CCS Noon Lecture Series. "Contracting out Violence: Patron-Client Relationship between the Government and Thugs in China"
Thuggery, gangsterism, and dark societies (hei shehui) are on the rise in China. They are increasingly recruited by the government as an extralegal coercive force, carrying out violent actions on “uncooperative” citizens. Thugs are frequently hired by local governments to pressurize and bulldoze ‘nail households’ using coercive force in order to clear land for urban development. Land-related protests have become the primary cause of social unrest. Gangsters are also often associated with the infamous city patrol (chengguan), whose brutal crackdown on street vendors often sparks public anger. This paper explores the context in which government-related thuggery and violence have arisen, and its implications for governance and state legitimacy. A symbiosis is formed between the government and thugs where the weak state routinely coopts or enlists the help of thugs or “security companies” to carry out certain policies with coercive force, and the thugs engage in such activities for a profit. Drawing from Weber’s idea that only a state has legitimate monopoly over violence, the Chinese government has lost its monopoly over violence and its legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens. Such a symbiotic relationship is ultimately detrimental to the state, as it breeds a vicious cycle. As legitimacy erodes, the state needs to progressively recruit thugs to deal with rebellious citizens, and repress popular grievances, which will give rise to further social instability.
Lynette H. Ong is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China (Cornell University Press, 2012). Her publications have appeared in Comparative Politics, China Quarterly, International Political Science Review, Foreign Affairs, Journal of East Asian Studies, Asian Survey and Pacific Affairs. Her opinion pieces have also appeared in the Foreign Affairs, Far Eastern Economic Review, China Economic Review, China Economic Quarterly, East Asia Forum, Asia Sentinel, New Mandala and Asia Times Online. Her theoretical interests are comparative politics, politics of development, political economy of finance and public finance. Her regional interests are primarily China, followed by East and Southeast Asia. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia, and various Chinese dialects. She was An Wang Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies in 2008-09. She received her PhD from the Australian National University.