China will empower local officials at township, village, and neighborhood level to enforce the law under an amended administrative punishment law that took effect on Thursday, as well as operating a vastly extended "grid management" system of social control in rural and urban areas alike.
"[Officials at] township, village and neighborhood [level] shall be given administrative law enforcement powers ... while existing law enforcement powers and resources shall be integrated," according to a high-level opinion document dating from April, but not published by state news agency Xinhua until July 11.
Government will be based on a "grid" system of management, a system of social control that harks back to imperial times, and which will allow the authorities even closer control over citizens' lives, the opinion document issued jointly by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) central committee and the country's State Council said.
According to directives sent out in 2018, the grid system carves up neighborhoods into a grid pattern with 15-20 households per square, with each grid given a dedicated monitor who reports back on residents' affairs to local committees.
Neighborhood committees in China have long been tasked with monitoring the activities of ordinary people in urban areas, but the grid management system turbo-charges the capacity of officials even in rural areas to monitor what local people are doing, saying, and thinking.
According to a recruitment advertisement posted online in 2018, the task of a grid monitor for a neighborhood committee is to fully understand the residents of their grid, including exactly who lives where, which organizations they belong to, and the sort of lives they lead.
They will be asked to mediate in family conflicts and other disputes and to carry out "psychological intervention" when required, as well as to report back on "hidden dangers" in their grid, as well as all the aspects of residents' lives, political opinions, and complaints, the advertisement said.
That system is now being "modernized," with full data sharing between organizations and widespread automation the goal, the July 11 opinion document said.
Local committees are now being required to "build a simple and efficient township, village, or neighborhood management system under the leadership of the party committee, it said.
Officials should seek to improve mass communications with local residents, and conduct regular household visits in villages, towns, and neighborhoods.
They are also called on to "strengthen ideological and moral construction" among residents.
"[Local committees] should select moral role models and carry out award ceremonies, and focus on the important role of family tutors," it said.
CCP leader Xi Jinping has called for the family to be the first port of call when setting up ideological education for young people in China, and the key mode of transmission for party ideology.
The approach has already been rolled out among Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, where officials have moved in with Uyghur families to monitor them more closely and to better impose CCP ideology on people.
Since early 2018, Chinese officials have imposed regular “home stays” on families in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on its website.
"During these visits, families are required to provide officials with information about their lives and political views, and are subjected to political indoctrination," the group said.
It said the program violated people's rights to privacy and a family life.
Now, local governments across China are being asked to "cultivate and practice the core values of socialism, and promote Xi Jinping’s new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics into communities, rural areas, and families," according to the July 11 opinion document.
They must also use smart technology to govern at local level, and "improve policy propaganda, public communications, and the convenient and efficient provision of services," it said.
Zhang Kunlun, a scholar from Taiyuan, provincial capital of Shanxi, said the opinion is basically a set of instructions about how to implement an updated Administrative Punishments Law, which takes effect on July 15.
"This decentralization is the kind of decentralization that will trample on human rights and the rule of law, to put it bluntly," Zhang said.
"[Local officials] are being given free rein, so as to consolidate the CCP's grip on power."
Major turmoil seen
Yang Haiying, a professor at Japan's Shizuoka University, said the transfer of law enforcement powers to township, village, and neighborhood level could be problematic.
"Township governments lack the qualifications and aptitude for law enforcement, because to enforce the law, you also have to understand it," Yang said. "They are giving those on the front line more responsible."
"If it isn't well handled, it could cause major turmoil."
For example, the new rules mean that local officials could mete out administrative punishments to anyone complaining about how government actions have affected them.
"They can use this policy to implement controls on religious activity, to detain petitioners, as well as against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia," Yang said.
He said the move is unprecedented.
"Law enforcement powers have never been delegated to this extent in the whole of Chinese history," Yang said. "Back in the Qing dynasty, [official seats of government] only existed in county towns, and only the county-level officials had this power."
Activists have told RFA that the extension of the grid management system represents an expansion of the existing "stability maintenance" system from one that only targets government critics, dissidents, rights lawyers, and activists, to include everyone as a potential threat to the regime.
The expansion of the grid system was launched as Xi Jinping changed the constitution to enable him to start an unlimited second term in office.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.