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The return of the Danwei 2.0

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

After 1949, more than 90 percent of all urban residents in China belonged to a Danwei (单位 = work unit). It was considered the cornerstone of the socialist planned economy. Factories, government offices, residential areas, hospitals, schools, or universities were each a Danwei. It guaranteed for everyone who belonged to it not only a job for life but also a minimum level of medical care and all-around social provision.

The Danwei called itself “small but comprehensive” (小而全) and was responsible for everything, from getting an apartment to a spot in a daycare center. Its administration approved marriages or divorces. With China’s free-market reforms beginning in 1978, the Danwei lost its social and official powers. It once served as the party’s lowest administrative unit for political training, supervision, and grassroots mobilization. Beijing’s leadership now wants to revive this role as part of its re-ideologization of society.

When party leader Xi Jinping celebrated China’s victory over the COVID-19 pandemic in Beijing last September, he did not only praise himself and his CCP. He gave a number that made people sit up and take notice, saying that “more than four million people involved at the local level (社区工作者) kept watch day and night,” Xi was referring to the local neighborhood committees, remnants of the bygone Danwei of the planned economy.

Xi praised ‘communal level’ in fight against COVID-19

Beijing had mobilized an army of neighborhood watchdogs in the city’s residential districts to ward off the infection. Equipped with special rights, the men and women locked down all entrances to buildings and houses for the ordered complete lockdown, controlled them day and night, and organized externally delivered supplies for the residents.

After their victory and the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China’s communists had established the so-called Danwei System in all cities. It was based on mutual property and Mao’s utopian socialist ideas of egalitarian distribution. The model for establishing Danwei in the cities of the People’s Republic was both the experience of administration in the revolutionary areas of Yan’an and the influences of traditional Confucian culture, which placed the individual in the collective extended family. As Zhou Yihu and Yang Xiaoming write in their standard work, The Chinese Danwei System (中国单位制度), the socialist Danwei only supervised urban residents. Therefore, it covered only 10 to 28 percent of all Chinese at a time when 80 percent of the population still lived as farmers in the countryside.

Sociologists Zhou Yihu and Yang Xiaomin wrote a standard work on “The Chinese Danwei System” in 1999, just as the relic of the planned economy was dissolving. Now it seems to be on the rise once more.

The book by the two sociologists, published in 1999, presented the Danwei “as a system in disintegration” two decades after the start of China’s economic reforms. The rise of the private sector and free travel allowed hundreds of millions of farmers to flock to the cities in search of work. Factories and institutes had rid themselves of all former Danwei baggage, such as the unproductive social welfare benefits. The Danwei no longer guaranteed lifetime employment. After 2003, it also lost all official functions. Chinese were released from their immaturity and were allowed to apply for passports, marry or divorce on their own – all without the written endorsement of a Danwei.

The state almost completely withdrew from its interference and control of the private lives of the Chinese, and the household name disappeared. Soon, all that remained of the former Danwei system were the neighborhood committees, which supervised neighborhoods and public order, and still helped to oversee the enforcement of the imposed one-child family policy.

Now, the relic of the planned economy seems to be on the rise again in China. Since CCP leader Xi took office, his party has been trying to revive parts of the old Danwei system and better embed it at a local level. In 2019, Beijing professor Zhou Wang allowed a neighborhood committee to recruit him as a “Danwei-Ren,” a new Danwei member. His task was to optimize the management of the neighborhood community.

New “Danwei-Ren” as red blood cells of the state body

Zhou, a CCP member himself, described in an essay for Caixin magazine, “Why China is dusting off its Danwei system?” that the Party wants to reassert more influence at a local level. “The return of the Danwei-Ren to community management is part of a broad initiative to intensify the reach of Party organizations over the local level,” he says, adding that the “Danwei-Rans” recruited for this purpose are called the “red blood cells of the state apparatus, carrying the Party’s will and interests like oxygen to the various local administrative bodies.” The “Danwei-Ren” formed “a large network and are a pool of resources that the Party can draw on.”

Party leader Xi, who is committed to the re-ideologization of China and absolute party rule, is also utilizing high-tech to institutionalize modern control systems that will enable him and his CCP to better monitor and mobilize the population. Since 2014, Beijing has been in the process of developing a social credit rating system through which the credit and trustworthiness of each Chinese, their family, and even any business enterprise or institution can be measured: lightning-fast and incomparably more efficient than the old Danwei administration ever was.

Beijing philosopher Zhao Tingyang warns in his book “On the Tianxia System” (All Under Heaven, Suhrkamp 2020) that humanity is in danger of globally and even voluntarily surrendering to a future “service dictatorship” and its control. “It is a completely new form of dictatorship.” Without specifically naming China or the Danwei system (but arguably alluding to them), he writes: Humanity is up to “some high-risk stuff” through “the marriage of biology, artificial intelligence, and social networks.”

Because technological systems “provide top and all-around service to everyone,” its beneficiaries accept that they “collect and monitor everyone’s information” and lead them into an “inextricable dependency.” People would “voluntarily allow themselves to be controlled because they need the total package of services provided by the technological system.”

China leads in these AI technologies. They provide the perfect setting for the re-launch of a Danwei System 2.0.

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