Return of “Shihuzhang” System Sparks Fear of Feudal Despotism

A Sichuan city’s adoption of Yuan Dynasty-style community policing has inspired fears of a return to the despotism of yore. Zigong is the latest municipality to launch a trial of the shihuzhang, or “ten-household captain system,” in which a “captain” assumes responsibility for the governance of ten neighboring households. The shihuzhang system was first adopted during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 C.E.), but its roots date back even earlier, to the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 770-475 B.C.E.). Zigong is not the first locale to implement a shihuzhang system in contemporary China. Zigong’s neighboring city Neijiang, Fujian’s Wenzhou, Yunnan’s provincial capital Kunming, and Xinjiang all have similar programs. Infographics published by a Neijiang government WeChat account indicate that captains are primarily responsible for enforcing the “routinization” of China’s zero-COVID policy by publicizing it, tracking returning migrant workers, and scanning and reporting residents’ health codes and travel histories. During lockdowns, captains are expected to “calm and reassure” their neighbors, deliver groceries, and monitor compliance with home quarantine. Captains are further tasked with mediating minor conflicts, keeping an eye out for security risks, and collecting suggestions to pass on to higher-level cadres. Unlike the community volunteers deployed to “mobilize the masses” (identified by political scientist Lynette Ong), shihuzhang captains are explicitly tied to the Party system: they are a grassroots extension of the “five-level organization system” headed by street-level Party committees. Online reactions to the reinstitution of shihuzhang were largely negative, with a number of commenters viewing it as a sign of political regression

Wusm911:It means they’re petrified. They’ve begun studying how nations fail.

Rossmonica6:They’ve turned the nation into an impregnable prison, while fantasizing about going back to the golden era of Emperor Qianlong.

Lakritz5585:Shihuzhang, the [Song Dynasty-era] baojia system, and lianzuo [the collective punishment of entire families or clans] have all been resurrected.

子性男人骞翮:Is this [their way of] saying that residential committees aren’t strict enough? They need an organization at a more grassroots level to govern and surveil the masses? What are they afraid of?

Fennude70875769:This has been going on in Xinjiang for a while now. It’s called “10 households, one unit” and they’ve got to sign a pledge agreeing to it!

uUnderTheWall:D*mn, it’s really called the “ten-household captain system.” Now I’m beginning to suspect people inside the system are treating ruguanxue [“barbarians-at-the-gate theory”] as a real school of thought, like they’re playing at running a postmodern nomadic empire.

Jam79922967:I used to think we’d regressed to the Cultural Revolution—little did I imagine we’d regressed all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty. Wait, no, the Qin Dynasty! We’re driving in reverse, skrrt skrrt! [Chinese]

In a Chinese-language essay for the German outlet Deutsche Welle, veteran journalist Chang Ping traced the history of shihuzhang, and tied it to Mao Zedong’s admiration of Qin Shi Huang’s style of “governing the people,” implicitly connecting the two to today’s zero-COVID policy. Chang Ping wrote: “More than a few people see the Cultural Revolution-era struggle sessions against cadres and beatings of professors as a form of democracy and freedom—the people and the government on the same level. This is a misunderstanding of the art of ‘governing the people.’ It is not a rights-based equality, but rather one based on universal enslavement to the emperor. Once we understand this, we are able to grasp why they institute unnecessary lockdowns, why they shut everyone inside their homes or field hospitals like prisoners, and why Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua, the regime’s former hunting dogs, will rot in prison.” 

Criticisms of shihuzhang from within China have been heavily censored. In one now-deleted WeChat essay, the author compared the adoption of the shihuzhang system to the burgeoning use of “digital sentries,” ostensibly a tool in the fight against COVID, to track citizens without their consent

The public must not be denied dignity. Why would anybody want to treat a shihuzhang captain like family? Privacy is a refuge that protects one’s dignity. Who would be willing to let a captain enter their home on a daily basis? Adults have the right to decide their own behavior. They are not children and absolutely do not need a captain to impose discipline on their lives. 

Of course, we’re not speaking only of adults. In today’s society, even intellectually-mature children would be unwilling to accept the captains. There is no meaningful difference between these captains and “digital sentries,” which is to say, there is no need for them to exist. 

I do not need a random neighbor to control my life in order to be a complete person in thought and deed, nor do I need them to come to my house for “chats” without reason. In my eyes, we are all equal. Constructs such as “shihuzhang captains” only serve to give people who puff up with the slightest bit of power another chance to use their demented minds to destroy that completeness. [Chinese]

Nor have censors spared essays that cast shihuzhang in a positive light. In one now-deleted piece, the author suggested the system might serve as an important route for youth to rise through the Party’s ranks. Nearly one in five of China’s 107 million urban youth are unemployed. (Official data does not track rural unemployment.) Competition for public-sector jobs, perceived as more stable and less arduous than private-sector work, is fierce. More than 2.1 million people sat for the civil service examination this year—a 35 percent increase over last year—for a chance at one of 26,000 jobs offered through the exam. Many ambitious students seek out alternative paths to officialdom such as the xuan diao (“recruit and transfer”) program that dispatches young graduates to serve as administrators at the lowest rungs of rural governments in return for the promise of fast-track promotions later on. As Victor Shih, professor of Chinese political economy at U.C. San Diego, told The Financial Times: “We’re seeing a larger number of students interested in these ji ceng [grassroots] positions, even at the best universities in China [….] You wouldn’t see the kinds of numbers we see this year without the job market being so poor.” An excerpt from the censored essay referenced at the start of the paragraph shows that similar pressures might drive students to volunteer as shihuzhang captains

These numbers got me thinking that the “ten-household captain” system might someday become an important alternative route for college students to enter the nomenklatura, besides the one-in-a-million chance of testing into the civil service. Despite the current preference for recruiting “community-level cadres, grid management workers, current or former employees of government agencies, organizations, or institutions, military veterans, and Party members,” it’s possible that once the system is institutionalized, college graduates facing a competitive job market might be recruited as ten-household captains, much like college graduates are recruited as village officials.  

Of course, there is much less competition for captain positions, a lower position with more spots to fill, than there is for civil service positions. Yet it is not beyond the realm of possibility that capable individuals could use such a grassroots position as a launchpad for their careers. [Chinese]

The discourse surrounding the return of shihuzhang is an example of the increasingly contentious politics surrounding zero-COVID, as the pandemic extends into its third year. In Beijing, protest art scrawled on the walls of COVID-testing booths warned people of becoming “numb” to routinized testing. In Xinjiang and Tibet, discontent with repressive measures used to combat outbreaks went viral after residents of both regions took to Weibo to plead for help. On October 4, passengers at Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna airport accosted gun-toting officials in hazmat suits after they were put under a snap lockdown. A comment on Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall aptly captured the sentiment in some corners: “Dr. Li, I saw that the WHO issued a statement today saying that the pandemic is coming to an end, but looking around me, I get the feeling that a very long [pandemic prevention and control] ‘chain’ has already taken shape.”


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