Beijing Revives Mao’s “People’s Warfare” to Ensure Trouble Free Olympics

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 15

Chinese President Hu Jintao

Hardly anybody still believes that the Beijing Olympics will have the same kind of globalizing and liberalizing effect on Chinese politics that the 1988 Seoul Olympics had on the democratic development of South Korea. Yet even fewer expected the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities to unleash the equivalent of Chairman Mao’s “people’s warfare” against assorted troublemakers and “saboteurs” who, Beijing is convinced, are bent on spoiling what is widely considered the coming-out party for the fast-rising would-be superpower. The Hu Jintao leadership’s resuscitation of norms and tactics toward dissidents as well as Tibet- and Xinjiang-based “splittists”—which are reminiscent of Mao’s paranoid excesses— could impact negatively on China’s reforms over the long run.

Less than one month before the Games’ Opening Ceremony is to start at 8:08 pm on August 8, the CCP Leading Group on the Beijing Olympics has unveiled a multi-dimensional security regime that consists of specially trained soldiers, police and anti-espionage agents, the most advanced military and surveillance hardware—as well as hundreds of thousands of potential informers and vigilantes—100,000 elite soldiers, police and People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers, including crack anti-terrorist units, which will guard the Games venues as well as important government buildings and facilities in the capital. State-of-the-art Jian-9 and Jian-10 jet-fighters in addition to Hongqi missiles would foil possible attacks from the sky. Riot police in Beijing and nearby cities are holding almost daily drills using Chinese-made as well as imported gear such as surveillance drones and high-pressure, high-precision water cannons. Moreover, teams from border petrol, fire prevention, customs, traffic control, and other departments will play sizable roles in effectuating what Beijing hopes to be a flawless Olympics (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], July 9 & 10; The Times [London], June 25).

Even more unsettling, however, is the redeployment of Chairman Mao’s “people’s warfare” concept: the riot police and anti-terrorist squads are being reinforced by a special “people’s militia” (min bing) consisting of one million Beijing Games volunteers as well as 400,000 so-called “urban volunteers,” meaning security-minded members of “neighborhood committees” (jiedao weiyuanhui) in Beijing (Legal Daily [Beijing] July 7; Ming Pao, July 9; The Guardian [London] July 10). Referring to what he called “a great quantity of vigilant eyes and enthusiastic Beijing citizens [constituting] the outermost circle” of the multiple rings of security, Legal Daily commentator Xu Wei noted: “We are sure to win this people’s warfare to uphold security at the Olympics” (Legal Daily, July 8). Up till the mid-1990s, neighborhood committees served as vigilante-cum-informers whose job included keeping tabs on residents with “suspicious lifestyles” such as having Western friends. Thanks to the growing diversity of Chinese culture, neighborhood committees had until recently been depoliticized to the extent that they are only concerned with issues such as environmental hygiene and the prevention of fire and ordinary crime.

Perhaps using Olympics-related safety as the pretext, the country’s labyrinthine network of law-enforcement, censorship and surveillance apparatuses has re-imposed a straitjacket over the populace. Police and state security departments have from last year put up some 265,000 closed-circuit video cameras in Beijing (Forbes, July 8). Similar Big Brother gadgets have been installed in major coastal cities. Despite promises that the Beijing Olympics Committee has made about improving human rights as well as lifting restrictions on overseas journalists, there has been no let-up in the arrest of dissidents, especially those active on the internet. Several Beijing-based Western correspondents have complained about harassment by state-security agents. Earlier this month, immigration authorities at the Beijing Airport confiscated the traveling documents of Norman Choy, a senior reporter at Hong Kong’s liberal-leaning Apple Daily, before forcing him to return to the Special Administrative Region on the next flight. This is despite the fact that Choy had obtained fully accredited press passes and had already done Olympics-related stories in Beijing on two previous trips (South China Morning Post, July 4; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], July 3).

Particularly disconcerting are Beijing’s draconian measures against budding internet-based activists who are dedicated to the relatively moderate agenda of seeking justice for members of disadvantaged classes. Police earlier this month arrested Huang Qi, the founder of the respected website, which provided a widely-read platform for the aggrieved relatives of victims of the Sichuan earthquake. The latter included parents whose children had perished after the collapse of “tofu”—or shoddily constructed—school buildings (International Herald Tribune, July 12;, June 14). As in the case of the incarceration of AIDS activist Hu Jia in the spring, the motive of state security units seems to be to silence critics of the CCP—and to create a facade of a “harmonious society”—before the arrival of millions of tourists in August.

There is also mounting evidence that party authorities have strengthened control over the courts and prosecutor’s offices in order to buttress its already formidable arsenal against foes of the regime (China Brief, Volume 8, Issue 14, July 3). While speaking earlier this month on security work in the run-up to the Olympics, Justice Minister Wu Aiying pointed out that judges and legal cadres should “earnestly enhance their political consciousness, and their consciousness about [safeguarding] the overall political situation and [preventing] pitfalls and disasters.” Wu, a protégé of President Hu, called upon law-enforcement and judicial officials to “prevent the exacerbation of contradictions,” a reference to the task of expeditiously snuffing out challenges to the administration (, July 10). At a national meeting of senior judges and prosecutors in Beijing last month, Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member in charge of security Zhou Yongkang stressed that political and legal departments, including the courts, were “state machinery for implementing the people’s democratic dictatorship.” While the meeting was called ostensibly to consolidate socio-political stability ahead of the Games, Zhou dwelled at length on the responsibility of legal and judicial cadres to boost their “political, theoretical and emotional affinity” with the goal of ensuring the longevity of CCP rule and stomping out its enemies (Xinhua News Agency, June 16).

There are fears among Western observers, including human-rights watchdogs, that hardware and personnel in connection with “people’s warfare” would remain in place well after the Olympics. For example, it is most unlikely that expensive video surveillance equipment would be removed any time soon. The same goes for the re-politicized neighborhood committees not only in Beijing but other cities that are considered to be targets of quasi-terrorist groups from Xinjiang and other trouble-spots. After all, the “people’s warfare” concept was first brought up by PBSC member Zhou soon after the Tibetan riots in March. At an emergency meeting on the Tibetan crisis, Zhou played up the importance of putting together a “law-and-order prevention and control network” that was anchored upon “the synthesis of experts and the masses as well as joint efforts between the police and the people” (Xinhua News Agency, April 9). In the eyes of senior cadres, numerous attempts made this year by Tibetan- and Xinjiang-based separatists to sabotage the Games has raised the probability that the “anti-splittist struggle” would be a long-term undertaking. According to an interview done by the author with Nicholas Bequelin, a veteran researcher with Human Rights Watch, the revival of “people’s warfare” norms will have the long-term effect of “strengthening the mechanisms of social control used by the Party to head off the emergence of anything it identifies as a challenge to its monopoly on power.” “This may have a deleterious effect on Chinese society’s efforts to progressively constrain state power and develop the rule of law,” he added.

This imposition of tighter control over the populace is doubly disturbing due to the deterioration of the quality of “the tools of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” particularly the moral caliber of police and judicial officials. The woeful quality of the police force was dramatized by what is now known as the June 28 Guizhou Incident. In late June, about 20,000 villagers in impoverished Weng’an County in the southwestern province rioted over the police’s mishandling of the death of a 17-year-old school girl, Li Shufen. Li’s parents—and large numbers of their sympathizers—suspected the teenager had been raped and dumped into a river, and that police had released a prime suspect who had good political connections. Public security officials, however, insisted that it was a simple case of drowning. A few county office buildings were torched during the melee. While Guizhou leaders initially blamed “elements with ulterior motives” for stirring up trouble, they later conceded that the disturbance was a reflection of peasants’ dissatisfaction with inefficient and corrupt local officials. Party Secretary of Guizhou Shi Zongyuan admitted that there were up to six active “triad societies” or Chinese-style mafias in Weng’an. Shi added that a number of cadres and police officers “are in collusion with the triads—and they serve as the latter’s informants and provided them protection” (People’s Daily, July 6; Ming Pao, July 11). Weng’an public security chief Shen Guirong, who was fired within a week of the incident, said villagers distrusted the police because “the success rate of cracking major crimes is low” and the force was “unable to make the people feel safe” (People’s Daily, July 9).

The problematic nature of the public security establishment was also illustrated by the incident where six Shanghai policemen were killed by an unemployed Beijing youth who bore a grudge against law-enforcement officers. On July 1, Yang Jia walked into the Zhabei District Police Station of Shanghai and stabbed 11 officers with a knife. Yang later confessed he hated Shanghai policemen because he had been wrongly accused of stealing bicycles while touring the city last October. Neither the Shanghai Party Secretary, Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng, nor the Ministry of Public Security, has adequately explained why police in the multi-story Zhabei Station were so defenseless against a single person armed with nothing more than an ordinary knife (China News Service, July 3; Xinhua News Agency, July 4). Moreover, since Shanghai was supposedly on the hit list of “quasi-terrorist groups” from Xinjiang, security in the metropolis had been strengthened since the spring. Three days after the incident, Yu told the national media that Shanghai police “were totally able to do their jobs well.” After the knifing incident, however, security in more than 3,000 public buildings in Shanghai was noticeably beefed up.

While officiating on a recent conference on handling “petitions” from citizens with gripes against party and government cadres, Executive Vice-Minister of Public Security Yang Huanning urged law-enforcement units nationwide to take all preemptive measures to prevent petitioners from flocking to Beijing during the Olympics season. Yang, who is also Beijing’s anti-terrorism tsar, urged police and related personnel to work harder at speedily resolving disputes and diffusing social contradictions at the grassroots level. He admitted, however, that China’s development had reached a stage “where multifarious types of social contradictions and conflicts have markedly increased—and it has become much more difficult to mediate among and reconcile various interest groupings” (China News Service, July 4). Certainly, elements ranging from disgruntled peasants to Tibetan “splittists” seem to be taking advantage of the global limelight that is being shone on the Beijing Games to “make trouble” for the regime. Yet the CCP leadership’s decision to revive outdated—and discredited—control mechanisms may only exacerbate, not cure, China’s long-festering contradictions.