Challenges to Conventional Wisdom
Reimagining State Power
The repressive strategies discussed in this book reconstruct state‒society relations because they allow the state to mobilize nonstate actors to pursue state objectives. When TFH are engaged in state projects, they become part of the state’s army of foot soldiers, whose goal is to intimidate and coerce citizens. Similarly, when brokers are mobilized, they are effectively transformed into state extensions that conduct persuasion or “thought work” on the citizenry. State‒society boundaries are then blurred and shifted against the society, making TFH and brokers complicit actors in the state’s repression of society.
Outsourcing repression to nonstate actors heightens the presence of everyday state power throughout the society. Thus, I invite readers to reimagine state power— the state occupies new ground with augmented penetrative capacity, through which it can unconventionally acquire societal approval of its very power.
I theorize a counterintuitive form of repression— when carried out by nonstate agents, outsourced repressive acts lower the costs of state repression. TFH, such as street gangsters, hooligans, or hoodlums, are those who render their muscle power as a for-profit service. TFH deploy low-level violence or threats of violence to carry out coercion. The concealed identities of TFH allow the state to maintain an arms-length relationship with them and their illegitimate violent acts. This provides the pretense for plausible deniability and evasion of accountability, which lowers the costs associated with violent repression accordingly.
In contrast, brokers mobilize the masses (MTM) for state pursuits. When organized into a movement, MTM becomes a state- organized social movement like Mao’s Red Guard Movement or Nashi, the youth movement organized by Putin. Here, MTM refers to mobilization on an individual basis to gain citizens’ compliance. Because ideology holds less appeal in post-Mao China than it once did, contemporary brokers mobilize through emotion-lubricated social relations or guanxi networks, cultivated over a lifetime to serve the dual purposes of sentimentality and instrumentalism. Owing to social capital they possess, brokers’ actions are not usually perceived as state repression; hence, it is more likely to be accepted by society, significantly reducing the likelihood of resistance and backlash.
A New Tool in the Autocrat’s Toolkit
I introduce some tools new to the autocrat’s toolkit—third party-wielded sticks and persuasion— and argue that they enhance state control of society largely without the fear of backlash. Both falling under the ambit of outsourced repression, they correspond to everyday repression via TFH and MTM through brokers, respectively. Sticks wielded by private agents allow for plausible deniability insofar as the hiring authority can effectively distance itself from the TFH and the illegitimate violence does not result in severe casualties. If these conditions are met, outsourcing violence is superior to the conventional stick of violent state repression because it allows the state to keep perpetrators of violent acts at arm’s length.
Meanwhile, persuasion is an autocrat’s tool, wielded by brokers who command social capital, with which they mobilize the masses for state pursuits. Social brokers thus legitimize the repression and blunt the resistance and the backlash that would have otherwise occurred. Even though persuasion can serve as an independent tool, it is often facilitated by carrots (inducements) and made credible by sticks (emotional coercion).
In Outsourcing Repression, China serves as a case study to exemplify a state that practices vigorous everyday state power over society to extract compliance and stifle dissent. The authoritarian nature of China’s political system serves to strengthen this power; but it is not a necessary condition. I draw on comparative cases – notably, pre-, and post-democratized South Korea, and India, as the most similar and the most dissimilar case studies to demonstrate cross-country external validity of the arguments.
Lynette H. Ong is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Twitter: @onglynette.
Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China (Oxford University Press and Columbia East Asian Institute, 2022) is available for purchase here.