Making the Vigilant Citizens: Gender and Surveillance in China

Conveners: OI and OSGA

Speaker: Professor Wu Ka-ming, Chinese University of Hong Kong


Known as “Chaoyang Masses” (chaoyang qunzhong) or Westside Mama (xicheng dama) in popular media, community volunteers are widely reported to have caught drug addicts or exposed underground brothels for the police in the capital of China. Community volunteers are mostly retired women who perform street patrolling in residential neighborhoods. According to official statistics, there are close to two hundred thousand of them in Beijing. Many would call them grassroot governing agents for the party state but grannies themselves speak of their service in terms of contribution and honor. Based on various media representations of these grannies, my own interviews with them, and some netizens online discussion,  I explore the interplay between gender, the surveillance state, and mobilization of elderly citizens. I ask how different players, including the police department, television channels often normalize the discourse of security and public order through narratives of gender, race and age. This paper is based on a broader project I am conducting on volunteers and urban identities in China. I hope to understand how volunteering is complexly constitutive to emerging public cultural values, gender and class subjectivities, and nationalist belongings in today’s China.


Ka-ming Wu is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Clare Hall Cambridge University. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, she has taken up extensive ethnographic research to examine the cultural politics of state and society, waste, and most recently, gender and nationalism in contemporary China. Her book monograph Reinventing Chinese Tradition: The Cultural Politics of Late Socialism (UIP 2015) argues the nature of cultural production in rural China today can thought in terms of a “hyper folk,’ in which ritual practices, performances, heritage, craft productions, and other reenactments of the traditional can no longer be viewed as either simulations or authentic originals, but a field where a whole range of social contests and changes are being negotiated. Her co-authored book Feiping Shenghuo: Lajichang De Jingji, Shequn Yu Kongjian (CUHK 2016) (Living with Waste: Economies, Communities and Spaces of Waste Collectors in China) has a great impact on the public discussion of waste and has been covered by major media.