“Stability Maintenance” Gets a Major Boost at the National People’s Congress

“Law-and-order volunteers” stand in formation at an organization ceremony for security activities accompanying the 19th CCP Congress in Beijing, 2017. (Source: Sohu.com)

The Theme of “Stability Maintenance” at the National People’s Congress

Since the mid-2010s, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been preoccupied with ensuring a relatively high growth rate for China, even as the economy is facing serious downward pressures. This has emerged as a perennial theme in the annual springtime meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its counterpart, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). However, an even more striking theme this year is “stability maintenance” (weiwen, 维稳)—coded language for ensuring the CCP’s “perennial ruling status,” and President’s Xi Jinping’s quasi-permanent role as the “leadership core” of the world’s largest political organization.

In his annual Government Work Report to the NPC, Premier Li Keqiang gave utmost emphasis to upholding social stability through means such as job creation and raising welfare payouts to underprivileged classes (China Brief, March 22). Saving and creating jobs was first among the six major areas of stability cited by Li: “stabilizing employment; stabilizing finance; stabilizing foreign trade; stabilizing foreign investment; stabilizing [domestic] investment; and stabilizing expectations.” The Li cabinet has committed itself to creating 11 million new urban jobs through 2019—a tall order given the large number of factories along the coast that are moving to other countries, either to save costs or to avoid being hit by U.S. tariffs (China Daily, March 6).

Another thrust of “social stability management” (shehui wending guanli, 社会稳定管理) is the vigorous application of harsh laws against destabilizing elements in a broad number of social groups, ranging from dissident intellectuals and impoverished petitioners to underground church-goers and ethnic “terrorists” in Xinjiang and Tibet. As NPC deputies were told by Zhou Qiang, President of the Supreme People’s Court, courts of various levels were committed to “severely punishing crimes that will jeopardize state security, and to resolutely upholding state political security whose cores are regime security and security of the [political] order.” He disclosed that judicial officials in the past year had “severely punished crimes regarding the incitement of the subversion of state power, incitement of splitting up the country, and espionage” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 13; PRC National People’s Congress, March 12).

Questions Surrounding the State’s Budget for Domestic Security

The most effective way for the CCP to keep social unrest—and challenges to the regime—at bay is to perfect China’s already formidable police-state apparatus (jingchaguojia jiqi, 警察国家机器). However, in an apparent effort to counter foreign criticisms of the Xi leadership’s suppression of the “five new black categories” (xin heiwulei, 新黑物类) (human rights attorneys, underground churches, dissidents, unapproved Internet commentators, and activists from disadvantaged sectors in society) and other potential sources of dissent (China Brief, February 20), the authorities have tried to keep this year’s weiwen budget under wraps. Assessing the real size of China’s public security expenditure (PSE) provides a valuable prism through which to analyze how the Xi administration is pulling out all the stops to suppress voices of dissent, and seeking thereby to uphold the CCP’s monopoly on power.

The NPC and CPPCC delegates were told on March 5th that the central budget this year for weiwen was 179.78 billion renminbi (RMB), which represented an increase of 5.6 percent over that of 2018. This official figure was just 15 percent of this year’s announced 1.19 trillion RMB budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Guancha.cn [Beijing], March 5; China Net, March 5). Not only was the officially promulgated weiwen budget conspicuously small, it also broke the tradition of stability-related expenditures exceeding those of the official military budget. [1] For example, in 2011, the last year in which both the military budget and the PSE were publicized, the weiwen outlay was set at 624.4 billion RMB, or 3.88 percent more than that of the defense forces (Reuters, March 5 2011).

The mystery around this year’s PSE figure was solved when the Guangzhou-based 21st Century Economic Herald reported a detailed breakdown of the 2019 national budget of 23.52 trillion RMB, in which PSE took up 5.9 percent, or 1.39 trillion RMB. By contrast, medical expenditure, scientific research and development, and state subsidies for housing were earmarked respectively at 7 percent, 3.9 percent, and 2.9 percent of this total national budget. Moreover, the weiwen figure of 1.39 trillion RMB was 16.8 percent higher than official military expenditure (Radio Free Asia, March 14; 21st Century Economic Herald, March 7). This astronomical sum has been corroborated by reports in Hong Kong newspapers, based on interviews with NPC deputies who had access to internal budget figures (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 13).

The bulk of the PSE is used to finance a 24-hour, multi-pronged and fully digitalized “dragnet stretching from heaven to earth” (tianluo diwang, 天罗地网), which is geared toward muzzling destabilizing elements ranging from ethnic separatists to NGO activists who supposedly enjoy the support of the West. Since taking office in 2012, President Xi has applied the nation’s achievements in cutting edge technologies such as AI, robotics, big data, cloud computing, neural science and psychiatric drugs to boost this pervasive police state apparatus (China Brief, July 21 2017).

Further Weiwen Expenditures Beyond the State Budget

It is evident, however, that the enormous sum of 1.39 trillion RMB is still insufficient to cover the increasingly burdensome and multitudinous efforts taken by weiwen units to nip destabilizing factors in the bud. Thus, the true stability maintenance budget could be much bigger than imagined. For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and large private firms also make considerable outlays for stability-maintenance personnel, equipment, and operations—which in many respects contribute to, and overlap with, the functions of the state apparatus. Furthermore, owing to security concerns, the CCP leadership has mandated that the information technology (IT) sector, which includes social media and e-commerce, be run either by SOEs or putatively private firms that enjoy sterling connections with the party elite. Almost all these quasi-monopolies have become multi-billion dollar businesses. In return for state patronage, these IT companies and e-platforms surrender without cost to state-security units sensitive information about dissidents and activists—in addition to providing data that feeds China’s controversial and labyrinthine social credit system (SCS). The SCS enables weiwen officers to not only pick up intelligence about “destabilizing agents” but also to track their movements and activities (South China Morning Post, February 7; SSRN.com, May 22 2018; DWnews.com, March 19 2018).

Apart from high-tech surveillance, Beijing has revived Mao’s concept of “people’s warfare” in the domestic sphere, and is recruiting politically reliable sectors of the populace into service as citizen spies. As former Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun has asserted, the weiwen apparatus should incorporate the “new line of thinking and new methodology of ‘the feet plus the Internet,’ [meaning] tradition and technology, specialist work and the mass line” (PRC State Council, May 24 2016). For example, big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have in recent years been recruiting large numbers of “law-and-order volunteers” (zhi’an zhiyuanzhe, 治安志愿者), a corps of sanctioned vigilantes charged with providing weiwen-related intelligence to local authorities. Beijing boasts up to 1 million such volunteers, most of whom are concentrated in the two populous districts of Chaoyang and Xicheng.

Official media has revealed that in 2015, the last year for which such figures are available, Chaoyang vigilantes furnished the police with 210,000-odd tidbits of intelligence—some of which led to the arrests of figures ranging from ordinary criminals to spies. The vigilantes get tiny monthly stipends, but they can be paid tens of thousands of RMB if their tip-offs result in the foiling of any major disturbances to the city’s law and order (China News Service, July 12 2017; Global Times, July 4 2017). Given the huge expenses involved in retaining the services of tens of millions of informers in a growing number of cities, funding for such “people’s warfare” is shared between the cities and local weiwen departments (Radio French International Chinese Service, March 11; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], March 11).

Further expenditure beyond the designated PSE budget may be found in police-state institutions such as “thought reform” (sixianggaizao, 思想改造) centers in Tibet, and the even more expansive “transformation through education” (jiaoyu zhuanhua, 教育转化) internment facilities constructed in Xinjiang (China Brief, November 5 2018; China Brief, February 1). While the so-called “transformation” facilities—which are said to accommodate at least 1 million Uighurs throughout Xinjiang—have attracted global condemnation, they have their origins in the sixianggaizao units in nearby Tibet. The latter were first put together by then-Tibet Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who ran the predominantly Buddhist region with an iron fist from 2011 to 2016. Chen was subsequently appointed as CCP Secretary for the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in 2016, when he started building internment camps intended to indoctrinate Muslims with the ideas of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping (VOA Chinese, November 28, 2018; Radio Free Asia, October 1, 2018). According to Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based China researcher for Amnesty International, there is evidence to show that costs for the construction and running of the camps are shared between police agencies, ethnic affairs units in the central government, the PLA, and departments in the XUAR administration. [2]

Conclusions

Given President Xi’s perception that the CCP is being increasingly buffeted by challenges from both within and outside China, the workload—and the budget—for the weiwen apparatus is likely to continue to rise in the foreseeable future. One new avenue of renewed state repression is religion. In his Government Work Report presented to the NPC, Premier Li Keqiang highlighted Beijing’s responsibility for regulating and controlling religion: “We must fully implement the party’s basic goals regarding religious work… we must uphold the direction of the Sinicization of our country’s religions, and to manage religious affairs according to law” (Xinhua, March 5). It was the first time that Li had cited the imperative of “rendering religions Chinese” in his public statements. Apart from the emasculation of radical Islamists, members of China’s estimated 60 million Christians and Catholics have been subjected in the past year to tighter, AI-enabled supervision, including 24-hour surveillance by police who are stationed at venues of religious worship (VOA Cantonese, January 4; BBC Chinese, December 12, 2018).

It remains to be seen whether the apparently limitless resources that Beijing has applied towards the weiwen cause will really ensure the CCP’s proverbial “long reign and perennial stability.” However, CCP strongman Xi Jinping seems to have attained the goal of obliging all cadres, including Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members, to profess allegiance to himself. In their reports to the NPC and the CPPCC, both Premier Li and CPPCC Chairman Wang Yang urged cadres and party members to “even more tightly unite under the party central authorities with comrade Xi Jinping as their core.” Wang, deemed the most liberal member of the PBSC, even put emphasis on “unifying our thoughts and actions around the spirit of the important talks of General Secretary Xi Jinping” (PRC Government, March 3; Straits Times [Singapore], March 3). There is a danger, however, that Xi’s construction of a Mao-style personality cult—which is one criticism that almost all disgruntled sectors of society have levelled against the “New Helmsman”—could further nurture dissent, and render the work of stability maintenance even more difficult despite the ever-expanding weiwen budget.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and a long-time contributor to China Brief. Dr. Lam is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, and the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping” (Routledge 2015).

Notes

[1] Many PLA watchers have noted that the publicized budget does not cover major expenses such as the R&D and manufacturing of military hardware. See, for example, Richard A. Bitzinger, “China’s Double-Digit Defense Growth” (Foreign Affairs, March 19, 2015); and “What Does China Really Spend on its Military?” ChinaPower Project, CSIS, CSIS.org (2017).

[2] Author’s interview with Patrick Poon, March 2018.