SOLDIERS enforcing martial law in Beijing may carry machine guns, but many residents are more afraid of unarmed grandmothers like Yuan Shouhuan. Mrs. Yuan and millions of retired Chinese women form a gray-haired volunteer army that carries the sweeping powers of the communist state into the homes of common Chinese.
Patrolling apartment buildings and streets, the ``old aunties'' promote cleanliness and one-child families. They report on strangers to police and try to tame unruly teenagers. And they readily step in to mediate family squabbles.
Yuan and other members of ``neighborhood committees'' also foster support for Communist Party policy and Marxist dogma. They inform on dissidents, lead mandatory political study each week for residents, and, if necessary, mobilize the neighborhood for pro-government rallies.
In short, Yuan and her fellow matrons exert ``big brotherly'' powers of coercion and surveillance with a grandmotherly touch. They are the party's first line of defense against dissent.
The badgering by several committees in Beijing discouraged many residents from joining the rallies for basic liberties last spring, official press reports say. Beijing plans to strengthen their powers as part of the effort to prevent a resurgence of protest.
With a merry greeting, Yuan leads a visitor from Dragon Pond Street under a trellis of green leaves, yellow flowers, and plump gourds, through a screen door and into her office. A dozen framed official citations in bright gold and red, and heavy, bound registers of local residents are the only trappings of her power.
Sitting bolt upright with her feet curled behind the front legs of a wooden chair as she sips a lemon soda, Yuan leads eight other members of the Dragon Pond Street neighborhood committee in describing the party's grass-roots social control. With 42 ``consultants'' sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, the committee monitors 1,806 people.
``Whenever there is a problem, a family quarrel for instance, or a threatening-looking person, one of the consultants quickly comes to us, if we haven't recognized it ourselves,'' Yuan says. Her eight colleagues nod rapidly in agreement.
The massive rallies for basic freedoms last spring shook this tight network of control on Dragon Pond Street. Many residents, including the committee, supported the ``patriotic'' call of students for clean government and greater openness in government, says Yuan, a retired professor of engineering.
``However, after learning the government documents and watching the state television documentaries on the turmoil, we've come to realize that many slogans were extremist and a handful of people had manipulated the students,'' she says, upholding the official line.
``Now we'll be more vigilant, and we're very confident that we can spot further trouble and stop it before it happens,'' Yuan adds. Again, committee members vigorously nod their heads.
After the Army cleared Tiananmen Square of protesters on June 4, ``old aunties'' in Beijing searched for fugitive activists, helped uncover Army weapons seized by the public, and turned in residents suspected of engaging in what the party calls ``counterrevolutionary activities.''
As part of its crackdown since the demonstrations, Beijing plans to bolster the squads' powers with a law before China's nominal legislature. The law will give the committees greater powers to enforce party policy, the official press says. Under existing guidelines, the committee leads unemployed and retired residents in required political study every Saturday. Other residents must undergo such indoctrination at work.
The new law will also require Chinese over the age of 18 to secure the approval of the committee before holding a meeting. Such a restriction would help obstruct the sort of spontaneous outpouring of protest that occurred last spring.
Although sometimes also called ``Marxism and Leninism ladies,'' committee members devote much of their time meeting their neighbors' humdrum needs.
Yuan opened a nursery school in 1982 so that mothers with children younger than age two can work. Zhang Lianke, a retired Army officer, recently organized elderly residents to practice martial arts and play the games of beanbag tossing and bowls.
The party's local enforcers often advance their effort to safeguard neighborhood amity right to the hearths of the 539 family households on the street.
Vigilant committee members on Dragon Pond Street this year dashed into the home of an aged neighbor and disarmed him after he had chased his wife around their flat waving a meat cleaver. In the course of seven meetings, committee members gradually reconciled the two.
``Every time the old couple sees us on the street they thank us for bringing them back together,'' says Yuan. Amateur mediators resolved more than 6.9 million civil disputes in 1987, keeping such squabbles out of China's jammed courtrooms, according to the State Statistical Bureau.
Although often dubbed ``old aunties,'' many of the elder police deputies abuse their broad, vaguely defined powers and earn less affectionate nicknames like lao tai po (old bat).
``Some of these people can be real nuisances. They make their neighborhoods their own petty empires,'' a teacher says. In one area, local committee members line their purses by charging residents for the delivery of milk and newspapers, a service provided free in most places.
The neighborhood committees answer to the local police. But the committees often enjoy wide leeway in deciding how to keep their neighbors law abiding and happy.
``We have all cultivated the good habit of self-criticism and of criticizing each other, and so we don't have to go to the police for help,'' Yuan says. Her partners nod again.