This piece is republished with permission from the Anthill, a writers’ colony for narrative writing about China.
The neighborhood meeting was scheduled for Saturday morning and promised to tackle the Five Great Problems plaguing our housing community, No. 19 Ju’er hutong, Beijing. Separate flyers for the event — one English, one Chinese — appeared a few days prior, lodged in the cracks of our front doors. The Chinese version was printed on pink paper and offered a bit of helpful context. It summarized the Five Great Problems agreed upon in the March 20th meeting — broad categories like “environment problems” and “problems with new arrivals.” The English flyer was more perfunctory, a short welcome letter to an unexplained gathering, really. There were only a few sentences and one of them promised lunch and a tea break.
The offer wasn’t enticing enough, apparently. There are scores of English-speaking foreigners where I live, but my girlfriend and I were the only ones that joined the other two dozen Ju’er residents at 9am. We walked down a flight of stairs inside the neighborhood committee building, signed in and were handed bottles of water by members of our juweihui.
In China the juweihui, or neighborhood committee, is the most basic administrative division of the Communist Party, albeit a grassroots organization usually staffed with local residents and volunteers. The juweihui is the eyes and ears of the neighborhood, keeping tabs on its residents and looking after security. It has propaganda tasks as well. In my community, the juweihui hangs up fresh red banners on the wall opposite the office whenever a new Party campaign is handed down from the local government. The most recent one exhorts our largely foreign community to sign up for military service.
In reality, our juweihui is less Big Brother and more Golden Girls. Retirees like to congregate at the office to chat and gossip over thermoses of green tea brought from home. The juweihui functions more like a neighborhood association would in the West — arranging trash collection, mediating quarrels between residents, posting notices, changing light bulbs — if only that association were staffed almost exclusively with nosey women in their sixties and seventies. The biggest difference between a juweihui and a Western residents’ association is that for all its services to the community, the juweihui ultimately takes its orders from above, not from the residents themselves. This complicates things when there are Great Problems to solve.
We sat down next to a wall covered with computer-paper printouts of brainstorming charts, diagrams with wayward arrows, multi-page lists — the sprawling meeting minutes from previous sessions. Today’s forum was technically organized for residents of No. 19 Ju’er hutong but I recognized a majority of the faces from adjoining courtyards and a few characters from further down the way. This didn’t seem to bother anyone; hutong boundaries are more fluid than numbered addresses suggest. This would be a community meeting.
A woman in her late twenties stood up in front of the group and introduced herself as Meng Yuan. She had a high forehead, wore glasses and dirty pink flats with white bows on the toes. She laughed uneasily and asked us to forgive her, she didn’t have much experience. This bit of self-effacement over, she worked through the meeting agenda, listing points on a sheet of butcher paper stuck to a white board with a magnet. After ten minutes or so, Meng Yuan handed over the reins to a more sure-sounding middle-aged woman who would review what had been discussed at the previous meetings.
“I am a resident here myself,” this woman began. “I know that the best thing about our community is that our suzhi [moral character, breeding] is high!” She delivered this line matter-of-factly. The group sat mute as she scrolled through a Word document on a projector. Now we were getting down to brass tacks.
Issue 1: No. 19 still does not have a natural gas pipeline even though No. 17 has had it installed for over a year. We are still stuck using tanks of natural gas for cooking.
Status: The juweihui has submitted the plan to the authorities and is now waiting for approval.
Issue 2: There are too many safety-related problems. Is it possible to install a security camera? Outdoor lights?
Status: We are waiting for a response from the local police station.
Issue 3: How should we make our neighborhood more “green”?
Status: Waiting to hear from the management company about receiving payment.
We continued listening as the list grew, but I began to notice some faint grumbling from the crowd. When Meng Yuan stood up again, the meeting hit its first shoal.
Someone yelled from the middle of the group. “So, you’re saying that whoever has the money calls the shots, am I right?!” It was a man in a gray t-shirt with short gray hair and beady eyes. He shook his fist as he continued shouting while Meng Yuan stood slack. New voices seemed to erupt all at once. Suddenly, two people were arguing about a bicycle garage.
“Can’t we agree we want a bicycle garage? The leaders say we need to talk with the management company about this matter.”
“We can’t consider any other problems until we solve the cooking gas issue!”
“Wait a moment!” Meng Yuan interjected. “There is an order to the meeting! There are rules!” she tried yelling over the din.
“You’ve already wasted enough time!” spat back another woman. She wore a loose green blouse and had prominent creases running along her cheeks. This woman lacked the palpable anger of the gray-shirt man behind her but she was good at interrupting every time Meng Yuan tried to yank back control of the meeting.
“We don’t need this meeting structure!” she continued. “They talk about the trash problem, but they can’t solve the trash problem! We should all be able to say what we want to say and not listen to this list!”
The woman sitting next to me continued her knitting but shouted “right!” in support of this point.
For a while there was no form, no real chain of events or discussion — only an angry mob of retirees all talking at once. As I sat and watched poor Meng Yuan standing impotently next to her white board, the real purpose of the meeting slowly dawned on me. We would never solve the Five Great Problems; no one in the room had any authority to do so. We were all just here to vent.
“Auntie!” Meng Yuan pleaded, her voice trembling slightly with anger. She was struggling with the woman in the green blouse. “Yes! You say you want … Listen to me, listen to me … You say you want everyone to speak. Should we all just yell? Let everyone … listen to me … let everyone have a turn to speak.”
Eventually the group decided there would now only be ad hoc comments, suggestions and complaints. Meng Yuan wrote “parking lot” on a new sheet of butcher paper and taped it to the sidewall. All new issues raised would be sent to the parking lot. The first entry was: “bicycle garage.”
Around this time, another middle-aged woman with curly hair raised her hand, waiting patiently like a teacher’s pet in the bedlam. Meng Yuan called on her formally and the woman stood.
“I live in a pingfang [traditional one-story residence],” she began. She talked in a very exaggerated manner that made me wonder whether she was addressing me directly, embarrassed for the chaos I had witnessed. “We all can agree that we don’t need their list. Now we have this parking lot, so we can all give our comments and put them in the parking lot. Am I right! Now, I raised my hand, we can all raise our hands!” A smattering of applause broke out and she sat down. The woman next to me nodded her approval, hands still knitting.
Meng Yuan eventually retreated to the back wall and the group’s intensity seemed to flag. The original gray-shirt instigator had left and the green-blouse woman appeared more subdued. Two new young people stood in front of the group with a fresh piece of butcher paper on the board and a mind-map diagram began to take shape — spokes radiating out from the word “problems.”
We rehashed the same issues that had already been reviewed from past meetings. Most people were raising their hands to speak now, but occasionally the woman in green got antsy with her hand up and had to blurt something out. Every time someone mentioned a new problem or comment, the new young girl holding the marker asked: “Does this belong in one of these categories or is it a new category?” She just seemed happy that the crowd hadn’t turned on her. We had given up on the parking lot by this point; it languished on the sidewall with its single entry.
After a while, a tall man in his thirties was called on and he uncrossed his long legs. “You know, there are a number of people here who didn’t participate in the last meetings we had on these problems. We are listing the same things we did last time. We need to narrow down the list and take on the ones we can actually solve. We need to discuss how we are actually going to solve these problems!”
The knitting lady perked up at this suggestion. “That’s right!” she cried.
My girlfriend and I ducked out of the meeting soon thereafter. We had only lasted an hour. A few days later, when I returned home from work I spotted a new notice posted near the door of the juweihui office. There would be a follow-up neighborhood meeting scheduled on Saturday to further discuss community concerns and how to implement solutions. I didn’t attend.
Tom Pellman is an editor at the Anthill, where “Great Problems” was first published.