Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China

Dr. Lynette Ong, University of Toronto

Published on: May 12, 2023

Photo: Six Arrested as Hong Kong Police Slammed For Slow Response to Violent Pro-China Thugs — Radio Free Asia

 Economic growth necessitates the redistribution of resources— including land, labor, and capital— from one group to another. Autocracies may be more effec­tive than democracies in forcibly redistributing resources by means of coercion and subsequently withstanding the pressure exerted by the losers. Yet, wielding the stick comes with a cost. Persistent coercion may invite backlash, provoke resistance, and delegitimize the regime. If a regime bent on growth enacts a policy that redistributes resources and subsequently causes dissent among the losers, how does the regime balance coerced compliance with minimized backlash?


In Outsourcing Repression, I use China’s ambitious urbanization scheme as a window of observation for state policies that entail immense resource reallocation to study the practice of state power to gain compliance and mute dissent. Rapid urbanization, by its very nature, involves vast population relocation and resource redistribution among groups. In China, property owners have been coerced into compliance, their voices muffled as the state tries to fast track the urbanization process. To be sure, popular resistance has arisen against land taking and housing demolition, yet no country has ever pulled off the spatial transformation and relocation of people on the scale achieved by China while simultaneously maintaining social stability.


I deployed three different methodologies to triangulate data. First, ethnographic research consisting of more than 200 interviews conducted annually from 2011 to 2019--the years from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. Second, an original hand-coded event dataset consisting of more than 2,000 cases. And third, content analysis of government policy documents regulating everyday land grabs and housing demolition in China.


The book advances two major arguments about outsour­cing repression which lies at the core of everyday state power over society. First, the state implements unpopular policies effectively and swiftly by using the “everyday repression” of outsourced violence. Carried out by “thugs- for- hire” (TFH), it is an expedient state strategy to impose its will on society. Although vi­olent repression usually incurs costs, outsourcing violence to third-party agents provide the pretense for plausible deniability and evasion of political account­ability. Second, the state extracts citizen compliance and resolves state‒society conflicts by mobilizing the masses (MTM), which involves marshalling a small segment of society—the brokers—to gain acquiescence from the larger society. Because mass mobilization is conducted through social networks, brokers with social capital legitimate state repression, in turn minimizing resistance and backlash.


Theoretically, everyday engagement of third-party agents by the state to coerce pushes the boundary on what scholars currently understand as state repression. Because the repressive capacity of the state is a central element of its strength, I also invite readers to reimagine what constitutes the notion of state power.



Figure 1 illustrates the agents and the respective mechanisms through which outsour­cing repression augments everyday state power.


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.


Cost-Minimizing Repression


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.