Commenting on three serious indictments announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland, we reported on 24 October how China’s spy agency, the Ministery Of State Security (MSS), fooled the western world into projecting an alleged Chinese peaceful rise by using middlemen, for example, John L. Thornton chairman of the board of the Brookings Institution.
The indictments also charged seven Chinese citizens with participating in a scheme to force a Chinese-born U.S. resident living in New York to return to China. Which used a “global extralegal effort” on the part of the Chinese government known as “Operation Fox Hunt,” Garland said, referring to a worldwide effort launched by Beijing in 2014 to force fugitives, dissidents, and whistleblowers to return to China.
It has been known for some time the Government of China is engaged in espionage overseas, directed through diverse methods via the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the United Front Work Department (UFWD), People’s Liberation Army (PLA); (vis-à-vis the Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department) and numerous front organizations and state-owned enterprises.
One trend in recent years is the use of criminal law against political dissidents, who are often charged with minor criminal offenses (such as disturbing public order) and then locked up for several years as punishment. Another trend is the illegal house arrest of innocent people who have not been charged with any crime, such as Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist, and Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Perhaps the most disturbing trend in the use of unorthodox methods of repression is the employment of thugs by local authorities to harass and beat political dissidents.1
The CCP’s repressive capacity consists of several layers. Within Chinese society, the regime employs a vast network of informers who monitor the activities of their fellow citizens and provide intelligence to the government.2 The second layer centers on the regular police force (which has specialized departments for domestic political security) and the secret police (part of the Ministry of State Security).
A third layer, added in the late 1990s, is commonly known as the Internet police, which patrols Chinese cyberspace. The fourth layer is the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force trained and equipped to quash riots and restore order on short notice (authorized to use lethal force). In addition to these networks and organizations, the CCP has also established special offices at each level of the state that coordinate activities related to internal security.
This vast apparatus of repression enables the regime to respond to and quash social protests instantly and prevent small incidents from mushrooming into destabilizing events. Over the years, the party-state seems to have followed standard operating procedures that have proven their effectiveness. Typically, these procedures mix carrots and sticks. Local government officials, depending on circumstances, may choose concessions over repression when the latter might lead to escalations in violence. But on other occasions, local officials would resort to more brutal means of suppression. As a result, the regime has been able to cope with a rapid increase in social protest since Tiananmen (there are around two hundred thousand “mass incidents,” or collective riots and protests, in the country each year, according to academic estimates).3
The most notable aspect of political repression in the post-Tiananmen era is the combination of overt repression (such as arrests and imprisonment) of dissent with unorthodox methods. In some cases, such methods are non-violent. For instance, dissidents and human rights activists would be invited to have “tea” with policemen and receive warnings about their activities. The government would also forcibly take them away from their homes for “vacations” in remote areas on sensitive anniversaries or occasions when key Western leaders visit China.
But more prevalent is the use of coercive and violent means. One trend in recent years is the use of criminal law against political dissidents, who are often charged with minor criminal offenses (such as disturbing public order) and then locked up for several years as punishment. Another trend is the illegal house arrest of innocent people who have not been charged with any crime, such as Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist, and Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Perhaps the most disturbing trend in the use of unorthodox methods of repression is the employment of thugs by local authorities to harass and beat political dissidents.4
The Patriotic Education Campaign
As we have discussed, the fourth pillar of the CCP’s post-1989 survival strategy is the manipulation of nationalism as a source of legitimacy. In the 1980s, Chinese nationalism had a moderate orientation, mainly due to the relatively liberal political environment and the policies of reform-minded top leadership.5 This changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The ruling elites identified nationalism as a critical source of legitimacy and subsequently implemented a systematic and highly effective program of reconstructing Chinese nationalism. The so-called patriotic education campaign was the centerpiece of the post-1989 state-sponsored revival of Chinese nationalism. This comprehensive program revamped history textbooks, reconstructed national narratives, and renovated historical sites and symbols throughout China. The sole purpose of this program was to rekindle the Chinese population’s sense of national humiliation and, consequently, their antipathy toward the West.6
During the 1980s, mainly due to the relatively liberal political environment and the policies of top reform-minded leadership, Chinese nationalism had a moderate orientation. This changed following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when history and memory were developed to become a new power.
The so-called patriotic education campaign was the centerpiece of this post-1989 state-sponsored revival of Chinese nationalism. This comprehensive program revamped history textbooks, reconstructed national narratives, and renovated historical sites and symbols throughout China. The sole purpose of this program was to rekindle the Chinese population’s sense of national humiliation and, consequently, their antipathy toward the West. The “patriotic education campaign” successfully reawakened the most parochial and xenophobic strains of Chinese nationalism. Through official propaganda and a distorted historical narrative, the CCP convinced large segments of the Chinese population that the West would not want to see a powerful and prosperous China. Periodically, the official propaganda apparatus would go into overdrive whenever there were international incidents in which China was apparently disrespected or poorly treated. The first example we have previously analyzed was the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Other examples are the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo war in 1999 and the midair crash between a Chinese fighter jet and an American navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in 2001. Of course, American responsibility in some of these made it easier for the Chinese regime to convince their population that the United States harbored hostile intent toward China. For instance, Washington attributed intelligence failure to bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This might be true, but it sounded unconvincing to the average Chinese, who firmly believed that the United States, the world’s most advanced country, was incapable of making such dumb mistakes.
Deng Xiaoping’s strategy, meanwhile, was the redefinition of the “one-hundred-year history of humiliation” as a new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the Chinese people and society.
If Chinese economic growth slows down significantly and, as a result, the CCP’s performance-based legitimacy declines, the regime will likely have to rely on this extensive, sophisticated, and highly effective apparatus of repression for survival.
Chinese operations worldwide eschew official police and judicial cooperation, violate the international rule of law, and may violate the territorial integrity of third countries involved in setting up a parallel policing mechanism using illegal methods.
The U.K., Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and Belgrade are among the countries investigating claims the stations are used to force the Chinese to go home. Ireland on Thursday, 27 October, ordered Beijing to shut down its “overseas Chinese police service center” in Dublin, as the Dutch government said it would investigate media reports about Chinese police offices in the Netherlands, which are believed to enable Chinese police to operate illegally overseas.
Canada’s federal police force is investigating reports that clandestine Chinese “police stations” are operating in Toronto amid reports of a global network used to target overseas dissidents.
1. See Xu Youyu and Hua Ze, eds., In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon: Stories of Repression in the New China (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).
2. The existence of networks of informers is kept secret and is poorly studied. Occasionally one comes across a reference to it. For instance, this network was mobilized during the Beijing Olympics to ensure security. Peter Coates, “Beijing Spying Apparatus Gears Up for Olympics,” Newsweekly, May 10, 2008, https://ncc.org.au/uncategorized/3535-china-beijing-spying-apparatus-gears-up-for-olympics/ .
3. Yanqi Tong and Shaohua Lei, “Large-Scale Mass Incidents and Government Response in China,” International Journal of China Studies 1, no. 2 (2010): 487–508. (October 2010); Christian Gobel and Lynette Ong, “Social Unrest in China,” European China Research and Advice Network Report (2012).
4. See Xu Youyu and Hua Ze, eds., In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon: Stories of Repression in the New China (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).
5. Guoguang Wu provides an excellent analysis of the contrast between nationalism before 1990 and afterward in Wu, “From Post-Imperial to Late-Communist Nationalism,” Third World Quarterly 3 (2008): 467–82.
6. Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).