Class character of Chinese state
At the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao proclaimed that the new socialist state would constitute a people’s democratic dictatorship, serving the class interests of the revolutionary peasant–proletarian alliance which had ushered the new state into existence. Throughout the socialist era, the state insisted on making its class character apparent and ensured the supremacy of the peasant–proletariat alliance in state practice and ideology. In other words, the state made no pretence of class neutrality, announcing that the state served the peasant–proletarian alliance and acted on behalf of the revolutionary people of China. This provided the state with its ideological legitimacy. While the state was to be democratic for those people who supported the revolutionary party and its allies, it was to prove a dictatorship to those who were considered anti-revolutionary or whose class background was suspect.
By contrast, although the state still claims universal continuity between its interests and those of the supposedly classless nation, it usually serves the interests of the wealthy and subordinates the interests of workers and peasants. During and after China’s reform era, far from retreating from social life the state has embedded itself further, issuing policies that advance the commodification of land and labour. At the same time, capitalist activity is subject to state control and surveillance. Today, although China acts in the name of socialism, the state largely serves to safeguard the conditions for capitalist accumulation and its power lies in its demonstrated capacity to ensure economic growth and stability.
The structure of China’s political system
The territories of China, especially the peripheral regions where non-Han Chinese reside, are largely a legacy of the Qing empire’s military conquest, and were inherited by the Nationalist-led Republic of China and subsequently reshaped by the upheavals of the twentieth century. Since 1949, the entire territory has been ruled by the Communist Party, whose leadership is enshrined in China’s constitution. The party is structured as a pyramid. At the lowest level, there are around 92 million party members across the nation, and around 2,200 delegates are elected as representatives to the National Party Congress, convened once every five years. At the Congress, a Central Committee of about 380 members are elected and take up key roles in the central government. Finally, a new Politburo and its standing committee are elected from the Central Committee. These are the organs of government that hold real decision-making power. Currently, there are seven members in the Politburo Standing Committee, representing the apex of power in China. The committee makes decisions through a majority vote. It has been led by party chief Xi Jinping since 2012, who is also the chair of the central military commission.
While on paper the Communist Party operates on the principles of ‘Democratic Centralism’, which allows the party to elect its leadership from the bottom up and discuss and vote on policies in a democratic way, in practice the composition of the Politburo and standing committee is determined through closed-door negotiations. It is unclear to what extent democratic internal debates take place or whether lower-level party members simply go along with top-down directives.
Moreover, the Communist Party has control over all branches of government, including legislative and judiciary institutions. Though there are a number of other smaller political parties present in the National People’s Congress (NPC), the existence of those smaller parties is based on the condition that they accept the Communist Party’s leadership. In effect, they serve as a rubber stamp, offering a nominal diversity of opinions, rather than a real supervisory power or a political opposition. The state council, tasked with enacting national policy and supervising all government departments, is also led by the Chinese premier who is himself a member of the standing committee of the Politburo. Meanwhile, the judiciary is supervised by the party’s central political and legal affairs commission, chaired by a member of the Politburo. However, it is worth noting that although the Chinese state generally works in a way where the power is concentrated at the top, it also consists of many departments and actors with conflicting or competing interests. In addition, lower level bureaucracies are not always in line with the central government, which often creates imbalance and tension in the system.
Pandemic as a case study
The Chinese government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic illuminates the structure of the state in motion and shows how the population interacts with the government. At the start of the pandemic, when its severity was still unknown, local governments’ interests in economic performance and social stability trumped public health concerns, resulting in an extended period of cover-up. The doctors who first detected the virus and alerted others on social media were reprimanded by local police and hospital administrators for sharing false information. Dr. Wen-liang, Li was one of the whistle-blowers who later died from the virus in February 2020, prompting a national outpouring of grief and anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic crisis.
The Chinese government took some measures to enable a certain level of sharing information from the public to improve governance. One example is the health emergency system restructured by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after the SARS pandemic in 2003. The system enables individuals to report health incidents to local commissions, but only the national commission and its designated provincial agencies are allowed to make public announcements. As a result, information could flow from the bottom up within the government bureaucracy while still being kept from the public. During the lockdown, there was also a brief period where the government loosened some controls on the media and public expression, which served as a way to collect information and respond to public resentment. However, after the brief loosening of public expression, there followed immersive social media censorship and arrests of ordinary people and citizen journalists. At least 897 people were penalized for online speech about COVID-19, and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was handed down a four-year prison sentence for her reporting on the pandemic.
China’s security state and people’s daily life
The governance of the state is expressed through the intertwined relational networks that operate at the most molecular level of everyday life. For instance, schools, neighbourhoods, as well as private and public companies, are all required to set up a party branch, which ultimately links back to the formal bureaucracy and is responsible for overseeing and reporting to the upper-level party. In addition, a ‘patriotic education system’ is another important rhetorical device to buttress the ideological legitimacy of the state in people’s daily life.
In the past decade, rapid digitalisation has enabled the government to build security infrastructure to regulate the public sphere and increase surveillance. In the 2000s, the newly available internet enabled people to enjoy a certain level of freedom and autonomy by self-publishing on social media. This led the state to shift from attempting to direct the whole public sphere to managing and controlling discourse. Around 2010, the Chinese government initiated the all-round development of China’s security state; for the first time its domestic security budget surpassed military spending. Over subsequent years, the government implemented a real-name registration system for all mobile phone users and social media accounts, introduced an ID-based ticket booking system for public transport, and constructed an extensive network of CCTV cameras, which was soon connected to facial recognition technology.
In 2013, an internal document entitled ‘Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere’ was circulated by the state leadership. The document identified universal values, freedom of the press on the internet, and civil society as major political ‘perils’ that the Party should be on guard against. A year later, the government formed the ‘Central National Security Commission (CNSC)’ in response to the internal and external ‘double pressures’ identified in its documents alongside other factors as a threat to political stability. The CNSC was directly chaired by Xi and developed an ‘overall national security outlook’, which covers politics, territory, military, economy, culture, society, science and technology, information, ecology, nuclear and natural resources.
Around the same time, the crackdown on media and civil society began to intensify. Since 2013, the government has tightened its censorship of mainstream media, arrested investigative reporters and constrained public discussion. In early 2015, a group of five Chinese feminists were detained in Beijing for planning a protest against sexual harassment. In July 2015, the Chinese government launched a nationwide campaign in which it jailed over 100 human rights lawyers and activists and in December, five labour activists were arrested for allegedly ‘disturbing public order’. There have since been numerous waves of repression against every part of civil society. In 2019, when the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in Hong Kong began, the government conducted a particularly harsh crackdown, arresting more than 10,000 people, and implementing the National Security Law to further break up the movement. For more detail about movements in Hong Kong, see the section ‘Social movements in China’.
Terror capitalism and dispossession of Uyghurs
The Chinese government has constructed a digital enclosure and mass internment system in Xinjiang, the Uyghur autonomous region in northwest China, to control the dissent that has resulted in large part from expanding the capitalist frontier and land dispossession. The technology-enabled entrapment of at least one million ethnic Uighurs illustrates how China’s security state and mass surveillance systems operate.
In the 1990s, the Chinese government expanded its capitalist frontier by encouraging companies and migrants to move to Xinjiang to extract natural resources and extend infrastructure. This led to land dispossession and antagonism between the local population and the new settlers. In the 2010s, with the arrival of 3G networks and digital media, migrant workers in the city used smartphones to find jobs and discuss topics including religion. This not only enabled a revival of Islamic piety and but also allowed for increased connection with the larger Muslim world. Due to the lack of language-recognition technology, voice memos sent in Uygur through social media apps were outside the state-managed public sphere. The combination of these trends made the Chinese state nervous.
Chinese counterterrorism was also inspired by post-9/11 Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programmes in the United States and Europe and an emerging global discourse around Islamophobia and counter terrorism. As early as 2001 China had started to describe Uyghurs as a population prone to terrorism, but restrictions on the public sphere took off after 2010. In 2013, the Chinese media started to publish numerous stories about cases of terrorism involving Uyghurs attacking Han civilians in Beijing and Kunming, increasing public support for some kind of action to control the Uyghurs.
In 2014, the state declared the ‘Peoples War on Terror’, marking a shift towards preventative policing through surveillance and education systems. The government began to build a new security apparatus to enforce a new wave of racialisation and dispossession of Uyghurs. Apart from the massive deployment of police and lower-level police contractors, the government largely relied on a digital enclosure system to restrict privacy and assert state control of the internet and the Uyghur population. Up to 1,400 private technology firms worked with the Chinese government to develop tools to automate the transcription, translation and detection of Uyghur speech. A ‘counter-terrorism sword’ – software used by police to download all the contents of Xinjiang residents’ phones – was one of the tools the Chinese authorities used extensively to scan people’s digital activities. Through these scans, at least 100,000 people were determined to have committed newly defined criminal activities, such as using a VPN or WhatsApp. Many of them ended up being locked up in internment camps and/or were forced to work in associated factories. In December 2019, the governor of the region announced that all ‘trainees’ had graduated. However, investigations revealed that the government continued to build new detention facilities or renamed ‘training centres’ as ‘detention facilities’, now intended to detain people prior to their trials. As mapped by the Xinjiang Data Project, there are currently around 380 suspected detention facilities in the region. Darren Byler described the process as a shift from mass internment to coerced labour and mass imprisonment.
The mass internment in Xinjiang not only reveals the operation of a security state in China, but also illuminates how terror capitalism in the country is part of global surveillance capitalism. The security apparatus in China is interconnected with American institutions, military programs, and private companies. For example, the US Army has funded joint research with Chinese AI companies which are involved in building the security apparatus in Xinjiang. So, while the Chinese government outsources its policing duties to private and state-owned technology companies to enhance the state’s surveillance capacities, the ‘Public–Private Partnership’ (PPP) creates a space for private industries to expand their market share rapidly and improve their AI capacities through data harvesting and the construction of new analytic tools. Moreover, there is also a racialised component, where difference is accentuated in order to exploit people. In Xinjiang, ethnic Uyghurs have been labelled as terrorists and criminals based on their ethnic status, and their social existence has been systematically undermined through surveillance and indoctrination camps. A similar logic has worked in many places around the world, manipulating the abstract fears of the protected and creating entire groups of ‘suspect communities’ considered to pose a risk.
Rebecca Karl, Professor of History at New York University
Darren Byler, Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University
Yangyang Cheng, Research Scholar in Law and Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, where her research focuses on the ethics and governance of science and US–China relations.
Au Loong-Yu, labour activist
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