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The Wrinkly Arm of the Law

galaxy-red-guard

A photo diary of encounters with retiree security volunteers in Beijing during the 18th Party Congress.

It’s something of an unusual policing tactic, employing tens of thousands of smiling, crinkly-eyed pensioners as the first line of defense against the unending menace of ‘hostile forces’, hellbent on disrupting China’s most important political meeting in a decade. It’s also, you might say, a touch of genius. “I’d be out on the corner chatting anyway, so why not serve my country?” explains Granny Li, 69 years old. “Though it is colder than I imagined.”

Over the last few weeks, a squadron of retirees took to the streets of Beijing as security volunteers to keep watch over the city during the 18th Party Congress. With an infamously keen ear for gossip, and in a society where seniority traditionally commands respect, grannies and grandpas are the ideal impromptu guardians, both all-seeing and utterly approachable. They are the perfect embodiment of the smiling authoritarian ruling style that the CCP is so good at. The retiree police force even works free of charge – most talk of proudly serving their country as their sole motivation. “The cold will not keep me from this task,” announces 60 year-old Granny Zhang.

In fact, the government had thought of the weather too, supplying participants with bright red winter jackets with “volunteer service” printed on the back. “I think we will have to return these when we are finished,” points out 66 year-old Granny Zheng. These official wind-breakers, along with red armbands, bolster an air of natural authority these ladies radiate within their communities, though it is not entirely clear what mandate to police they actually have. Pro-active duties largely seem to involve pointing lost tourists in the right direction.

Grandpa Li, 66, says they have basically only been told to look out for “suspicious” people or incidents. ”I can immediately tell bad people from the good ones,” he insists. “Bad people are afraid of being seen.” One volunteer reports encountering a drunk: “But he was with friends so I left him alone. If he was by himself I would have reported him to the police as suspicious.” Another talks of a colleague discovering someone putting up posters of an outlawed religious sect. But normally, the highlight of most days is a loved-one arriving to top up drained flasks of tea with hot water.

“Really we are just acting as a warning for criminals,” says Grandpa Li. “Like an alarm system.” It is certainly one you cannot fail to notice.

These grannies and grandpas were part of an estimated 1.4 million-strong security force that blanketed the capital for the 18th Party Congress. Public service workers such as bus conductors and street sweepers have also been enlisted, though for them extra security duty is mandatory. Behind these are increased teams of police on patrol, uniformed and undercover, People’s Armed Police, and PLA troops around and surrounding Beijing. Combined, the capital temporarily resembles something like a police state, with every major corner closely guarded. The atmosphere is incredibly paranoid.

The retiree security details mostly succeed in leavening this,  like a welcome exchange of brief humour at a funeral. But it is clear they also take their jobs very seriously.

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As the sun goes down on the  last day of the 18th Party Congress and the light begins to fade in the hutong of Beijing, I approach a group of septuagenarian volunteers busy knitting scarves and ask if I can photograph them. They immediately refuse, one lady shaking her head furiously and explaining “it is not proper to knit while on duty! Someone will see!”

I wonder who exactly would be watching these unpaid watchmen. But even as I begin to ask, the ladies are already packing away their knitting needles, smiling with glowing cheeks and beckoning me forward to take a picture. As I raise my camera, their gentle expressions quickly give way to a gaze of intense vigilance, as if they are imagining how a real security officer would deal with this. I pause, then lower my camera accordingly.

All photographs by Christopher Cherry

Additional research by Liu Ying