Public security volunteers line the barricades stretching all the way around Beijing Hotel, one of the major hotels believed to be accommodating traveling congress delegates. (Photo/Howard Shih)
Visitors to Beijing this week will notice the long row of blue and white sun umbrellas lined up along the barricades on Chang'an East Road, just a short walk away from the Great Hall of the People where the Communist Party's 18th National Congress is currently being held. Below each of the umbrellas sits a worker dressed in a red jacket, a red hat and a red armband that reads "public security volunteer."
"I'm here for the good of the people and for the personal safety of the national congress delegates staying at the hotel behind me," said a middle-aged widower surnamed Huang, who had been sitting under the umbrella for almost 10 hours straight under freezing, rainy conditions. "My shift is 8am to 8pm, sun, rain or snow," she said, before adding that she wished she had brought an extra scarf.
What about between 8pm and 8am? "That's the police's job," she said with a laugh.
Huang is a part of the massive 1.4 million volunteer security force assembled by the government for this year's pivotal national congress, which runs from Nov. 8 to 14. Identified by their red arm bands, the volunteers can be found all throughout the city, from major street corners and underground passages to shopping malls and subway stations. Most of them are workers on the street or local retirees, though many simply want to make a contribution to the country as it undergoes a once-a-decade leadership transition.
Huang said she did not sign up to be a volunteer individually. "A lot of the volunteers belong to local community groups. I joined as a member of the Xihuamen club (based in Beijing's Xicheng district)," she said, adding that she also belongs to the Beijing Association of Security Volunteers.
Not all security patrol officers necessarily signed up for the job. A hotel clerk surnamed Shi from the Dongdan area in Beijing's Dongcheng district said he and other staff were simply handed a red arm band by a state-owned security agency. "They just asked us to help out during the national congress period. Keep an eye out, check bags, that sort of thing," he said.
This unpaid civilian army forms an integral part of the "security moat" project for the national congress promoted by Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the CPC Central Commission for Political Affairs, the chief of China's powerful security machinery.
The 69-year-old Zhou, who will also step down from the Politburo Standing Committee at the conclusion of the weeklong event, said it was important for authorities in Beijing and surrounding regions to cooperate to form a "solid defense... thus creating a safe, orderly, auspicious and peaceful environment for the holding of the 18th CPC National Congress."
Zhou Yongkang 周永康