IN THE VILLAGE of Anbang in Yunnan, a south-western province, people of social stature are heaving a sigh of relief. In the past, what a delicate matter it was to point out bad behaviour among residents. There was etiquette to consider, and the risk of causing offence. Recently, however, Anbang has set up a “moral review council” to praise the worthy and criticise the errant. The local government says the mood has changed. Now the village elite can use these meetings to exercise their “right to speak”.
In some parts of China, such councils have been a feature of rural life since the 1980s. Their members—mainly drawn from the ranks of village powerholders—have met regularly to praise those who are well-behaved and denounce others’ misdeeds, face to face. By 2018 more than half of China’s provinces had them, according to Shaoying Zhang of Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. In a paper last July, he said the councillors were “like the village priest or the Protestant pastor in rural European contexts centuries ago”.
In the past couple of years, the central government (ever keen to tighten social controls) has been stressing their importance. Like other places, Anbang has been using its council to enforce covid controls—summoning selected villagers to point out their failings, such as resisting vaccination. The humiliation does not stop in the meeting room. Offenders may be subjected to public shaming by having their names displayed on a morality notice board for all to see.
As Mr Zhang points out, councillors are usually male. Their values reflect patriarchal traditions. Those chosen for praise are often women deemed to have shown exemplary behaviour in their roles as mothers-in-law or daughters-in-law (a relationship that is often tense in Chinese villages, where married women usually live with their husband’s family). Respect for the elderly is also prized. Bad behaviour can cover a wide range of sins: littering, gambling, urinating in public or “superstition”, such as burning paper money for the dead.
It can also include behaviour that the Communist Party regards as threatening to stability. Officials in the countryside are hypervigilant about people who travel to cities to complain to governments there about injustices they have suffered in their villages. Such petitioning is legal as long as the person involved does not bypass their nearest city authority. But, to protect their own backs, village officials are quick to dismiss any petitioning as “unreasonable”, and thus a matter for the morality police.
Baoshan, the municipality to which Anbang belongs, claims the councils are a success. By the end of last year it had 128 of them. “The seeds of morality and civilisation have spread to everyone’s hearts,” the city’s government boasts.