Lynette Ong is Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She is the author of “Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China,” “The Street and the Ballot Box: Interactions between Social Movements and Electoral Politics in Authoritarian Contexts,” and “Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China.” Her publications have also appeared in Perspectives on Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Affairs, among other outlets.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Young China Watchers (YCW): Can you briefly introduce your book’s key findings and arguments?

Lynette Ong (LO): In a nutshell, my book is about how states do repression right. State repression, whether or not it involves the use of violence, often provokes citizen resistance and backlash. I argue that by outsourcing repression to non-state actors, the state can reduce the resistance. The non-state actors are thugs-for-hire, who use intimidation and low-level violence, and grassroots brokers who draw on their social ties with the community to get jobs done. Due to their anonymity, thugs-for-hire provide the hiring authority with plausible deniability. Among the grassroots brokers, social brokers with “thick ties” with the community and who draw on their own social capital are most effective in imposing compliance on the society. Therefore, outsourcing repression reduces the costs of state repression and augments state power that enables it to impose obedience and carry out projects that it could not have done otherwise.

My empirical context is land grabs and housing demolition in China, but I also extend my arguments and illustrate how it works in other empirical contexts, such as tax collection and imposition of the one-child policy, as well as to other country contexts beyond China.

YCW: What made you interested in conducting this research project?

LO: Back in 2011 when I began this project, my original intention was to investigate the political economy logic of urbanization, a continuation of the theme explored in my last book, “Prosper or Perish.” However, I was struck by the prevalence of the practice of “outsourcing repression,” violent as well as nonviolent aspects. I felt compelled to probe into it further. The Chinese folks I spoke to who have experienced land grabs or housing demolitions have encountered either one or both of these non-state actors (i.e., thugs-for-hire and grassroots brokers), and their actions are critical to the way in which citizens respond to state policies. I believe there is a big gap in the literature that should be filled.

YCW: Since you have been working on this book for about a decade, do you perceive any significant change within the Chinese society, especially after Xi Jinping came to power?

LO: Yes, I do. I started my field research in 2011. Throughout the first half of the 2010s, China was not so different from other non-democratic societies, albeit with relatively more restrictions. I was free to roam around small towns, villages, and cities – most of the time on my own and sometimes with my research assistants. I was able to walk into government offices, subject only to the everyday hassles of the Chinese bureaucracy and got respondents to talk to me. After 2016, a couple of years after Xi took the helm, it became more challenging, if not impossible, to continue conducting field research in the same manner.

Aside from that, I observed the issues of land grabs and housing demolitions that were widely covered by media outlets and rights organizations from the 1990s to the early 2010s tapered off in the second half of the 2010s. However, it could be a reflection of fewer incidents being reported or more censorship. Overall, I recognize that the Chinese society became significantly more tightly controlled after 2016.

YCW: You first coined the term “everyday repression” in a paper several years ago. In your book, you introduce a more comprehensive concept of “everyday state power” that includes outsourced violence and mass mobilization. Furthermore, you assert that these strategies are still very much in operation in China today. What are the implications of “everyday state power” for China’s political future?

LO: Possession of “everyday state power” allows the state to deeply penetrate society and mobilize the masses from within to carry out challenging policies. The crux of the power lies with the capacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to mobilize non-state actors through direct monetary engagement or making them believe they are contributing to the greater good of the community. To exercise “everyday state power” into the future, the CCP will need to remain strong enough to render these non-state actors under control and/or continue to make them believe their volunteerism is making China a better place, as well as to ensure these non-state actors do not go overboard. These conditions may or may not hold water into the future. We see that under the current zero-Covid policies, there has been significant pushback against residents’ committees and community volunteers (whom I call political and social brokers, respectively), who are on the frontline in the implementation of the lockdown measures. Pushback and resistance from citizens occur when any of these conditions fails to hold.

“We see that under the current zero-Covid policies, there has been significant pushback against residents’ committees and community volunteers (whom I call political and social brokers, respectively), who are on the frontline in the implementation of the lockdown measures.”

YCW: Your book draws primarily on empirical findings in China. However, given the core idea of state power and suppression, do you see any difference or similarity between the case of China and other societies?

LO: China is distinct from other authoritarian countries, such as Putin’s Russia, because the state is more powerful than society. By “society,” I mean thugs-for-hire, gangsters, and mafias. China under the CCP does not see the prevalence of mafia groups or organized crime that we see in Russia during the transition in the 1990s or even under Putin. Xi Jinping’s saohei (Sweeping Black) campaign was meant to root out the “black society” of which thugs-for-hire was a part. Thugs-for-hire occupy the very bottom of the rank of the crime-violence chain. In other words, the CCP, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, has every intention to root out criminal-violent gangs prevalent in some weak or weaker authoritarian states. The implication for repression is that when a weaker state mobilizes violent actors to get a dirty job done, it is not able to ensure the gangs do not overuse violence that inflicts unnecessary harm or creates casualties that will create a backlash. A robust and powerful state like China has better capacity to ensure that does not happen.

YCW: As a well-experienced China scholar yourself, please give us reflections about the development of China studies and recommendations to those who recently found interest in this field of study.

LO: I have been teaching Chinese politics for 15 years. During the first ten years, the majority of students enrolled in my class were from China. They were interested in learning about their country. In the last couple of years, I have had more non-Chinese students, from as far flung as Ghana and Kenya, interested in learning the impact of growing Chinese power on their home countries.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, researchers endeavoured to learn about China by interviewing the Chinese escapees during the Cultural Revolution who took refuge in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, at that time, became the Mecca of China Studies. Nowadays, China has become a global power. Its presence now reaches all corners of the world. To study China, one no longer needs to be physically present in China. For example, you can now study China by understanding how the Chinese hometown associations work in Toronto’s Chinatown, interviewing the manager of state-owned enterprises in California, looking at the Confucius Institute in Africa or observing Chinese companies operating in Bangkok. These units are all part of the Chinese state. Even when you cannot go to China, you can still study China and contribute meaningfully to the field.

  • By Attawat Assavanadda
Voices on China – Lynette Ong, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto
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