Thick Networks and State-Mobilized
All institutions of administrative grassroots engagement develop and rely on networks of volunteers, auxiliaries of an auxiliary. Whether the work done by these irregulars is entirely uncompensated or rewarded with small gifts or stipends, it occupies a different category from that of the neighborhood staff themselves, who take on far more extensive duties and are paid something close to a wage. The volunteers greatly expand the ranks of those who contribute to the work of these bodies, and they help to compose a core of individuals closely linked to local leaders and avidly taking part in the organization’s activities. This chapter takes a detailed look at those who join these dense networks and aims to explain the nature of their participation.
In China, neighborhood volunteers are sometimes known as activists (jiji fenzi), a term that has a special meaning in comparative communism studies, one that has evolved over decades of scholarship. This chapter reviews and critiques this concept. Activists in China and other state-socialist settings have previously been understood as responding to coercion, acting out of ideological commitment, or chasing material incentives. I argue that such interpretations have only limited utility for understanding the role of volunteers in this setting today. Activists in the neighborhoods of Beijing choose to participate in this form of service for reasons that are not at all specific to the context of a Communist Party-led system and are similar to those motivating their counterparts in Taipei. Indeed, these have much in common with the motiva-