How China’s Government Outsources Repression

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How China’s Government Outsources Repression

Insights from Lynette H. Ong.

How China’s Government Outsources Repression
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Lynette H. Ong – Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and author of “Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China” (Oxford 2022) – is the 362nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the role of society in an authoritarian state’s acquisition of power. 

Traditionally, state and society are conceived as two dichotomous entities. When state imposes its will on society and acquires power, it traverses the territorial space occupied by society, and society’s autonomy shrinks accordingly. However, as I’ve argued in “Outsourcing Repression,” when state has penetrating capacity into society – and mobilizes the masses within it to pursue state objectives – it is acquiring power through society. 

This implies that the boundary between state and society is blurred to the effect that they are no longer dichotomous. Figuratively, imagine the state extends its hands into society and mobilizes a small segment of societal members to persuade the rest to follow its edicts. That is the essence of outsourcing repression

Examine China’s “everyday state power” apparatus. 

There is no formal apparatus. In contrast to formal coercive agents, such as the police and military, when the Chinese state outsources repression to society on an everyday basis, it relies on two types of nonstate actors: violent thugs-for-hire and nonviolent brokers. 

Thugs-for-hire are recruited from the open market to get a specific job done, e.g., to intimidate protesters into giving up their activism, or to intimidate residents to vacate their properties. They are not part of the state’s permanent coercive apparatus.

The nonviolent brokers, meanwhile, are embedded in local communities who draw on their social capital to persuade the society to follow state edicts. They are mobilized by the state for ideological reasons or out of the normative belief that their volunteerism is contributing to public goods. This does not rule out the occasional material incentives or punitive measures, such as the threat to terminate social payments in the event of noncompliance.  

Analyze the use of violence in China’s repression strategies.  

China has two repressive systems that exist simultaneously. One is the brutal and violent state surveillance system in Xinjiang. The other, which is prevalent throughout the rest of China, is repression outsourced to society, particularly the trusted grassroots brokers embedded in local communities. They are able to persuade the citizenry without resorting to violence, and thus, rather importantly, raise the rates of compliance and lower the likelihood of backlash. They help to lower the costs of state repression, and if adeptly done, it also preserves state’s legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party is a regime that cares a great deal about its ruling legitimacy, without which it will have to resort to violence in its everyday policy implementation. 

Describe the types and agency of brokers in China’s brokered state-society relations. 

The book describes three types of brokers: political brokers such as neighborhood committees, whose power come from the state; social brokers such as community volunteers, who command social capital in the community due to their long-standing reputation; and economic brokers, who are for-profit intermediaries who help to bring the state and society together in the resolution of conflicts. 

Political and social brokers are the most prevalent in Chinese society, and social brokers, in particular, play an underappreciated and understudied role in eliciting compliance from society. To my knowledge, my book is the first in the field to give this aspect due recognition.

To what extent does outsourcing repression contribute to the CCP’s regime durability?

To a great extent. With outsourcing repression, citizen compliance is high while the likelihood of resistance and backlash is generally low (there are exceptions such as when excessive violence was used, or when trust breaks down between the citizenry and the brokers/state). This has contributed to the CCP’s regime durability in the post-reform era. However, the increasingly violent and overt repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have done the exact opposite, even though resistance remains low at the moment. 

The recent anti-COVID protests where urban residents shouted, “Down with Xi Jinping” and “Down with the CCP” were unprecedented, which suggest the dynamics are changing, albeit in an uncertain direction.