incarnated in the “folklore” [103] surrounding campaigns for donations.


“We’re busy with with the preparations for the anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. On 1 July, the director of the residents’ committee will visit the elderly Party members and those in difficult situations [pinkun]. He will give them gifts, talk about their situations, and offer them help and services.” [104]
“The residents’ committee gave me a wheelchair and portable toilet […] because I am disabled.” [105]

116The collection of donations and solidarity sometimes extends to the national level. The residents’ committees were strongly mobilised after the earthquake in Sichuan on 12 May 2008. [106] The names of donors, dates and amounts given are published on placards placed outside the office in an attempt to project an image of transparency.


“The shequ is not like a business, it’s a grassroots organisation, it cannot receive any money. […] This is an impartial, charitable, egalitarian and transparent action. […] Everyone can give. It is because of this that records must be kept. Everything is published […] We do not want to risk the residents having doubts about our honesty.” [107]

118The treatment of social issues is also more easily dealt with in terms of “relationship-based” support. The slogan “Providing services to residents” relates to the social work sector, which is being constructed through this body and in connection with NGOs and local associations. The importance of “listening” to social suffering, [108] as well as support and mediation demonstrates the redeployment of the state in the social work sector.


“I’m preparing the exam for social work qualifications. […] They ask us how to manage such and such a problem. We have to know how to help people who have problems.” [109]

120Listening, mediation, and personal services have become essential. The committee officials are trained in law, sociology, or psychology. As the social work sector is being constructed, femininity represents both a quality and a constraint in professional terms. Residents and employees consider that this job “suits women” because it is associated with low levels of efficacy and with interpersonal relations, availability, appeasement, compassion, patience, calm, and listening.


“This job is more suited to women. Women are gentler than men; it’s adapted to our personality.” [110]
“Women are more suited to social work and tasks involving contact.” [111]
“To do this job, you have to have compassion, you have to be devoted […] you have to do everything to please people, otherwise it’s not worth it.” [112]
“I can’t abandon my residents. I’m too generous, I’m always there to help them, I can’t refuse.” [113]
“If you have a strong temperament, then it will be difficult to adapt to this job.” [114]

122Moreover, the location of the committees in the neighbourhood, as the extension of domestic space, confirms the connection between feminine and professional abilities.

123Finally, residents’ committees are responsible for conflict mediation. This mission is justified by their role as a third party in problems involving families or neighbours. Although they are ineffective in political conflicts linked to real estate economy, [115] the officials sometimes find solutions to small-scale problems. In many cases where the official cannot help residents, forms of sympathy emerge, much as is the case for welfare office workers when faced with unemployed people seeking payments. [116]

The tricks of being flexible: prioritising tasks when faced with a varied workload

124Know-how is a product of the precarious and flexible status and context within the residents’ committee. The execution of directives and circulars coming “from above” is reconstructed “below” in the face-to-face contact with the population, thus demonstrating officials’ specific training. In carrying out these missions, the officials of the residents’ committee expose them to the field.


“The work is not just administrative, it’s also providing services to people.” [117]

126The employees, trained in “number-based” [118] management techniques, therefore adapt themselves to specific cases and demands. My study showed that they develop this expertise in the treatment of demands.

127First, given the absence of official administrative culture, public action is largely based on the personal qualifications and talents of officials, which increases the diversity of situations, depending on the neighbourhood, the social profile of the residents, and the committee personnel. Since the committee does not constitute a specific “profession” with its own profile or recruitment path, its employees come from various backgrounds. However, shared internal norms develop because there is generally a positive atmosphere within the teams, who view the work from a perspective of solidarity and share an ambiguous status.

128The expertise of residents’ committee officials characterises their ability to prioritise their different public action tasks. Their dual nature, administrative and popular, enables officials to organise demands according to a hierarchy.


“After the end of work, at 5pm, it’s over until the next day. Those who need help, they can wait until the next day.” [119]

130The employees also give themselves certain leeway to make their work less laborious.


“If the heads of the households are not there to sign during our door-knocking, we get someone to sign anyway, imitating their names.” [120]

132The employees of the residents’ committees also accept the fact that they don’t manage to respond to all the inhabitants’ problems, invoking not incompetence but lack of means.


“We’re not always satisfied, there are many things that we would like to do but we can’t. […] But we don’t have the power.”

134In effect they prioritise on a daily basis: recording the recipients of social welfare, choosing which problem to transfer to their superiors, reporting a particular suggestion made by the residents, counting the census population. The officials define their own ways of going about matters whilst remaining within the framework defined by the administration, and awarding priority to the evaluations of their superiors. The office is above all a place of “paperwork” [121] and numbers management, which take precedence over other tasks. [122] Before submitting their annual report, officials ensure that the data is coherent from one year to the next, which does not rule out falsification.

135Their daily routine is punctuated by urgent micro-decisions, depending on the public they are dealing with. The prioritisation of tasks also means they have to reflect on “power intermittences”. [123] Political and social control alternately tightens and loosens its grip on administrative work. The officials’ stress increases at the time of writing annual activity reports. Intensification of local control arises during time-frames that are politically sensitive at the central level (CCP Congress, Olympic Games). The work of the officials is then concentrated on maintaining order and security.


“This week, we will be busy organising the 17th Party Congress. We have to organise volunteer groups for security. […] We don’t need them every day, only for the major events. But then they have to go out every day.” [124]

137During these moments the specificity of Beijing as a “political place”, as the site of the central state, emerges. The employees are more anxious, less available and focus their energy on mobilising the residents for the security of public spaces.


“During the Olympic Games, we modified our work. We had to involve the residents. We had to make sure that no one was a problem for the government so we provided education on different aspects: the environment, for example, recycling, and security. We spread information, held thematic events to mobilise them.” [125]

139In the neighbourhoods of Beijing, everyone considered that “in the lead-up to the Games, security is a serious issue”. [126] Moreover, volunteers for security were clearly in demand. [127] After each heightened mobilisation, security controls were relaxed again. [128]

140Flexibility and adaptation to the local context thus constitute a set of working norms. There are important differences in working conditions between neighbourhood communities because of unequal local resources. Whilst some committees have spacious premises, others have offices in basements, particularly in recent residences. However, the long-term embeddedness of a team of officials contributes to its recognition in older neighbourhoods, where this organisation has existed since the 1950s.

141Prioritising has led employees to master a double language: that of the administration and the official framework, but also the local language, by developing tact in dealing with the resident public. Sometimes they end up providing services unequally in their neighbourhoods. The problem of favouritism was raised by several residents.


“If you don’t pay them compliments, you can’t get help. You can make criticisms about administrative problems but they prefer that you don’t, there’s a kind of blackmail in fact.” [129]
“There is help for the unemployed but it depends on personal relationships. […] That’s still a necessary condition for reintegrating oneself.” [130]

143The committee officials rely on informal networks to increase the efficacy of their work in collecting information, even if this sometimes involves interests that are considered unjust by others. They offer certain residents small gifts to thank them for their help. [131] The residents’ committees are sometimes even accused of fraud. In one case, for example, they were suspected of having rented part of their public premises at a profit. However the extent of these clientelist practices remains limited.

144The territorialisation of the para-public action of neighbourhood communities has led to a geographical and temporal differentiation. The ambiguity of statuses and missions has allowed officials to adapt to the context and maintain a certain flexibility.


“The residents’ committee is like a basket, you can put anything in it.”

146This body is becoming professionalised as part of an “ongoing” reform. Officials have developed specific work norms and adapted to this changing status. The neighbourhood reform has thus “invented a professional group” [132] without a profession.

147* * *

148Symbols of an ideological past, Beijing residents’ committees are becoming professionalised without actually joining the category of civil servants in the Chinese administration. This article takes the opposite perspective to unilateral analyses of Chinese authoritarianism, of its omnipresence or of resistances, and instead studies the ambiguities of government through the neighbourhood community, and the shifting lines of power within the neighbourhoods.

149The ethnographic study of the work of these officials demonstrates that participative bureaucratisation reinforces their precarious status, as workers who are subject to the dual control of both the administration and the residents. Whilst maintaining their historic status, the municipality has introduced administrative norms in order to use them as auxiliaries in the field. For the committee officials this participative bureaucratisation has led to an unstable position and a lack of recognition that contributes to their social disqualification and their difficulty in gaining legitimacy in the neighbourhoods. Both as the relay of the administration and as an organisation of mediation, the energy they deploy on a daily basis is not sufficient to create a relationship of trust with the inhabitants.

150In spite of their ambiguous status, the employees occupy a strategic position within government because the implementation of public action and the initiatives of direct contact with the residents are both the fruit of their labours. Although it is not seen as being in a state of a crisis, this body is continually “being reformed”. The Beijing municipality has announced the development of direct elections, along the lines of what is already occurring in the countryside. It has also extended “neighbourhood community building” (shequ jianshe) into the urbanised rural zones on a large scale. In so doing it is maintaining the ambiguity of this structure of government. [133]


Municipal administration in Beijing

Levels Responsible administration City (shi) City council (shi zhengfu) District (qu) District council (qu zhengfu) Sub-district (jiedao) Street office (jiedao banshichu), local police (paichusuo) Neighbourhood community (shequ) Neighbourhood residents’ committee (shequ jumin weiyuanhui)

Municipal administration in Beijing

Note: The residents’ committee is highlighted because it is not a part of the administration.


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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 27 September 2007.
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    Organic law of the Urban Residents’ Committees of the People’s Republic of China, Article 2, December 1989.
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    Martin K. Whyte, William L. Parish, Urban Life in Contemporary China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
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    Pierre Miège “Les évolutions de la danwei dans la Chine des réformes: une analyse des changements de la société urbaine (1978-2004)”, PhD thesis in sociology, Paris, EHESS, 2006.
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    Term borrowed from Jay Rowell, Le totalitarisme au concret (Paris: Economica, 2006).
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    On the reform of state enterprises, see Antoine Kernen, La Chine vers l’économie de marché (Paris: Karthala, 2004); Jean-Louis Rocca, La condition chinoise (Paris: Karthala, 2006).
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    Jean Derleth, Daniel R. Koldyck, “The shequ experiment: grassroots political reform in urban China”, Journal of Contemporary China, 13(41), 2004, 747-77; Peng Bo, “Gouvernance des communautés résidentielles et contrôle étatique: le cas de la médiation communautaire à Shanghai”, Perspectives chinoises, 86, November-December, 2004, (accessed 10 November 2014).
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    Benjamin L. Read, Roots of the State. Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).
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    Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Le système politique chinois (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2014).
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    See, for example, the thematic issue “Community studies and social construction in China”, Social Sciences in China, 29(1), 2008.
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    David Bray, Social Space and Governance in Urban China. The Danwei System from Origins to Reform (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); Elaine Jeffreys (ed.), China’s Governmentalities. Governing Change, Changing Government (London: Routledge, 2009); Thomas Heberer, Christian Göbel (eds), The Politics of Community Building in Urban China (London: Routledge, 2010).
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    See Amandine Monteil, Jie Li, “Le “réseau communautaire”, instrument de développement urbain durable en Chine?”, Mondes en développement, 133, 2006, 101-11; Wang Di, “Pratiques et normes de fonctionnements des comités de résidents: conséquences et limites d’une gestion par les chiffres”, Perspectives chinoises, 1, 2013, 7-16, <> (accessed 15 March 2013).
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    Michael Lipsky, Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1980).
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    Pierre Bourdieu, “Droit et passe-droit: le champ des pouvoirs territoriaux et la mise en œuvre des réglements”, Actes de la recherché en sciences sociales, 81-82, 1990, 86-96 (92).
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    The “sociologie du guichet” studies the encounter between (state) actors and members of the public, typically in welfare offices, from an interactionist perspective. See, for example, Vincent Dubois, La vie au guichet. Relation administrative et traitement de la misère (Paris: Economica, [1999] 2003); translated into English as The Bureaucrat and the Poor: Encounters in French Welfare Offices (Surrey: Ashgate, 2001). On China, see Isabelle Thireau, Linshan Huan, Les ruses de la démocratie. Protester en Chine (Paris: Seuil, 2010); special issue “Au nom de l’État: interactions entre administrateurs locaux et citoyens”, Perspectives chinoises, 1, 2013.
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    Gilles Geannot, Les métiers flous. Travail et action publique (Toulouse: Octares, 2011).
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    Director of a residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 21 May, 2008.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, recent neighbourhood, 3 June, 2008.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, male, former industrial neighbourhood, 2 November 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 11 May 2007. Many Chinese terms (xitong, tixi) show that the neighbourhood community is seen more as a system than as a living space.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 28 April 2007.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 13 June 2008.
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    Resident, old neighbourhood, male, 23 April 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 28 April 2007.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 11 May 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 28 April 2007.
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    Assistant Director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 23 October 2007.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 28 April 2007.
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    Resident, female, old neighbourhood, 28 October 2008.
  • [30]
    Resident, male, old neighbourhood, 5 May 2007.
  • [31]
    The leader organises activities (International Women’s Day) and provides marital counselling.
  • [32]
    In old neighbourhoods, this official also collects the hygiene (sanitation) fees (for cleaning common areas, rubbish collection).
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    Employees of the residents’ committee, old neighbourhood, 5 April 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, old neighbourhood, 11 May 2007.
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    Resident, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 27 March 2007.
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    Elderly employee of the residents’ committee, male, former industrial neighbourhood, 2 November 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 11 May 2007.
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    According to the study, the salary level varied according to the districts (qu) but also according to function and status (director, assistant director, secretary of the Communist Party branch, employee, employee in pre-retirement).
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    For each level of local administration there is a corresponding Communist Party office.
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    This was nonetheless the case in the old centre of Beijing. The residents’ committee was made up of local residents, who were evidently elected but not often present at the neighbourhood community office. The residents’ most frequent contacts were with salaried officials.
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    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 27 March 2007.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 13 June 2008.
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    Kelei Lin, Xianyang Yu, “Beijing shi shequ jianshe zhong de zhidu chuanxin” [“Institutional innovation in community building in Beijing neighbourhoods”], Beijing shehui kexue [Beijing Social Sciences], 3, 2004, 52-58 (58).
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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 25 April 2007.
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    Employee of a residents’ committee, male, former industrial neighbourhood, 2 November 2007.
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    Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (London: Penguin, 2009), 59.
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    Teacher in the “neighbourhood communities”, female, old neighbourhood, 26 September 2007.
  • [48]
    Serge Paugam, “Les formes contemporaines de la disqualification sociale”, Ceriscope pauvreté, 2012, (accessed 12 December 2013).
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    Municipal institutions in urban China begin at the level of the street office, the “basic” administrative level, corresponding to the cantons (xiang) in rural China. See Paul Charon, “Anatomie de l’Etat local en Chine, structuration et distribution du pouvoir”, Sinopolis, 1 September 2011. (accessed 8 November 2014); Jae Ho Chung, Tao-Chui Lam (eds) China’s Local Administration. Traditions and Changes in the Sub-National Hierarchy (London: Routledge, 2010).
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    In spite of regular re-evaluation of salaries, they remain significantly below the average wage in Beijing.
  • [51]
    The census, and particularly the number of births, is closely monitored.
  • [52]
    The offices are open between 9am and 11.30am and then between 1.30pm and 5pm from Monday to Friday.
  • [53]
    Director of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 30 April 2009.
  • [54]
    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 24 April 2009.
  • [55]
    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, recent neighbourhood, Beijing, 30 April 2007.
  • [56]
    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 27 March 2007.
  • [57]
    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, recent neighbourhood, 22 April 2007.
  • [58]
    Elderly resident, female, old neighbourhood, 10 May 2007.
  • [59]
    Homeowner, male, recent neighbourhood, 28 December 2007.
  • [60]
    Resident, male, old neighbourhood, 11 April 2007.
  • [61]
    Resident, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 8 April 2007.
  • [62]
    Resident, female, old neighbourhood, 29 April 2007.
  • [63]
    Resident, female, old neighbourhood, 20 October 2008.
  • [64]
    Resident, male, recent neighbourhood, 31 March 2007.
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    Resident, male, volunteer gardener, former industrial neighbourhood, 30 March 2007.
  • [66]
    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 6 April 2007.
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    Lisa Wedeen, “Acting ‘as if’: symbolic politics and social control in Syria”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 40(3), July 1998, 503-23.
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    Observation made during fieldwork in Beijing, 25 April 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, male, former industrial neighbourhood, 2 November 2007.
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    A similar phenomenon also exists in Cuba, according to Marie-Laure Geoffray, “Culture, politique et contestation à Cuba: une sociologie politique des modes d’action non conventionnels en contexte autoritaire”, PhD in political science, Paris, Sciences Po Paris, 2010, 185.
  • [71]
    Siheyuan: a square house with at least one inner courtyard in the centre, and only one external entry door. All other openings in the house give onto the interior, into the inner courtyard.
  • [72]
    Message from the local police (paichusuo), old centre, 25 September 2007.
  • [73]
    Public notice, former industrial neighbourhood, 17 April 2007.
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    Director of a residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 21 May 2008.
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    Neighbourhood community internet site, accessed 22 March 2012.
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    Observation in an office, recent neighbourhood, 30 April 2007.
  • [77]
    Howard S. Becker, Outsiders. Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: The Free Press, 1991 [1963]), 147.
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    During the campaign against the Falun Gong movement in 1999, the residents’ committees were mobilised as investigators and informers.
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    Resident, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 30 March 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 11 May 2007.
  • [81]
    Director of a residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 21 May 2008.
  • [82]
    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 8 March 2007.
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    David Bray, “Building ‘community’: new strategies of governance in urban China”, Economy and Society, 35(4), 2006, 530-49.
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    Béatrice Hibou, La force de l’obéissance. Economie politique de la repression en Tunisie (Paris: La Découverte, 2006), 320.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, old centre, 27 September 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, male, former industrial neighbourhood, 2 November 2007.
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    Teacher in the neighbourhood community, female, old centre, 26 September 2007.
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    Dibao recipient, male, old neighbourhood, 20 April 2008.
  • [89]
    Dibao recipient, male, former industrial neighbourhood, 28 April 2007.
  • [90]
    This control is linked to the small number of pensions available.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, old neighbourhood, 21 May 2008.
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    See also Jean-Louis Rocca, La condition chinoise (Paris: Karthala, 2006), 150.
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    Long-term resident, female, old neighbourhood, 29 April 2007.
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    Dibao recipient, old neighbourhood, 28 April 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 26 September 2007.
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    Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 216. English translation by Alan Sheridan, Discipline and Punish (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 300.
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    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 25 April 2007.
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    Assistant director of the residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 8 May 2007.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 21 May 2008.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 30 October 2008.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 21 May 2008.
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    Party secretary of the residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, April 2009.
  • [103]
    Antoine Kernen, La Chine vers l’économie de marché (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 256-9.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, old neighbourhood, 28 June 2008.
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    Disabled resident, male, old neighbourhood, 3 May 2009.
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    Observation, old neighbourhood, 16 May 2008, 23 October 2008.
  • [107]
    Director of the residents’ committee, male, old centre, 21 May 2008.
  • [108]
    Didier Fassin, Des maux indicibles. Sociologie des lieux d’écoute (Paris: La Découverte, 2004).
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    Assistant director in a residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 21 March 2008.
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    Assistant director in a residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 5 March 2008.
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    Employee of a residents’ committee, female, former industrial neighbourhood, 5 April 2007.
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    Employee of a residents’ committee, female, old centre, 30 October 2008.
  • [113]
    Director of a residents’ committee, female, recent neighbourhood, 30 April 2009.
  • [114]
    Director of a residents’ committee, male, old centre, 21 May 2008.
  • [115]
    The demolition of old housing and subsequent rehousing (chai-qian) is a result of projects between the municipality (the owner of urban land) and real estate developers. During the course of this study, residents were forced to move and, because of insufficient compensation, could only find housing in neighbourhoods outside the centre.
  • [116]
    J. Rowell, Le totalitarisme au concret, 280.
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    Director of the residents’ committee, female, recent neighbourhood, 5 December 2007.
  • [118]
    Wang Di, “Pratiques et norms de fonctionnement des comités de residents”.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, male, recent neighbourhood, 8 April 2007.
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    Employee of the residents’ committee, female, new neighbourhood, 29 April 2009.
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    Term inspired by Yasmine Siblot, Faire valoir ses droits au quotidien. Les services publics dans les quartiers populaires (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2006), 29-64.
  • [122]
    Wang Di, “Pratiques et normes de fonctionnement des comités de résidents”.
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    Didier Fassin, “Charité bien ordonnée: principes de justice et pratiques de jugement dans l’attribution des aides d’urgence”, Revue française de sociologie, 42(3), 2001, 437-75 (465).Online
  • [124]
    Employee of a residents’ committee, female, recent neighbourhood, 12 October 2007.
  • [125]
    Director of a residents’ committee, male, old neighbourhood, 21 May 2008.
  • [126]
    Volunteer, female, old neighbourhood, 10 June 2008.
  • [127]
    Observation, old neighbourhood, 12 March 2008.
  • [128]
    Employees of a residents’ committee, old neighbourhood, September 2008.
  • [129]
    Resident, female, old centre, 29 April 2007.
  • [130]
    Resident, female, old centre, 5 May 2007.
  • [131]
    The director of one residents’ committee, a woman over 50, discreetly gave me 200 yuan for my voluntary English classes (observation, former industrial neighbourhood, 15 May 2007).
  • [132]
    Sylvie Tissot, L’État et les quartiers: Genèse d’une catégorie de l’action publique (Paris: Seuil, 2007), 227-72.
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    The author would like to thank Isabelle Thireau, Jean-Louis Rocca, Jingyue Xing, Mihaela Hainagui and the editorial committee of the RFSP for their valuable comments on previous versions of this article.

This article analyses the status and daily work of residents’ committee officers in Beijing in the context of the “neighbourhood community building” (shequjianshe) reform. Administrative norms develop within a “a mass organisation for self-government at grassroots level”. I adopt an ethnographic approach to studying the subjectification of residents’ committee workers, who are both accountable to the government and responsible for stimulating local participation. Their ambiguous identity contributes to the low level of recognition accorded to this role, and to job insecurity. By inventing new expertise, particularly in fields such as social work with the “vulnerable”, residents’ committee officers avoid both a crisis of identity and a crisis of local management.

Judith Audin
Judith Audin is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary China at the EHESS, specialising in questions of housing and urban management in Chinese cities. Her thesis, supervised by Jean-Louis Rocca and defended in 2013, focused on the interrelationships between levels of government in residential areas and local power relations in Beijing. Her publications include: “Politiques du logement urbain en Chine, du communisme à l’économie du marché: genèse d’une économie politique de l’assujettissement”, Le Banquet, 31, February 2013, 79-97; “Les employées des comités de résidents à Pékin: formation locale de l’État chinois et redéfinition des modes d’intégration des femmes en milieu urbain”, in Tania Angeloff, Marylène Lieber (eds), Chinoises du 21ème siècle. Ruptures et continuités (Paris: La Découverte, 2012), 63-83; and “Le quartier, lieu de réinvention des relations État-société en Chine urbaine: l’exemple des comités de résidents à Pékin”, Raisons politiques, 29, February 2008, 107-18 (CECMC, EHESS, 190-198 avenue de France, 75013, Paris)
Translated from French by
Katharine Throssell
Uploaded on on 16/02/2016
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