Chen Guangcheng Fiasco Shows Dim Prospects for Political-Legal Reform

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 10

Chen Guangchen Outside His Home

The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s plight, which piqued much of the world’s attention the past fortnight, has fully exposed the shocking failings of China’s law-enforcement apparatus. Chen was forced to seek shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing due to the Chinese authorities’ systematic violations of his civil liberties. After having served a four-year jail term under the dubious charges of “obstructing traffic and destroying property,” Chen was kept under illegal house arrest in his native Dongshigu village, ShandongProvince, from 2010 until his daring escape last month. Neither human rights activists nor reporters were allowed to visit him in Dongshigu. As a result of protracted negotiation between the Chinese and U.S. authorities, it seems Chen, who is now recuperating in a Beijing hospital that is heavily guarded by police, will be allowed to go to New York University as a visiting scholar later this year. Yet serious questions remain about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) labyrinthine zhengfa (“political and legal”) bureaucracy, which controls the police and judicial organs. Given the bad publicity that the Chen case has generated, will the new leadership that will be endorsed at the 18th CCP Congress this autumn overhaul this police-state establishment? Or is it more likely that, given the party elite’s obsession with wei-wen (short for weihu wending, or preserving stability), one of the party-state’s largest operations will continue to grow in clout and influence?

It is instructive to first take a look at how the law-enforcement apparatus, which is under the leadership of Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Zhou Yongkang, has amassed so much power in the past few years. The Central Political and Legal Commission (CPLC), or zhengfawei, which Zhou chairs, is in charge of the Ministry of Public Security (or police), the Ministry of State Security (or secret police), the Procuratorate (or prosecutors’ offices) and the courts. In tandem with the Central Military Commission (CMC), the CPLC also exercises control over the people’s militia as well as the People’s Armed Police, which is a paramilitary unit charged with tackling riots and disturbances. Additionally, there appears to be unofficial security forces hired by local governments and the center. The zhengfa system hires “informants,” citizens who are asked to provide information to the police when they spot suspicious characters or hear about “anti-government plots” in the neighborhood. No one knows how many informants there are, but one report suggested a high concentration. In Kailu, an Inner Mongolian county, public security recruited 12,093 informants out of 400,000 inhabitants (Hong Kong Economic Journal, February 24; (Beijing), January 21; The Guardian, February 9, 2010).

The exact number of official, unofficial and informant personnel under the zhengfa apparatus is a state secret. Yet, it is well-known that the budget, staff and power of the law enforcement establishment has grown substantially since 2008, which witnessed not only the Beijing Summer Olympics but also the worst outbreak of rioting in Tibetan areas since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was also in the same year that CCP authorities employed Mao Zedong’s “people’s warfare” concept to boost internal security (See “Beijing Revives Mao’s ‘People’s Warfare’ to Ensure Trouble-Free Olympics,” China Brief, July 17, 2008). Wei-wen expenditures available to departments under the CPLC grew from 514.0 billion yuan ($81.3 billion) in 2010 to 624.4 billion yuan ($98.8 billion) in 2011—and to 701.7 billion yuan ($111.1 billion) this year. In both 2011 and 2012, the wei-wen budget exceeded even that of the publicized outlays of the People’s Liberation Army (Reuters, March 4; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 4). While Zhou has played a sizeable role in extending his zhengfa empire, he enjoys the support of other PBSC members, particularly President Hu Jintao. In numerous speeches the past few years, Hu has called upon central and regional cadres to “consider preserving stability as [their] foremost task” (, March 15;, March 9).

Much of the expansion of the zhengfa empire has taken place in the localities. According to Chen Guangcheng, wei-wen expenditures for Dongshigu Village and its vicinity were 60 million yuan ($9.5 million) last year, double the 2008 budget of 30 million yuan ($4.8 million). A team of at least 200 police and informants were responsible for the “safety” of Chen (Hong Kong Economic Times, May 2; China Times [Taipei] May 1; Ming Pao, May 1). The apparent overzealousness of many grassroots wei-wen units might give rise to the impression that central authorities are not necessarily at fault: the local units might have given excessively draconian interpretations to instructions from on high. As Northwestern University political scientist Victor Shih pointed out, Beijing appears to give local zhengfa units some autonomy so that “if they make a mistake, all the blame can be put on local officials without jeopardizing the entire model” [1]. Yet given the national if not international fame of activists such as Chen, it is hard to believe that the CPLC has not explicitly authorized the extra-legal treatment that has been meted out to these thorns in the side of the authorities.

In fact, it is the zhengfawei—and its sister unit, the Commission for Social Management and Comprehensive Treatment of Law and Order—which has established a plethora of local-level units for the purpose of ensuring better implementation of central edicts. From the mid-2000s, offices for Upholding Stability and the Comprehensive Treatment of Law and Order began to be set up in every city district and every village town or township (Southern Weekend [Guangzhou], August 19, 2010; Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2009). That the zhengfawei has enhanced its control over grassroots offices—and at the same time expanded its overall national clout—is evidenced by the increasing number of regional law-enforcement chiefs who have been appointed deputy party secretaries of provinces and zhixiashi (provincial-level municipalities). In at least five of China’s 31 provinces, autonomous regions and zhixiashi, heads of zhengfa departments double as deputy party secretaries. These include the Tibet and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Regions—which have high concentrations of ethnic minorities—in addition to Qinghai and Zhejiang Provinces and the Beijing municipality (Oriental Outlook Weekly [Beijing], April 16; Southern Metropolitan News [Guangzhou], February 18). In the interest of administrative streamlining, the number of deputy party secretaries of provinces and zhixiashi has been reduced to two. Without an exception, the governor or mayor occupies one of the two slots of deputy party secretary. That the second deputy party secretary is in charge of law-enforcement testifies to the importance that Beijing has attached to upholding stability. At least theoretically, this also makes it easier for the provincial or municipal zhengfa chief to exercise tighter supervision over wei-wen units within his or her jurisdiction.

While it is true that quite a number of grassroots zhengfa cadres may have exaggerated the dangers of “destabilizing elements” in their localities to get more funding from either the provincial capital or Beijing, many more local cadres are worried about losing their jobs should they be seen as failing to uphold law and order. In most provinces and cities, a grassroots official is liable to be summarily fired if a major destabilizing incident—for example, a riot involving thousands of protestors or the sudden disappearance of an influential human rights activist such as Chen—was to take place (Yangcheng Evening Post [Guangzhou] April 10;, November 16, 2011).

By the same token, a cadre with the reputation of a tough law-and-order enforcer is seen as having a sure-fire ticket for promotion. Before his downfall in March, former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai became a national hero due to the apparent success of the dahei (“crack down on underground gangs”) campaign in his metropolis. Bo’s anti-triad operation, which was run as a Maoist-style political movement, fully illustrated the problems of China’s law enforcement model. Quite a number of the triad bosses were incarcerated on trumped up charges—and without due judicial process. Bo and his power wife, the lawyer-businesswomen Gu Kailai, had a reputation of subjecting their foes to extra-legal punishments such as torture or even murder. In early February, Bo’s former police chief Wang Lijun, the erstwhile “national dahei hero,” tried to seek political asylum at the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu due to fears that Bo had turned his ire on him (New York Times, May 6; Ming Pao, May 5; Wall Street Journal, April 8).

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s approach to upholding stability has attracted intense criticism from relatively liberal academics and public intellectuals. According to a recent report compiled by the social stability research group at Tsinghua University, the authorities are trapped in a vicious cycle of “society becoming even less stable even as more resources are being devoted to wei-wen.” The report added, “Various levels of government have earmarked massive human and material resources for upholding stability, yet the quantity of incidents relating to social contradiction and confrontation has ceaselessly increased” (People’s Daily, February 2; Southern Weekend, April 15, 2010). According to WenzhouUniversity social scientist Wang Yong, “wei-wen has exacted huge social costs to which we must pay attention.” For example, since the law-enforcement apparatus has often used political movement-style maneuvers to stamp out the seeds of instability, “normal administrative regulations and the rule of law has been damaged,” according to Professor Wang. Wang also wrote “The [normal] voices of society have disappeared even as the private [social] sphere has shrunken even further” (Truth Seeking [Nanchang Journal], February 2012).

Zhou Yongkang, the CPLC chairman since 2007, has taken flak for the Shandong police’s failure to keep a blind man under house-arrest. He also was exposed to ridicule and criticism for the overall lawlessness in Chongqing. There was even innuendo that the PBSC member had conspired with Bo to enable the latter to not only join the PBSC later this year but to eventually become CCP general secretary (Washington Post, April 21; Associated Press, April 19). Given that Zhou, age 69, is set to retire at the 18th Party Congress, will there be a restructuring of the zhengfa bureaucracy—as well as the wei-wen mindset—by the next leadership, or at least Zhou’s successor?

Northwestern University’s Shih thinks significant changes in either the clout or the approach of the law enforcement apparatus are unlikely. “The growth of the security apparatus has to do with the rising need of the regime to prevent ‘sudden incidents’,” Shih said, “Any major weakening of this capacity can bring unexpected consequences” [2]. Bo Zhiyue, a veteran analyst of Chinese elite politics at the National University of Singapore, said future developments hinged on which PBSC member would assume the zhengfa portfolio after the 18th CCP Congress. “Much depends on who will become the new head the CPLC—and how much this leader is willing to shake up the establishment,” he said. Bo speculated, “The expansion of the zhengfa apparatus has been partly due to the division of labor among PBSC members and partly due to the need to maintain stability. If Zhou has a lot of say in choosing his own successor and his successor is loyal to his policies, then there is no hope of fundamental changes. If Zhou’s successor is chosen to shake up the apparatus, there would be substantial changes” [3].  

As things stand, there seems to be a strong consensus among the PBSC members—including Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are expected to form the axis of the upcoming Fifth-Generation leadership—that the leadership must pull out all the stops to boost security and stability. The urge to preserve the Maoist “one voice chamber” has grown in light of fissures at the CCP’s top echelons exposed by the Bo Xilai scandal (“Beijing’s Post-Bo Xilai Loyalty Drive Could Blunt Calls for Reform, China Brief, March 30). As was the case in 1989, the party leadership appears anxious to prevent dissidents from exploiting factional strife within the CCP to “make propaganda” for Western-style political reforms. This perhaps explains why, despite Beijing’s pledge to continue “human rights dialogues” with the United States and other Western countries, the wei-wen apparatus has been cracking down even harder on so-called destabilizing agents. Several public intellectuals and human rights lawyers who have helped Chen in the past few years have been subjected to brutal treatment. Globally famous activist Hu Jia and his wife have been put under house arrest. Attorney Jiang Tianyong, who tried to visit Chen in the hospital, was badly beaten up by police and prevented from leaving his apartment to seek medical care (CableTV Hong Kong, May 6; Radio Free Asia, May 4). Even as the international media speculates upon whether Beijing would honor promises made to both U.S. officials and Chen about fulfilling his wishes to pursue further studies abroad, China’s zhengfa machinery continues in overdrive.


  1. Author’s interview with Victor Shih, May 2012.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Author’s interview with Bo Zhiyue, May 2012.