Grid Managers, the Moral Logic of Guan, and State–Society Dynamics in China
These grid managers were sitting in an office room. Their phones—all linked to a power bank—were inundated with calls from people who had found that their health code had suddenly turned red and wanted to know what to do to make it green again. The grid managers had stayed up the whole night until 5 am and were now resuming work after less than three hours of sleep. There was no time for rest or breakfast; they were saving every minute for anti-Covid efforts, from answering phone calls and organising mass PCR testing to communicating with people who were to undergo home quarantine and putting a seal on their doors. It was not easy, not at all.
This description is taken, with some minor rephrasing that does not alter the original meaning, from a Weibo post widely circulated on 29 October 2022, after a surge in Covid cases in Shenzhen (Mr Lihai 2022). Similar descriptions are ubiquitous in Chinese state media, where grid managers (网格员) are portrayed as a cohort of people extremely busy coping with a huge workload. For instance, in one article, the authors quote the diary of a grid manager in Hangzhou with the intention of telling the supposedly touching story of her continuing to work during Chinese New Year, despite the fact that her father was dying and her boss and relatives were urging her to return to his deathbed (Chang’an Comment 2020). Grid managers have been depicted as models to follow in Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’, so wholeheartedly devoted to serving the people that they willingly sacrifice their sleep, their family life, and their own health—just like all models chosen by the Party-State since the time of Lei Feng, if not before. And the system of grid management (网格化管理) as a whole was touted as key to China’s success in fighting the pandemic—at least before the demise of the zero-Covid policy in December 2022.
That the propaganda machine would portray grid managers this way should come as no surprise. First introduced in 2004 in Beijing, grid management has been implemented nationwide since 2013, when the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party included it as part of its initiative of social governance modernisation (CCCCP 2013). In line with this, Chinese state media has been framing grid managers as selfless servants of the public good and the system as an innovation—if not a proper revolution—in urban management. In particular, the official discourse has been emphasising how the system supposedly embodies the idea of self-governance, while integrating dazzling new technologies that enable both efficiency in service delivery and precision in detecting troublemakers and pre-empting potential problems (see, for instance, Wu 2020). In contrast, the Western media and academic publications have been paying more attention to the surveillance function of this system, pointing out its intrusiveness in collecting information through both human reporting and surveillance technologies, as well as its potential for realising a police or surveillance state (see, for instance, Chin and Lin 2022; Jiang 2022; Wu 2014).
Despite such differences in framing and conclusions, these publications tend to have one thing in common: they simplify the role of people, either grid managers or grid residents. If the latter are often considered merely passive subjects at the mercy of the Party-State, the former are commonly seen as cogs in the state apparatus, either contributing to the improvement of local governance or embodying the banality of evil. In this essay, I present a more nuanced view by arguing that overlooking the service provision function of grid management—the focus of domestic propaganda—and reducing it to nothing but a ploy to sugar-coat the Party-State’s surveillance efforts is an oversimplification. I will start with a presentation of what grid managers do in terms of service provision and their resultant role in the power structure. I then discuss the general perception of grid managers, which I propose we may understand through the notion of guan (管). It is my hope that this essay will provide an alternative understanding of grid managers and state–society dynamics in contemporary China. I should also note that this article is a preliminary reflection aimed at asking the right questions, rather than providing conclusive answers, on topics that I will further investigate through ethnographic fieldwork in the coming years.
Service Provision: Grid Managers In Between
Who are grid managers and what do they do? If asked before the Covid-19 pandemic, very few people would have known how to answer this question. Although the implementation of grid management in most places dates to as early as 2013, and a photo and the contact information of the local grid manager is typically displayed in each residence block, the existence of these people and their role used to go relatively unnoticed. Nevertheless, they were there, taking charge of everything within their assigned grid with the goal of ‘dissolving small matters within the grid and big problems within the community’ (小事不出网格, 大事不出社区). Comprising 100 to 300 households each, the grids have become the basic unit of governance in both urban and rural areas in China. When working at full capacity as planned in the relevant policies, as many as 1.4 million grid managers should be employed at any one time (Pei 2021)—a massive social group worthy of our attention on its own terms. To examine the role of grid managers, we can take the Covid-19 pandemic as a watershed moment and divide it into roughly two phases. Let us begin with the tasks that can be more or less classified as ‘service provision’ in each phase.
Before the pandemic, grid managers were tasked with everyday affairs and specific assignments that would vary across regions: ranging from pest control to distribution of birth-control supplies, from checking roadside lamps and plants to dispute mediation in the neighbourhood, these jobs could be scattered and trivial (for a vivid description of the life of one grid manager, see Li 2022). Grid managers were also in charge of providing community members with the various certificates they needed to claim a pension or apply for an unemployment subsidy. Sometimes they served as volunteers, standing guard on the street or providing free haircuts for the elderly, while at other times they were actively engaged in writing and advertising propaganda articles and in the construction of National Civilised Cities (全国文明城市)—an honorary title awarded every three years to cities that fulfil a list of requirements, such as orderly traffic and spotless streets.
If many saw these ‘services’ as trivial or even irrelevant before the pandemic, this was no longer the case once Covid-19 entered the picture. With anti-Covid regulations tightened and mass PCR testing and regional lockdowns normalised between 2020 and 2022, grid managers became more visible and interactions with them unavoidable in everyday life. While the zero-Covid policy was enforced, it was grid managers who conducted contact tracing whenever a case was confirmed. They were also the ones who sealed off residence exits for those under home quarantine and helped transfer people—sometimes forcibly—to collective quarantine facilities, disinfecting the home after the move was done. They facilitated food supply and coordinated deliveries when people were locked inside their homes. They were the ones to whom people turned when their health code changed colour capriciously or they needed to resume mobility during lockdown. In other words, on top of the scope of their original work, during the pandemic, grid managers took up new responsibilities that were more directly related to people’s livelihoods.
This list of tasks clearly shows that, whether before or during the pandemic, to be a grid manager was no easy job. What is also evident is that these tasks—physically demanding and time-consuming as they seem—vary substantially in terms of the professionalism required. While some demand nothing but physical labour, others require specific skills. However, as we can evince from job advertisements for grid managers, recruiters usually do not demand specific qualifications from candidates. Applicants must support the leadership of the Communist Party, have a local household registration, be young and educated (in many places, there is a maximum limit of 35 years of age and minimum requirement of college education to apply), and be willing to bear hardships. They are not required to have a specialised education or relevant working background, though this is of course preferred. In other words, the sorts of ‘community services’ grid managers provide—some of which in other countries would be undertaken by nongovernmental organisations, while others would not exist at all—in China are provided by agents deployed by the Party-State.
In a sense, the existence of grid managers and their takeover of community-level service provision mean that the Party-State has monopolised social services in China through its agents on the ground. Even though resident volunteers are often also involved and relied on to attain specific or contingent goals, grid managers are always there, mobilising, coopting, organising, and leading (for the role of grid managers in conflict resolution, see, for instance, Tang 2020). Significantly, grid managers have a different relationship to the Party-State than their counterparts on residents’ committees—the basic governance unit before the advent of grid management. While those who work on residents’ committees are—at least nominally—elected by residents, grid managers are salaried staff employed through calls announced by the local government, and thus more directly involved with the Party-State apparatus and are a more overt demonstration of its presence.
Grid managers, I argue, constitute a layer between the state and society and such in-betweenness serves two functions. On the one hand, by taking over social service provision from a fledgling civil society—one that during the past decade has fizzled due to increased state repression and cooptation—this layer binds people vertically to the Party-State at the expense of their potential to bind horizontally with one another. If one defining characteristic of civil society is its independence from the government, it nonetheless appears that in the Chinese context the Party-State is creating a ‘state-run civil society’, as paradoxical in nature as the government-organised nongovernmental organisations that are prevalent in China (Hasmath et al. 2019). On the other hand, this layer functions as a buffer zone separating the Party-State and society in terms of accountability. To use food supply during lockdowns as an example, while the Party-State was often mentioned when people expressed their gratitude for receiving good food, grid managers and the workers in white hazmat suits were usually the ones blamed when things went wrong, as can be seen from numerous online denunciations of them (for a conceptualisation of gratitude throughout the Party’s history, see Sorace 2021).
This latter dynamic resonates with Hansen’s (2013) use of the notion of moral displacement to account for how university students in China reconcile the incongruity between the existence of corrupt officials and the alleged purity of the Party. Although grid managers are not among the ranks of government officials and are not necessarily Party members, a similar moral displacement is at play here: it is morally expedient to pin blame on nearby identifiable individuals rather than the faceless Party-State situated high above. In this way, the existence of grid managers as a layer in between enables the Party-State to simultaneously expand its power and retreat from its responsibilities, just like a caterpillar—to borrow the metaphor from Chinese scholar Qin Hui (2013: 249)—that stretches one end of its body and contracts the other when crawling forward.
Care and Control: The Moral Logic of Guan
While the above discussion touches on what grid managers do, in this section, I examine what they are expected to do in the eyes of the Chinese public. Despite their positive image in state media, grid managers have triggered public outrage on social media several times. Sometimes, this was due to the excessive and unreasonable constraints they imposed on their charges. For example, in October 2022, a Chinese writer shared how he managed to avoid seven days of collective quarantine by fighting for 24 hours against a grid manager who had abused his power in disregard of central policy on quarantine (Mei 2022). At other times, tragedies caused by their failure to respond to people’s needs sparked outrage. In a post from February 2020, a Weibo user in Wuhan accused the grid manager in her community of indirectly causing her father’s death (CDT 2020). The man had turned to the grid manager because he suspected he was infected with Covid-19 but received no help and subsequently left his home for fear of infecting the whole family, only to be found to have committed suicide a few days later.
These two cases result from seemingly contradictory causes—in one case, too many constraints and in the other too little help. Both were caused by behaviours that did not align with people’s general expectations of grid managers at the given time. Significantly, the same Chinese word, guan, is typically used in online complaints or accusations against grid managers when referring both to their excessive intervention (管太多, guan taiduo) and to their irresponsible inaction (不管, buguan). This dual usage implies that guan, as an action by state agents, when undertaken in the right way and in balanced proportions, is legitimate and good in and of itself. In other words, grid managers are expected to guan, so long as they do it just right. By examining how this word is used in the wider context of the pandemic, I would argue that it points to a moral logic that is central to China’s state–society interaction.
The same term appeared in many posts by those who were in favour of the zero-Covid policy after it was abolished in December 2022. Unprepared for the sudden policy shift, many deplored what they saw as a premature termination of restrictions and expressed their worries about an uncertain future by posting online comments such as ‘The state does not guan [care about] us anymore!’ (国家不管我们了!), or showed gratitude and determination with statements such as ‘I thank the state for guan [taking care of] us for three years’ (感谢国家管了我们三年) and ‘From now on we can only guan [care for] ourselves’ (接下来只能自己管自己了). It is evident that here guan carries a positive meaning that can be roughly translated as ‘caring for’ and ‘taking care of’, and emerging from these comments is a vision of the state as affectionate towards and protective of its people—in fact, state guan is presented as the very reason that people were able to avoid infection with the virus. In other words, guan here works to a desired end of health and safety.
However, guan can also mean something more restrictive, which ranges from ‘managing’, as in the very term of ‘grid management’, to ‘controlling’, as in ‘control area’ (管控区, guankongqu). This second meaning was dominant in the way local governments across the country adopted the ‘control area’ label from September 2021 to ensure zero-Covid was achieved in ‘a dynamic and accurate way’ (Wu 2022). It applied to localities where contacts of confirmed cases had been, with the result that such areas were cordoned off and people within forbidden to leave or gather for any reason other than mass PCR testing (Wu 2022; also see O’Donnell 2022). And if we superimpose the two definitions of guan in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, it becomes obvious that the word as used in online posts—indicative of the state’s protection and care—corresponds to a wide array of policies promulgated by the Party-State and implemented by its agents on the ground.
At one end of this array are policies of welfare provision, such as free in-hospital treatment for Covid patients; on the other are policies so restrictive that everyday life came to a complete halt, with the months-long lockdowns in various regions being the most telling example. Falling somewhere in between these extremes of care and control are all kinds of regulations, from mask mandates to colour-changing health codes. They vary in terms of the degree of control and influence on ordinary people, but when referred to by the single word guan, such differences are smoothed over. In other words, the duality of guan and its ambiguous usage bridge different policies and practices, implying, I argue, an equation of control with care (coincidentally, Zhu et al. used guan to describe the care–control relation between community and people with severe mental illness and their families; see Zhu et al. 2018). What is also implied is the causal relation—or, rather, illusion—that compliance with state regulations, however controlling and encroaching they might be, is the sufficient and necessary condition for safety. This argument aligns with past survey results, according to which the general public in China widely accepts the state’s surveillance methods as a promise of personal safety (see, for instance, Su et al. 2022; for a discussion of how surveillance can be considered a ‘good gaze’, see Morris 2020)—after all, surveillance can be included as part of the unspecified means of guan.
This dual understanding of guan recalls the longstanding metaphorical equivocation in China of family and state, and of the traditional paternalistic figure, who, despite being dominating and controlling, is appreciated for taking care of and providing for the whole family (see, for instance, Steinmüller 2015). But if intimacy exists alongside paternal authority inside the family, and nationalistic sentiments comparable to filial affection are widely felt towards the Party-State (Fong 2004), such sentimental connections hardly apply to how people feel about grid managers. Given that grid managers are not civil servants and work on a short-term contractual basis (Zhao and Douglas-Jones 2022), they do not occupy the proper paternal place to receive appreciation for enacting ‘care’, although they have the outsourced power to exercise ‘control’. Instead, when people refer to the notion of guan in online complaints or accusations against grid managers for their excesses or inaction (too much or too little guan), they are not appealing to any moral agreements between themselves and the grid managers, as there is no such pact, but instead to the care and protection tacitly promised by the duality of guan. This reveals a pragmatic strategy that resembles rightful resistance (O’Brien 1996)—that is, to protect personal rights and further interests by making claims legitimised by official ideologies with a language willingly accepted by the Party-State. The image of a protective and providing father has long been embraced in state propaganda, as can be seen from the affectionate nickname given to Xi Jinping, Uncle Xi (Xi Dada, 习大大), and from the ceaseless emphasis by the Party-State on its determination to secure the safety of Chinese people (see, for instance, CCCCP 2021; People’s Daily 2015).
What does grid management mean for the Chinese people? This essay has tried to provide one perspective by investigating how the existence of grid managers generates new state–society dynamics by constituting a layer in between the two. I also argue that lying behind such dynamics is a moral logic, among others, that emerges from the popular use of the term guan. The duality of this term gives rise to an amalgam of care and control and implies a ready acceptance—and even invitation, consciously or not—of the state’s presence in people’s everyday lives.
I discussed two groups of actors: state agents who are directly employed in the grid management system—that is, the grid managers; and those who live within grids and interact with grid managers, and with the state through them—that is, the ordinary people who constitute their charges. Contrary to what is claimed by domestic propaganda, these two groups cannot be identified purely as service providers and recipients, for even the most innocuous social services performed by grid managers can still, as I demonstrated above, be pernicious to civil society and to people’s ability to form interpersonal bonds with one another. Nor can they be neatly divided into superordinate and subordinate, with the service provision aspect of grid management reduced to mere surveillance in disguise, as is believed by some Western observers. Although different in institutional identity, grid managers do not occupy a privileged place in people’s political imaginary and whatever power they possess ends with their contract, while ordinary people can wield the notion of guan to make moral appeals to their advantage. Grid managers and their charges are related in a subtle way that cannot be summarised as a dichotomy but needs examining through their lived experiences within the grid management system. It is my belief that to fully understand this system we must divert attention from policy design to real people and what is happening on the ground.
Featured Image: Fight COVID-19, QuantFoto (CC), Flickr.com.