China's opening to the outside world has reached its residential areas this week when for the first time two foreigners were elected neighborhood committee members in Shanghai metropolis, one of the global financial and business hubs.
On the afternoon of December 9, forty-nine delegates representing the residents of the Yanlord Garden, a rising international community, selected, from nine candidates, Jason Boonham, a bank executive from Australia, and Lilian Loo, a Singaporean housewife with two kids, as "officials" for their neighborhood committee.
Approximately 500,000 members nationwide of more than 115,000 neighborhood committees, which is a sort of grassroots self-government management and service organization for urban residents around China, have been affectionately referred by Premier Zhu Rongji as "community premiers".
A neighborhood committee usually ranges from several to a dozen leading members recommended and selected by community residents themselves to handle the day-to-day affairs of local residents: from street security and family planning matters to helping local residents, especially those laid-off workers find new jobs and passing out government subsidies to those residents in want and need.
At times, the committee even helps mediate disputes among neighbors and even resolve family disputes.
China's first neighborhood committee was also established in Shanghai's Huangpu district right after new China was founded in 1949.
"I'm a bit worried, as I am not competent enough for the post, as this is to 'serve the people'," the 32-year-old Boonham, a business development manager with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, said in pure, standard Chinese with a Beijing accent and a sense of humor.
Zhang Zhongfu, a residential delegate, said he voted for Boonham because he is warm-hearted, straightforward and honest, and the community indeed needs some foreigners to perform "self-government" management as it has become quite internationalized.
Situated by the famed Huangpu River, the Yanlord Garden is probably one of the most internationalized urban communities in China. More than 40 percent of its 1,200-plus households have come from over 40 countries and regions worldwide. Boonham's neighbors include Germans, Britons and Tanzanians, many of whom are business people attracted and fascinated by this Oriental financial center's robust economy and burgeoning market.
Founded in May, the Yanlord Garden neighborhood committee focuses it attention on cultural exchanges between local Chinese residents and foreigners, instead of security, public health and civil administration that are, as a matter of fact, the priorities of many other neighborhood communities across the country.
"The wider China opens itself to the outside world, the bigger and greater the chance for foreigners to be elected 'community premiers'," said Prof. Pu Xingzu, a noted prestigious sociologist in community problems with the prestigious, Shanghai-based Fudan University.
Quite a number of economically developed cities in China are becoming increasingly internationalized, Pu said. Shanghai alone is home to some 60,000 aliens from overseas who have lived in the municipality for more than six months.
Foreign participation in community management is no longer a fuss but a stark reality since a neighborhood committee is not a governmental institution but an autonomous organ for the masses of commoners, said Wang Xiaoling, an open-minded civil administrator in Shanghai.
Electing a foreigner as a component member of a neighborhood committee is not against any Chinese laws in effect or against China's political regime, Wang added.
As China opened up to the outside world over two decades ago, numerous foreigners have become integrated and intermingled into Chinese society, some of them are already acclimatized to local cultures and daily lives in the areas where they live and work.
Though looked different with the Chinese in his countenance by race, Boonham has become quite Chinese. He started to learn the Chinese language in Sidney over a decade ago and, after coming to China, he fell in love and married a Chinese girl and took her surname of Yue. As for Lilian Loo, whose grandparents were the overseas Chinese, so she had for long dreamed of returning to reside in her ancestral native land.
Local residents at the Yanlord Garden, either Chinese or foreign, have all placed their high hopes on their newly elected neighborhood committee members.
"I'm the first foreign neighborhood committee member, but I am sure I won't be the last," Boonham said with pride.
(People's Daily December 13, 2002)