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Grass-Roots Organizations

Aspects of Chinese society also have contributed to shaping the contemporary structure for maintaining public order (see Urban Society , ch. 3). Urban and rural dwellers rarely change their residences. Amid the sprawling cities, neighborhoods remain closeknit communities. For the 80 percent of the population that lives in the countryside, home and place of work are the same. With little physical mobility, most villagers stay put for generations and know each other intimately. In such close-knit environments, where everyone is likely to know everyone else and notice most of what happens, mutual surveillance and peer pressure can be extremely effective (see Rural Society , ch. 3).

The structure of the public security system remained extensive in the 1980s, and the authority of its forces exceeded that of most police forces in the West. Nevertheless, public security agencies required and received the assistance of a wide-ranging network of grass-roots organizations to mobilize residents' responses to the government's call for observance of laws, lead the people in maintaining social order and public security, and settle disputes among residents.

In urban areas an average of 11 patrolmen were responsible for controlling an area containing 15,000 or more residents. A patrolman could not know all the people and their particular problems; he needed help. The local people's governments and congresses shared responsibility for public order but had no special personnel for the task. The armed forces were available, but they had other primary concerns and would be called out only in the most extreme circumstances.

To provide security beyond what could be provided by the police and to extend government control, a system of neighborhood or street committees had been established on a nationwide basis in 1954. The committees were charged with the responsibility of assisting the government in maintaining order. They usually controlled from 10,000 to 20,000 people and consisted of 3 to 7 full-time cadres. In the late 1970s, the size and functions of neighborhood committees were expanded. The neighborhood committees were specifically responsible for maintaining public order and were accountable to the local people's congress.

Residents' committees and residents' "small groups," also established in 1954, were subordinate to neighborhood committees. These were the genuine grass-roots organizations, staffed by unpaid local residents elected by their neighbors. They directly involved the people in controlling their neighborhoods, and they reduced the demands on formal state institutions by maintaining surveillance for the public security forces and mediating most civil disputes and minor criminal cases for the judiciary. A residents' committee supervised from 100 to 600 families with a staff of 7 to 17 members, one from each subordinate residents' small group. A residents' small group controlled fifteen to forty households. The public security organization in the countryside was also pervasive. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, it was structured along military lines. The people's commune (see Glossary) was the lowest level of government organization, with its administrative committee on a legal par with the local people's government in the urban areas. People's communes were subdivided into production brigades (see Glossary) and production teams (see Glossary). Each team elected a people's public security committee, which sent a representative to the committee at the brigade level. Physical control was mostly the responsibility of the militia units organized at the team, brigade, and commune levels. In the winter of 1982-83 communes were replaced by township governments, and grass-roots committees were patterned after urban committees (see Rural Society , ch. 3). These rural grass-roots committees were given legal status by the Draft Organic Regulations for Villagers' Committees approved by the National People's Congress in April 1987.

Residents' committees and small groups were staffed originally by housewives and retired persons but involved others as their functions expanded. Their pervasive presence made them a primary means for disseminating propaganda, and their grass-roots nature allowed for effective use of peer pressure in mediating disputes and controlling troublemakers. Perhaps 4 or 5 percent of the adult population exercised some authority in what Western experts have described as "participatory democracy in an extended form." The functional subunits, the residents' committees and residents' small groups, were particularly important in controlling the people.

People's mediation committees, guided and supervised jointly by the basic people's court and the public security station, performed an important function within the residents' committees. They settled minor disputes and disagreements using conciliation and peer pressure. Mediation committees were established originally in communist areas during the Chinese civil war (1945-49) as a natural outgrowth of traditional preferences for local mediation of disputes. Upon taking over the major cities of China in 1949, the Communists were confronted with a tremendous backlog of judicial cases. Mediation committees provided a means of resolving disputes while actively propagandizing and involving the people in the new government. Beginning in 1954 mediation committees were set up in neighborhoods, stores, schools, enterprises, factories, and workshops in the cities and in the production brigades and teams in the countryside.

In the 1980s the five- to eleven-member people's mediation committees were elected by popular vote to two-year terms with the option of being reelected. Members served without pay and could be removed at any time by the electors for dereliction of duty. They were responsible for settling disputes, strengthening popular unity, promoting production and order, and conducting propaganda activities. Parties in dispute came voluntarily to the mediation committee; people seemed to feel they should try mediation before proceeding to a lawsuit. Mediators' duties ranged from acting as go-betweens for parties who refused to talk to one another to defining issues, deciding questions of fact, and issuing tentative or advisory decisions. Mediation committees also exerted strong political, economic, social, and moral pressures upon one or both parties to gain "voluntary" compliance with the decisions. In addition to mediation committees, other officials, police officers, party members, and work supervisors were expected to serve as mediators. Members of the residents' committees and small groups who were not members of the mediation committees were also involved in the mediation process.

Data as of July 1987

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