China’s shadow sector: power in pieces

Kerry Brown
17 September 2009

I spent the month of August 2009 travelling around China and looking at the state of democracy (in the sense of "village elections"), the rule of law, and civil society. It was a sobering experience full of disturbing revelations.

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (2009). His website is here

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (13 March 2008)

"Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude" (3 April 2008)

"China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (11 July 2008)

"The Olympics countdown: Beijing to Shanghai" (6 August 2008)

"China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)

"China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

"China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

"China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

"China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

"China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

"China"s Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)

"Xinjiang: China's security high-alert" (14 July 2009)

There was an inauspicious moment on the very day of my arrival, when Xu Zhiyong - who heads Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), a small legal-aid NGO - was detained for "non-payment of taxes" (the grey zone in which independent NGOs exist in China means that this charge is often a convenient pretext for official persecution). Xu Zhiyong was released on 23 August, but may still face prosecution. The pattern of harassment is consistent: on 12 August a court case involving the environmental activist Tan Zuoren in the southwestern city of Chengdu was conducted so badly that his lawyer burst into tears.

Ai Weiwei - the designer of Beijing's Olympic stadium (the "Bird's Nest") and one of China's most prominent intellectuals - had travelled to Chengdu hoping to testify on Tan Zuoren's behalf, but to no avail. There was a chilling sequel: Ai was rewarded for his efforts by having his hotel door hammered on in the middle of the night, then - when he opened it to see what was going on - being punched senseless.

The control agenda

The current political atmosphere if anything works to diminish attention to such incidents. The approach of another important anniversary - that of the founding of the People's Republic of China, on 1 October 1949 - heightens sensitivities about internal stability. The riots in Urumqi and elsewhere in China's western province of Xinjiang in early July 2009 have made the government, and the ruling Communist Party (CCP), even more nervous than they were already.

Indeed, in interviewing people from various organisations and from very different perspectives, I was struck by a consistent undertone of worry about the prospect of a regime change (even a "colour revolution") along the lines of those in the post-Soviet states in the early 2000s - which culminated in the governing communist or reformed-communist parties being ejected from office in elections. China's clear official aim is to ensure that it doesn't make the same mistake. But in a country undergoing rapid change, how much of the political course of events and outcome can the party still control?

The leading party ideologues issued a booklet on 5 June 2009 called The Six "Why's", in an apparent effort to bolster the organisation's ideological armoury in face of mounting social and intellectual challenges. The fifth item of this list was: "Why a western-style democratic parliamentary model is not going to work in China". The framing is significant: these key party thinkers have worked out their reasons carefully for what they don't want to do. Their argument is that elections as they are conducted in the west would create instability; impede China's development at a critical juncture; and, in a complex society already stretched to the limits in terms of regional and class inequalities, risk the release of divisive political forces.

In this coldly realistic approach the CCP might have a point. For even in my brief and inevitably partial month-long journey, I was startled by how many village-level areas were lawless, ruled by different groups - and largely out of the reach of the central authorities.

In China's northeast, quasi-mafia groups have made entire rural areas their fiefdoms, which they run according to their extensive business interests. In the southeast province of Fujian, similar elite economic groups have established control of villages via local representatives who ruthlessly pursue the groups' private interests with no regard for broader social goals. In the central provinces of Hunan, Henan and Hebei, most evidence I saw showed a clear battle between party operatives and other increasingly powerful groups (from specific clans in one area, to economic or ethnic or social groups in another). Such tense and uneven situations help put in perspective Hu Jintao's emphasis, in the aftermath of the Xinjiang disturbances, on the need to have "one law for everyone".

In large swathes of the Chinese countryside, there seem to be as many different rules as their are groups. The strongest are taking what they want.

The hidden sector

The problem of this messy and fearful social landscape is reinforced by the party's domination of the political landscape - and the pitilessness with which it has exercised this domination. It remains the case that on many key issues, no voice except that sanctioned by the party can be regarded as legitimate. But in many areas, it is clear that a by-product of this chloroform - namely, the attempt to be all things to all people, to accommodate (and thus internally defuse) all sorts of opinions and attitudes amongst party members - has had the opposite effect to that intended: it has created an entity with potentially dangerous internal divisions.

Several academics I talked to offered sharp insights into the party's and government's current predicament. One as good as said that democracy at the village level had made things worse. Another complained that lawyers were now becoming a huge enemy within, challenging the government and starting to articulate demands that were becoming more and more political in their complexion.

Behind all of this is the immense security apparatus that the CCP now relies on for so much for its authority in "difficult" areas. A recent report estimated that China had no less than 1 million secret-intelligence operatives. How are these tasked and funded; who they are answerable to; how is their effectiveness assessed? These are not simple questions to answer. But somewhere, on someone's budget-sheet, is the costs of a huge amount of people assigned to use government money on "dealing with subversive and terrorist activity". It would be fascinating to know just what this amounts to in financial cost alone.

I am more disheartened than I was even a month ago by how things are in China. The central state seems less effective and in control in many areas than I had thought. Its responses to potential threats are becoming more and more predictable - imprisoning, intimidating, coercing. One case in particular haunts me. Gao Zhisheng, an activist lawyer based in Beijing, who had represented the legal rights of some followers of the dissident religious group Falun Gong, was prosecuted in 2006, and then put under semi-house arrest. A few dozen of the million "agents" mentioned above had been allocated the job of simply watching his house at all hours. Some had taken to following his daughter to school, intimidating and scaring her. This is all eloquently recorded in Gao Zhisheng"s memoir, published in 2006, A China More Just.

While in detention in 2007 and 2008, Gao was badly tortured. In one report, a secret policeman is said to have told Gao that as he had written so much about what Falungong followers had suffered, "now he can see what it is really like". Those that met him afterwards said he seemed broken by the experience. But he did make one attempt to get out, with his wife and (now 15-year-old) daughter; they succeeded in fleeing to Bangkok, but Gao himself was arrested at his home in Shaanxi province on 4 February 2009. Nothing has been heard of him; Chinese government officials, at least in Beijing, seem no wiser than outsiders about his fate. Those who have followed the case for a long time fear the worst: that one of the million agents could have taken things a little too far, resulting in Gao's "accidental death".

The task of power

The courage of individuals like Gao Zhisheng in standing up for at least some concept of justice is inspiring. Even institutionally, the Communist Party has created a monstrous problem - a massive, largely unaccountable, avaricious and often ineffective security apparatus full of individuals with no legal accountability, who most of the time - at both national and provincial levels - act to preserve their own narrow interests, and who when threatened expertly play a "protecting-national-stability-and-interest" card.

It is clear that there is only one man who can hold this massive hidden sector to account: not the head of the government, Wen Jiabao, but the head of the party, Hu Jintao.

In light of my month's tour, the one suggestion I would therefore make to Hu Jintao as soon as the sixtieth celebrations of 1 October 2009 are over, is simply to look long and hard at the effectiveness, and the accountability, of this enormous undergrowth of "intelligence agents", and to ask aloud whether they don't belong to the CCP"s traumatic past, when it was a threatened, underground organisation, rather than to its present, and future, as the ruler of a sovereign nation which now has the world's third-largest economy.

Then, after sixty years in power, the Chinese Communist Party can start to remove from the state's books some of the thugs, hard men, and criminals it employs as "secret-service personnel" - and see how they fare in making a more honest living in the non-state sector. That truly would be something to celebrate.


openDemocracy writers track China's politics in 2009:

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (25 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's anniversary tempest" (24 February 2009)

Li Datong, "The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

Li Datong, "China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Li Datong, "China's Tibet: question with no answer" (16 April 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)

Li Datong, "Tiananmen: the legacy of 1989" (4 June 2009)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2009" (4 June 2009)

Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation" (6 July 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

Kerry Brown, "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert" (14 July 2009)

Dibyesh Anand, "China's borderlands: the need to rethink" (15 July 2009)

Li Datong, "China's civil society: breaching the Green Dam" (17 July 2009)

Temtsel Hao, "Xinjiang, Tibet, beyond: China's ethnic relations" (23 July 2009)

Igor Torbakov & Matti Nojonen, "China-Turkey and Xinjiang: a frayed relationship" (5 August 2009)

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