Residents in Hefei, capital of Anhui Province, were surprised to see on Saturday that the uniformed urban management officers patrolling their neighborhood were foreigners.
The three foreigners, from South Africa, Central African Republic and Afghanistan, are actually fulltime college students at Anhui University, who were recruited as volunteers by the Luyang district urban administrative department to work with other officers who are known in Chinese as "chengguan."
Xie Fengqun, an official from the government office of the Xinghuacun Community, told the Global Times it recently began a community outreach program that last month also saw city management officers trade roles with two melon farmers.
"Through interaction with different social groups, we hope more people will experience the difficulties facing chengguan," said Xie.
The three volunteers worked for just one day, and are only paid a stipend to cover their transportation, said Xie.
Stanley Chipumbu, the volunteer chengguan from South Africa, said he's been in Hefei for four years and is an economics and finance major. He told the Global Times he took part because he wanted to help improve the appearance of the city.
Chipumbu said when he saw some cyclists stop in the middle of the road to talk on their phone, or some restaurant owners place chairs and tables on the sidewalk, he would first warmly greet them and politely tell them they were breaking rules.
"Some people just did not realize such actions were causing inconvenience to others," Chipumbu said. "Both foreigners and Chinese people should be responsible for improving the city's image."
Xie said the foreign volunteers' use of humor was something the fulltime Chinese chengguan could learn.
"Their good sense of humor often made people laugh, and people were very willing to cooperate with them," she said, adding that the volunteer chengguan spoke very fluent Chinese.
"Some people think we're causing them trouble, but if we treat them politely and with respect, they will follow our instructions," said Chipumbu.
Many Chinese residents were so surprised to see foreigners in uniform that they followed them all day and even asked to take photos with them, said Xie.
"I think the program is good because it shows that the local authorities are willing to interact with the public and show us what their job is like," Xu Feng, a 25-year-old engineer in Hefei, told the Global Times.