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Intensifying Contradictions: Chinese Policing Enters the 21st Century

Jonathan Walton


One of the most critical questions in global geopolitics today is a fundamentally domestic one: will China's incremental reforms continue to be successful in managing the ongoing social, economic, and political transformation initiated under Deng Xiaoping, or will more dramatic changes prove necessary? Observers of the international order frequently discuss the challenges posed and faced by China as a rising power, but China's challenges on the domestic front are no less significant. These include sustaining the country's economic development, restructuring state-owned enterprises, constructing a social safety net, renegotiating the relationship between labor and industry, limiting environmental devastation, managing the demands of a highly nationalistic population, and escaping the grip of corruption and organized crime. Many of these issues naturally confront any country on the road to becoming a developed nation, but the speed and scope of China's undertaking&mdashas well as several features peculiar to its history and political system&mdashindicate that the social upheaval that accompanies this "transitional period" (zhuanxing shiqi) will continue to be dramatic.

Although the Chinese government has so far weathered and adapted to the challenges of the reform era, high-level leaders have been either unable or unwilling to resolve the underlying systemic causes of many ongoing state-society tensions: the lack of elite accountability and effective channels of political participation and redress, the state's continued oversight of and intrusion into many basic institutions of society, and the demand for more equitable access to the benefits of China's astounding economic growth. All organs of the state are charged with managing these tensions, but dealing with the symptoms of reform's destabilizing social transformation is often left to underfunded and overburdened local governments&mdashand, ultimately, to the police and other domestic security forces. Consequently, the success of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at surviving and even thriving in the post-Mao era is due in part to its ability to monitor and preserve social order through state organs such as the public security system (gong'an xitong), the People's Armed Police Force (PAPF), and a number of less commonly discussed institutions. The adaptability and relative effectiveness of Chinese policing is thus an important part of the story of China's authoritarian resilience and whether that resilience can be sustained.

Like other state institutions in China, domestic security forces have certainly felt the effects of the Maoist political legacy, including the tendency for leadership and responsibilities to be "un-clarified and under-institutionalized" and allowances for extreme flexibility in the means by which Chinese society is controlled.1[1] A broad range of noble and less noble practices have been justified under the mission of domestic security organs to preserve China's social stability, safeguard its economic development, and protect the authority of the current regime.2 [2] The adaptable and often arbitrary nature of China's policing institutions has contributed to the resilience of the CCP over the last several decades, allowing the hammer of domestic security forces to potentially...

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[1] Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry, "Embracing Uncertainty: Guerilla Policy Style and Adaptive Governance in China," in Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, ed. Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), 10, 14.Heilmann and Perry's edited volume laudably seeks to expand the discussion beyond "an unremitting interplay of repression and resistance" (p.4), focusing on displays of governance rather than dominance. While this report attempts to add domestic security forces back into the picture, it treats them in the same vein: as adaptable institutions of social management and governance.

[2] While these may be among the "new historic missions" of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), safeguarding China's political, economic, and developmental interests has long been a responsibility of domestic security institutions. Indeed, efforts to broaden the PLA's role demonstrate that the divide between police and military responsibilities remains ambiguous and contested.See James Mulvenon, "Chairman Hu and the PLA's ‘New Historic Missions,' " China Leadership Monitor 27 (2009): 1–11.