Tales of the city: Beijing's anti-terrorism volunteers

By Karoline Kan, December 4, 2014

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For the last two months, Mr Guo, a 47-year-old parking attendant, has combined his regular day job with that of another, nominally more important role – protecting Beijing from terrorists.

Each day at 7.30am, Guo – who sports a bright red armband with the inscription ‘Beijing City Volunteer’ written across it in yellow Chinese characters – arrives at his regular workplace in a nondescript parking lot in Sanlitun. Once there, he spends the next ten hours directing cars and charging drivers, while at the same time keeping a steely look-out for anybody or anything that might be considered suspicious. “It makes my day a lot more interesting,” says Guo, cheerily. 

Guo is one of an estimated 870,000 city-wide anti-terrorism volunteers jointly organized by the Beijing Police and the Beijing Comprehensive Management Office. Although street volunteers are by no means new in the capital, a spate of high-profile terrorist attacks across China has seen the city’s volunteer drive grow to unprecedented new levels, with recruitment expanding to include street vendors, retirees, shop workers, security guards, teachers, bus drivers, tour guides and even children, among others. 

“Last week, I found two cars with strange plates parked here, so I reported them to the police. They took the owner away and investigated,” says Guo. “Although it turned out to be nothing, at least I did my job properly. With these kinds of things, it’s better to be over-cautious than less.” 

Local government officials plan to make Guo a permanent fixture of Beijing life. During the recent APEC summit, the government praised the role of the volunteer network, which alongside increased airport-style security checks at subway stations and clampdowns on public gatherings, constitutes the foundation of the city’s anti-terrorism efforts. 

On October 31, an Anti-Terrorist Education and Volunteers Recruitment Ceremony was held simultaneously in 16 districts across Beijing. At one of the main ceremonies at the New World Department Store in Dongcheng District, a group of new volunteers recited aloud their mission: “Face terrorism and violence. Never ignore it or let it grow freely. We will raise people’s awareness through our actions, and increase involvement!” 

According to the Beijing Morning Post, as of March 2014, more than 100 useful leads have been reported by volunteers, leading to over RMB300,000 being awarded to tipsters in bonuses.  

Outside Zhongshan Park, near Tiananmen Square, 43-year-old restaurant owner Zhao watches over crowds of tourists. Her attitude though, is more casual. “The street committee thinks that since I am running a restaurant, I will meet more potential terrorists,” says Zhao, pointing at her armband, which she admits to sometimes forgetting to wear during busy periods. “But you know, when I get really busy, it’s hard to work out whether someone looks like a terrorist. Besides, even a fly couldn’t escape the eyes of the military guards if it was acting strangely.” 

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