Lynette Ong is a professor of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She is the author of the recent book Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China.
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The state is able to take advantage of the social capital by deploying social actors and in exercising social capital, through the process of persuasion. They’ll be putting on pressure on these families, but the pressures being put on them are social pressures. People would often cave into this social pressure. So, there is compliance, but it doesn’t feel like state repression.
- Introduction – 0:48
- Thugs for Hire – 2:47
- Economic and Social Brokers – 12:52
- Zero-Covid Protests – 20:34
- Outsourcing Repression After the Protests – 32:17
Like many I followed the protests in China closely. I did not expect widespread protests to break out in so many cities even over a policy as stifling as zero-Covid. In many ways I overestimated the strength of the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, I don’t want to overstate what happened. Xi Jinping was not removed from power and China has not democratized. But that does not mean something magical did not happen.
For my part, the protests made me realize how little I understand how governance works in China. So, I reached out to Lynette Ong. Earlier this year she wrote a book called Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China. I found it challenged how I thought about the way state power works in practice especially under autocratic governments. Lynette is a professor of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
Our conversation explores Lynette’s idea of outsourcing repression, but then applies it to China’s zero-Covid policy and the protests against it. Towards the end, we discuss what it all means for how China will govern moving forward.
If you like this episode and want to support the show, please share it with others. You can follow the show on Twitter, Facebook, or Mastodon. You can also give the show a 5-star rating and review. Like always you can email any ideas or comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… this is my conversation with Lynette Ong…
Lynette Ong, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you for having me.
Well, Lynette, I found your book Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China really remarkable. I mean, it’s just one of those books that changes the way that you think about people’s relationship to the state, particularly within autocratic regimes. It definitely raises questions about the relationship to the state within really any context. So, your book involves a lot of case studies to explain this very difficult concept that you describe as outsourcing repression. I think it oftentimes helps to start with an example before we start talking about the bigger picture idea, the abstract concept.
You actually have an example in the book where you talk about a family. Their surname is Zhu and their home was actually demolished. It was set on fire with a violent demolition. Can you kind of describe that instance, because I think that scenario kind of shows how there’s a connection between both the government and gangsters in terms of trying to accomplish state objectives?
Yeah, so that was a case that happened in Shanghai back in the nineties or early 2000s. But I only went to Shanghai to talk to people who were involved in 2018, some 17 years after the incident. So, there is a plot of land in a neighborhood close to a downtown commercial district… actually right in the downtown areas of Shanghai in the former French Concession areas. This is very expensive real estate, one of the most expensive real estates in the world. So, what happened was that the real estate developers wanted to clear the land. They wanted to kick the residents out and they wanted to intimidate the residents. So, they set the place on fire at 2:00 AM in the morning and everyone managed to escape except this elderly couple in their seventies or eighties who were burnt to death.
But the person that I interviewed had managed to escape. His family was one of the families in the compound. After the death of that elderly couple, because this is Shanghai, the local governments were held to account. There was a lot of media attention drawn to the case. There was social outrage. If this had happened in rural areas back in the 90s, early 2000s, it would probably have gone unnoticed. But because there were death and casualties involved in the early 2000s, that case was put on hold. I’m not entirely sure whether local governments were actually punished or whether anyone has actually lost their position.
In my other case studies, I did talk about some local governors being removed for using too much violence. But in this particular Shanghai case, it wasn’t very clear. But what was clear was that project was put on hold, so researchers like myself are able to go back and trace that story. In other words, violence happens very frequently in China. Occasionally, you have accountability. That usually happens when there were casualties and social outrage. Then some local officials are punished for what they did.
What’s remarkable is the fact that there is so little accountability, though. That governments are oftentimes working alongside what you describe as thugs for hire to be able to outsource repression. It’s odd to me, because I usually think of China as being a very repressive environment anyway. That they have very much a surveillance state with a police force that would not blush at repressing its citizens. That’s how I imagine it. So, why is it that China would find the need to hire thugs rather than just use their own professional police force or their security apparatus to enforce their own policy objectives?
Sure. You know, the surveillance state, the technology surveillance is a fairly recent phenomenon, I think, in the last five or seven years. Thugs for hire started way earlier, back in the nineties, and even in China today in some of the Covid protest cases, and even in a place like Hong Kong, when there’s so much technology involved, the authorities still find it convenient to deploy gangsters or thugs, because they could target certain individuals and they could do things that wouldn’t look like a dirty job is explicitly conducted by local authorities, even though people kind of knew the people who were behind the mask or the unidentified individuals who actually sent them. I think people being attacked knew roughly why they were sent and why they wanted them to be silent and who wanted to silence them.
That sort of unidentified nature of the individuals gives rise to what I call plausible deniability. The authorities could turn around and find a scapegoat. They could say that I had nothing to do with this case, because under the usual circumstances you can’t trace any evidence even though people kind of knew. So, there’s deniability, but also plausibility because that sort of deniability is subject to certain conditions like no excessive casualties or no excessive violence used. But that cannot be ruled out in all circumstances. As social scientists, we know that these sorts of thugs and gangsters are undisciplined individuals. They’re undisciplined individuals unlike the police or the military forces who are trained violent agents. These are untrained individuals who be subject to their impulses and act out of their own volition to use excessive violence. This has happened in many, many instances.
When you describe that I sense parallels from the Jim Crow South like in the United States where police oftentimes allowed others to terrorize African American communities, because when they did so, it was somebody else doing it. Again, they could just deny that they knew anything about it. They wouldn’t put themselves in a position where they were violating civil rights or civil liberties. They could claim that they didn’t know who did it, so that they wouldn’t be able to punish those people. Do you sense some of those parallels between the Jim Crow South and the United States or some of the drug crime that’s happening in Mexico along with other places?
Yes. Yes, I do. So, I actually reference political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists who have written about the instances that you have mentioned like the Jim Crow South in the United States, cartels in Mexico, gangsterism and mafias in Indonesia, for instance. There were a lot of things like this happening in India and South Korea too. So, what I’ve described in China is actually not at all unique in the global sense. But it comes across as pretty surprising to a lot of China observers, because the CCP, like you say, is very powerful. So, these sort of things which usually happens in the middle of the night in rural areas away from the public cases are not well known in China. It’s definitely not well known in the West.
So, when I first shared my research before completing this book, my research has raised some eyebrow. People would look at me in disbelief as if saying, this is the Chinese Communist Party that you are talking about. How much evidence do you have to support what you’re saying? But aside from the evidence I’ve put together about what is happening in contemporary Chinese society, I also try to look at this relationship throughout different periods in historical China. I started with the late Qing period and the Qing State’s relationship with the banditry.
The Guomindang period was a very weak government, a very corrupt government. They wanted to fight the CCP who were their enemies. In Shanghai they had to take advantage of the Green Gang, which was a very powerful mafia group who provided them with protection of their businesses in return. So, there was a very collusive relationship between the Guomindang government and the Green Gang. In this way the collusion between the state and mafia is not new to China at all. It’s relatively new to the CCP’s China because of how strong and how powerful the state is. Overall, I would say mafias are still very weak in China. This is in a historical sense and in comparative sense.
What I’ve described are loose gangs of individuals who have not actually formed and come together to become a mafia. They remain largely loose gangs of individuals. However, if you look at the emphasis that Xi Jinping has put on its Sweeping Black campaign, I think it’s a recognition that these loose gangs of individuals have over time evolved to become mafias. Some criminologists have written case studies about their evolution over time, recognizing that the Black Forces, as they call it in Chinese, are becoming a concern to the state. It’s starting to eat into the CCP’s power so much so that Xi Jinping recognized as a threat to the party’s power. So, when he first came to power, he actually launched a political campaign to try to wipe them out.
Now we’ve been talking a lot about thugs for hire, but that’s only one of two different ways that states outsource repression. The other one involves a more persuasive element. Can you kind of describe that second channel that China uses to mobilize the masses to persuade others?
So, at the grassroots level, China’s governance system is actually a very hyper local one. People at the grassroots level, non-civil servants, non-government bureaucrats, are in charge of everyday policy implementation. So, these people who come in can range from residents’ committees, which are affiliated with the state to volunteers. They could be economic brokers. There are three types of brokers that I describe in my book. Political brokers, social brokers, and economic brokers. When it comes to urbanization policies, it involves talking to families including individual members of the families to persuade them to sign consent papers. Quite often residents’ committees who are political brokers know the community very well. They are formerly appointed by the state, so they have a certain degree of state identity.
But oftentimes they also have to mobilize volunteers, because these are individuals who are deeply embedded within the community. They have no state of affiliation. They are very likely to be trusted or have better access to individual families because they’ve lived in the neighborhood for years, if not for decades. So, when it comes to demolition policy, the state has to first go out there and know the individual family’s background very, very well. This is not just about counting the number of people in their family, but knowing the relationship between family members such as whether or not husbands and wives, spouses, get along well, whether brothers and sisters get along well, what sort of occupation they are doing and whether or not they need cash, whether or not they have a son who is waiting to get married.
So, sort of very intimate data that you could imagine if you sent in a government official, people wouldn’t necessarily share with you. But if you approach a social broker or someone who is deeply embedded within the community, you have a better opportunity to get to know these people. So, a range of people are sent in to talk to families, to gather data, but also to persuade. In the book I describe how these brokers draw on their own social capital to persuade. They have the advantage of being the neighbor of this family for decades and in China relationship or Guanxi gives you a great advantage.
The state is able to take advantage of the social capital by deploying social actors and in exercising social capital, through the process of persuasion, they’ll be putting on pressure on these families, but the pressures being put on them are social pressures. Social pressure such as if you refuse to comply, you are holding back the project and you have neighbors whose sons or daughters cannot get married because they need to move out of the house and get an apartment in order to move on with their life and set up a family. You are being an obstacle to people’s lives. Do you really want to do that?
So, at the receiving end, people would often cave into this social pressure. There is compliance, but it doesn’t feel like state repression because people tend to talk to them. They are not state agents to start with and the pressure has nothing to do with the state. So, the way that I’ve described it is that the state is able to transform the nature of conflicts from one between state and society, because otherwise the state will have to send in a state agent to go and do these jobs. So, housing demolition which was initially a state-society conflict has been transformed into a conflict between society and society.
If people disagree and quarrel with each other, it is a quarrel between neighbors, between community members. So, the state can actually retreat behind the scenes in a way, wash their hands clean, and have nothing to do with it. But if it becomes a good outcome, the state actually benefits from it. So, it’s a way of minimizing conflicts, negative legitimacy, and impact for the government.
The key for China or any state though is that those people with social capital are working for the interests of the state. Their activities are aligned with the goals of the state. If those with social capital, if their goals are not aligned with the state, the state is going to have a very different approach to the situation in any of those situations. Why is it that the people who have that social capital, those economic brokers, those brokers within the community, why is it that they’re working for the interest of the state? Why are their interests aligned in these cases?
That’s a great question. So, there are two to three reasons. In housing demolition cases, there is usually a lot of money involved. So, the state would first go out there to mobilize these social brokers. They will give carrots to these social brokers. So, the local government, the demolition office, will usually find these people and get these people to sign. They give them early bird bonuses to get them to go out there to mobilize the other people who have yet to sign papers. Moreover, for each and every family that they manage to convince, they are given extra bonuses. So, there is a lot of material incentive involved in housing demolition cases.
But beyond housing demolition cases, mobilizing the masses is a centerpiece of the CCP’s mobilization strategy. This goes way back to the Great Leap Forward to the 50s and 60s back when there was not so much money involved. It was very much one of normative beliefs, such as in Zero-Covid which I’ve written about in some of the more recent writings. People genuinely believed in state policies. They’re actually contributing to public goods back in the Maoist days. You can motivate people by firing up their ideology as Mao and his cadres very successfully did with people.
With Zero-Covid policies for the first two years or so people genuinely believed in the superiority of the Chinese model often pointing to 1 million deaths in the United States. They felt the Chinese state was so much better in protecting lives. They said, ‘Zero-Covid is worth defending and therefore we are going out there to sacrifice our time in order to protect the community.’ So, in usual times it’s based on one of normative belief. In circumstances such as urban demolition, when there’s a lot of money involved, you actually need material incentives.
So, I do want to turn to the recent protests and what’s happened involving Zero-Covid and you’ve kind of described how the model actually works with the Zero-Covid policy. The fact that there is a normative belief that people thought that they were doing something not just for the good of the Chinese state, but for the good of the Chinese people. Why did it eventually fail? Why did people go out to the streets and protest if they had this very strong coercive apparatus that involved mobilizing the masses, getting them involved, and getting them to support the policy? Why did it break down into mass protests among so many different cities?
Sure, I think with zero Covid, we have to give it credit. It was very successful up until I think about May this year. So, for two and a half years, there was very high compliance to zero Covid. There were some complaints, but overall there was very high compliance. Then in May this year, early summer in Shanghai, zero Covid was handled very poorly. Because of lockdowns, food has to be delivered to families under lockdown, and people are not able to go out to get food. So, the government has to deliver cartons of food every week to individual households. But in many neighborhoods, food never arrived or when it did arrive, it became rotten.
People need to go out to fill their prescriptions, especially people who are sick or elderly. Those who are pregnant need to go to the hospitals. People were turned away from hospitals and some of them died as a result because they couldn’t show their digital health code. They couldn’t produce a PCR test that shows that they are Covid negative. So, there were casualties, not because of Covid, but because of denial to medical care as a result of the zero Covid policy. That is when I think reasonable policies became unreasonable, nonsensical, and sometimes outright preposterous. Sometimes an infant was separated from the infant’s mother and sent to quarantine because people were religiously implementing zero Covid policies.
There was so much political pressure put on them that it became nonsensical and then preposterous. I think that changed normative belief that many of these grassroots brokers had on zero Covid, which for two and a half years they were able to do it religiously because they believed in it. But when they saw how preposterous it was, people stop believing in it. So, they couldn’t mobilize volunteers anymore. They had to go out and hire all sorts of people from the street, from security guards to gangsters and to thugs to whoever out there is willing to to put on white hazmat suits in 40 degrees Celsius to administer zero Covid and control people’s movement.
So, for these people to do their jobs, they have to use violence and coercion. We saw some of that on social media. Then one thing leads to another. People have said that they have had enough. Lockdowns have also severely impacted the income of a lot of people, particularly migrant workers who depend on daily income. So, those people were the first who came out to protest, such as the migrant workers in Guangzhou. Then you started to get middle class citizens and students in prestigious universities like Peking University and Tsinghua started to go out there.
So, by that time it has evolved from zero Covid to become more of an anti-regime protest when people started shouting slogans such as, ‘Down with Xi Jinping. Down with the Chinese Communist Party.’ I have to say that those people were typically in the hundreds, which is a very, very small proportion in terms of overall population in China. But mind you we have not seen these sorts of things for a long, long time, not since 1989. And even in 1989, I don’t think people would say, ‘Down with Deng Xiaoping. Down with the Chinese Communist Party.’ People said, ‘We want freedom. We want democracy.’ People had never mentioned the regime or the ruler. But this time people actually did… explicitly.
So, in your recent article in Foreign Policy you write, “It remains highly unlikely that they will bring down the regime at this point, but they signaled the end of the governance model that has served China so well for decades.” So, what you’re saying there is exactly like you just said a moment ago. That it’s unlikely that the regime is going to collapse, because of these protests. But you are making a very strong statement by saying that this outsourcing repression model will no longer work the same way that it has done before. Do you expect China to completely stop outsourcing repression as a political tool going forward?
No. No, because the nature of the system is set. You need to rely on these grassroots brokers to do everything from A to Z. These people who are on the front line interact with citizens all the time. They impose all sorts of demands and compliance on the citizens. Moreover, you see widespread compliance, because they’re trusted by the citizens, residents, committees, volunteers, and community people. They interact with the citizens on an everyday basis. So, in the aftermath of zero Covid, when you had so many clashes and disagreements with these grassroots brokers for three years, I would imagine the social fabric of the society is torn because these people are part of society. So, the trust between these people and citizens is different now. How do you go out there with the same people to implement the same policies post-Covid?
Mind you, there’s no zero Covid anymore. You don’t have to take any Covid tests anymore. You don’t have to lockdown anymore. But other sources of everyday policies that would require persuasion usually would require trust. Without trust, how do you do it? I think it’ll be increasingly challenging. So, what I’m saying in that article is that we will see an increasingly restive society. Restive in the sense that people will not comply to state policies to the degree that they would to the degree that they did before Covid.
Because the social fabric of the society has been changed and has been torn, because of the strained relationships between these grassroots brokers and society from what happened under lockdown for three years under zero Covid, will the state stop this model of outsourcing repression? No. It wouldn’t, because that has been an endemic feature of the CCP. So, what I’m saying is that it will not work as well as it did before and I think that has huge implications.
So, it sounds like it’s a crisis of legitimacy, because in the past the social brokers had a clean connection between a relationship with the state and a relationship with others within society, but now the connection between society and the state is broken. It sounds like the role of the social broker is confused. I mean, they almost have to make a decision between whether or not they want to side with society on certain things, like when society is skeptical, if they want to earn their trust by challenging the state. Or they can continue to support the state and lose some of their value because society questions them. I mean, it sounds like the social brokers are the ones who are going to possibly be the ones to watch because they’re the ones who are going to have a difficult choice ahead for them.
Correct, because the social brokers are also very much part of society. They could be mobilized by the state, but they also are the recipient of state policies. So, if there’s any change in position, they would be the first to change. And mind you, these people have been very faithful and loyal to the party for a long, long time. So, I think there’s something fundamental going on. None of us China scholars have direct access to China since Covid. So, what we see, what we hear, all of our data is from secondhand sources, from what we are reading, from papers, from what we watch on social media. But that is what I gather. Things are changing and China’s social trust is broken down between state and society. People’s deeply help believe about the party is changing, starting with the social brokers.
But I would also imagine they’re also affecting the political brokers. These are the most grassroots elements of the state. They receive a very low salary. They are not government servants, but they have a lot of mundane jobs to do and they have to outsource a lot of that to social brokers. So, they’re actually in between state and society too.
It sounds like Xi Jinping and the leadership of the CCP then have a very difficult decision ahead for them. They can either allow for more dissent within society and allow those social brokers, those people on the front lines to be able to have greater legitimacy. Because if those people actually represent their communities and actually express some of their concerns, society will once again trust those people and allow them to be able to speak for them. And down the road, the state will be able to rely on them a little bit better.
But if they don’t do that, it sounds like they’re going to have to require on greater means of repression that is either used directly by the state or used by thugs for hire or other corrupt entities. So, it sounds like they either have to allow more dissent within society or repress more heavily and more seriously and more directly.
Correct. That is my logical conclusion. But if we know the Chinese Communist Party well, it’s not going to allow any of those things to happen. It’s a big question mark. The Chinese Communist Party is not going to allow dissent. It has used thugs for hire, but in an urban context, we can’t imagine what the consequences will be. You can deploy gangsters and thugs on rural peasants or migrant workers in fairly urban areas.
Still, you can’t do it to residents in Shanghai. You can’t do it to residents in Beijing. You can’t do it to residents in major cities. These are educated, sophisticated people who have spent time in Toronto and New York City. They know their rights and they have got access to social media, Twitter, and VPN accounts. They know what’s going on in the world. I think the consequence is, for me, unimaginable. I do not want to see China going down that road, but that seems to me to be a logical conclusion if things were to continue.
So, just to wrap up, one of the quotes that really stands out in the book is where you write, “Outsourcing repression augments everyday state power.” Our conversation has concluded that China’s going to struggle to be able to outsource repression on the same level that it did before, because of the loss of legitimacy of many of those social brokers and many of those other people that really tied society back to the state. Is China facing a situation where it’s losing some of its state capacity or some of its state power that it previously had?
I think it’s still early to draw any firm conclusion. I think this Covid protest has only evolved over the last couple of weeks or months, but we are in a way speculating with limited evidence here. I think everyday state power in the way that I have written about in the book is penetrating into society like an octopus with its tentacles. It is able to grip society. So, the brokers and the thugs for hire are like the tentacles of an octopus that allows it to penetrate and strongly grip society. I think the penetration side of things is still there, but whether or not it could grip society as firmly as it had before is perhaps questionable post-Covid for the reasons that we have discussed.
Well, Lynette, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to plug your book one more time. It’s called Outsourcing Repression: Every Day State Power in Contemporary China. It’s a really amazing read. It’s something that I definitely recommend for all the listeners. You also have a fascinating article in Foreign Policy called “China’s Massive Protests are the End of a Once Trusted Governance Model.” That’s a great read that ties together some of those concepts from Outsourcing Repression back to the zero-Covid protests. So, thank you so much for writing those. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me.
Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China by Lynette Ong
“China’s Massive Protests Are the End of a Once-Trusted Governance Model” by Lynette Ong in the Foreign Policy
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