The Rise of the Chinese Urban Militia

The Chinese government juggernaut does not move swiftly, but it moves as quickly as it needs to in order to enforce social order and ensure its own survival. That is the case in its response to rising civil unrest throughout the country.
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In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, military officers stand onboard China's aircraft carrier "Liaoning" in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. China formally entered its first aircraft carrier into service on Tuesday, underscoring its ambitions to be a leading Asian naval power, although the ship is not expected to carry a full complement of planes or be ready for combat for some time. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming) NO SALES
In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, military officers stand onboard China's aircraft carrier "Liaoning" in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. China formally entered its first aircraft carrier into service on Tuesday, underscoring its ambitions to be a leading Asian naval power, although the ship is not expected to carry a full complement of planes or be ready for combat for some time. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming) NO SALES

A number of China analysts are predicting the collapse of the Chinese communism system, based on Beijing's apparent impotence in response to thousands of protests across the country. Those who judge Chinese society by Western conceptions of civil ideals and political upheaval are liable to overlook the Chinese Communist Party's (CCPs) effectiveness in self-preservation. The Chinese government juggernaut does not move swiftly, but it moves as quickly as it needs to in order to enforce social order and ensure its own survival. That is the case in its response to rising civil unrest throughout the country.

Last year's protest in Wukan village in Guangdong province, along with the conciliatory reaction of the governance system to local grievances, looked on the surface like a major step down the path to political reform. However, the formation of an urban militia in Wukan this August is the newest incarnation of a venerable approach to population control and social management. The urban militia is part of Chinese revolutionary history. Since 1945, when civilians served as part-time replacements for the Red Army, volunteers were introduced to guerrilla warfare, social stability operations, and communist propaganda. Through the creation of the urban militia, China demonstrated its capacity to manage vast numbers of avid defenders of the CCP through military organization.

Although one of the militias' main functions was originally to mobilize against foreign invaders, these pseudo-military units have been transformed to counter social unrest. Indeed, that has been their function in the recent past, especially during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, where they defended public sites from nearly 100,000 protestors.

The point that officials in Wukan appear to be making with the creation of the urban militia is that the militias can play a political role by undertaking city patrols, guarding infrastructure, maintaining discipline, educating the public in communist principles, conducting surveillance, and "preventing bad elements." Wukan's leadership is creative in this regard, but it may have overlooked the fact that the highly public nature of the militias makes them a threat to central authority. As in the 1970s, the urban militias in major cities are vulnerable to manipulation between the CCP and the military establishment, who at times jostle for power. Furthermore, any urban militia will certainly require oversight from Beijing, either directly or indirectly, so that state interests supersede those of local elites in Chinese power dynamics.

This could make the militia in Wukan constitutionally problematic, because it implies a certain degree of provincial autonomy from Beijing. Much of the decision-making coming out of the Wukan provincial government after the uprising has been unorthodox. The end of the protests came when local officials agreed to a mediated settlement with local workers, with a promise to reorganize local municipal leadership to curb corruption. Workers were granted an elected representative to advocate their interests from within the local government. These conciliatory gestures were efforts to halt the spread of further uprisings, which initially began in response to valid grievances, such as land seizure reimbursements, pension payments, and lost jobs.

Many within China were highly impressed by the conduct of the movement's leadership. At one point, one protest organizer, Zhuang Liehong, kowtowed repeatedly in front of the widow of a fallen comrade until his forehead bled. The optics of this kind of selfless modesty among local workers agitating against local corruption is something to which many people in similar Chinese cities can relate and -- for the Chinese government -- represents a potentially dangerous threat.

Swelling popular resentment and creative strategies to counter it are nothing new in Wukan. In the early 2000s, the local government embarked on a pilot program to train municipal workers to address "social management" in volatile urban areas. These units, called chengguan, were never legally formalized and had no clear jurisdictional limits or rules of engagement. This resulted in progressively violent responses from local authorities, using chengguan to resolve local disputes and moving their focus from handling large protests to strong-arming local workers.

Regardless of their official or unofficial function as either peacekeepers or hired muscle, the concept of urban militia is a marked policy shift from an unchallenged central government monopoly on violence to provincial responsibility for social stability. While leading Chinese legal scholars hail the conciliatory treatment of the protest as a step in the right direction, Wukan's security apparatus is reconstructing itself and will likely be more effective the next time around.

The Bandwagon Theory

The Chinese government is paranoid about unrest spinning out of its control, as well it should be, given how revolution and political collapse tends to unfold. This is partially due to the spontaneous character of collective decision-making. At the beginning of mass unrest, those on the street are likely the most energized, fervent, and committed to their cause, but, as we have seen during the spread of protests in the Middle East and North Africa, governments fall only when the silent majority can be persuaded to join the cause. This is because those who sit on the fence are naturally risk-averse and prefer to withhold their support until the last minute, then bandwagon so as not to be left vulnerable when the government finally collapses. The result becomes a final rush of momentum that eventually overtakes whatever resistance remains. The reality is that many revolutions begin months or years prior to the final collapse.

For China, the main fear is that the constant occurrence (roughly 250 per day) of small to medium sized protests (around 500 to 1500 people) will lead to a revolution comparable to the Cultural Revolution of 1965-1968. Given the large number of protests, it is imperative, in the government's view, to divide and isolate the protestors from their counterparts in neighboring villages if it wishes to prevent them from allying with each other. Central coordination of security in the provinces allows Beijing to get ahead of any larger protest movements before they potentially overwhelm the state's ability to subdue them. The creation of Wukan's urban militia may strengthen local security and promote stability, but it also erodes Beijing's ability to handle bigger social uprisings by hindering a coordinated effort from a broader perspective.

This leaves provincial officials in a bit of a quandary. Should they maintain the same strategies for handling unrest or seek new creative methods amidst a growing domestic threat? In December 2011, Zhou Yongkang, a member of the politburo, challenged Chinese municipal and provincial leaders to do more to improve "social management," implying that provinces need to do more while not appearing autonomous. Exactly how provinces will strike that balance is still unknown.

The Threat from Chinese Protests

Perhaps the most sobering factor in analyzing Chinese unrest is the sheer volume of protests. The Ministry of Public Security reported that "mass incidents" -- as they are referred to officially -- rose from 8,700 in 1993 to 32,000 in 1999 and still further to 50,000 in 2002. Today, that figure is estimated at around 100,000 per year. The exact nature of each protest is difficult to determine, but the majority are thought to be localized, isolated, unorganized, and peaceful activist demonstrations for specific demands -- such as pension payments, better working conditions, ending corruption, and stopping land seizures -- all linked to economic externalities and the erosion of the promise of advancement through hard work.

Many in China anticipate a rise in social unrest, resulting from a variety of factors that seem to have culminated this year. It is clear at this point that the downturn in the global economy will hit China's annual growth figures hard and that projections for output will be modest. Chinese authorities are doing everything possible to maintain future purchases, but demands for freer, more market-oriented economic policies, which will increase more foreign direct investment, will make China vulnerable to future export shocks. Since Europe is the largest importer of Chinese goods, the European debt crisis has heavily impacted many state-run enterprises. China's northeast provinces are some of the worst hit, due to their focus on raw materials and steel. Liaoning province alone accounted for one-fifth of all protests in 1999, and between 2000 and 2002 -- during the end of the Asian financial crisis - it experienced 290 demonstrations per month (ten per day).

Most protests in 2011 and this year are thought to be linked to macroeconomic factors, causing dislocation among the working class as factories close or retool to produce more technologically advanced products. The CCP's traditional emphasis on providing for workers is now being challenged by China's new, rich urban middle and upper class, which benefited from more market-oriented policies. The CCP's reliance on growth (as a percentage of GDP) has become the basis of its legitimacy and will diminish as the economy slows.

Later this month, China will proceed with another once-per-decade leadership transition in the shadow of huge political scandals involving senior leadership. Many expect China's new leaders to cater to private enterprise, but it is unclear how this will affect China's state-run businesses and factories. If handled improperly, allegations of corruption, extortion, and embezzling of workers' benefits may boil over. In anticipation, Hebei province alone will field more than 15,000 officials across 5,000 villages, in an effort to curb unrest.

China could expand its capability to handle protests if it had adequate institutions to channel grievances through the legal system. But when workers become convinced that corruption is to blame for lost pension checks or land seizure reimbursements that never arrive, they have every reason to take to the streets, and do not hesitate to do so. Technology provides a catalyst. Growing assertiveness in Chinese society has combined with social technology to create a feedback mechanism that accelerates collective organization (as seen during the Arab Awakening). Protests are getting larger, last longer, and have better-organized leadership. They are also getting more aggressive, tactically illusive, and more confrontational with police.

In the future, the formulaic strategy of quelling the uprising with force, arresting leaders, and then addressing the source of the outrage, will need to change. The current thinking is that force cannot reduce the number of protests over the long term. This leads to firms buying off the demonstrators in an effort to keep them out of news coverage. The cost of this strategy is going up as protests increase. In 2011, China spent more on internal police than on its armed forces (624 billion Yuan versus 601 billion), all in response to "mass incidents." Domestic security funding also allowed the People's Liberation Army to create the Stability Preservation Office in 2006, which expanded into potentially volatile localities. Its strategy is reminiscent of Wukan's urban militia; it enlists volunteers to maintain surveillance on every local level.


The Chinese government has found a long-term strategy against rising social unrest, but their level of confidence in fielding local volunteers remains unseen. Regardless, urban militia will allow domestic security officials to stop merely reacting to protests and begin anticipating and countering them before news of them becomes public. The major policy shift from containment and capitulation is necessary, since the former actions would erode legitimacy. Questions still remain about the effectiveness of the militia against large volatile protests; the tactical environment requires a very well-trained, disciplined, and professional police force that can take orders and maintain self-control.

Whatever the outcome, the CCP will not go down without a fight. It is debatable whether the rising tide of protest will in the end result in the collapse of the CCP and existing Chinese government. Our best guess is that the CCP 'gets it' and is in the process of implementing a gradual change in how state-owned enterprises treat workers and react to global events that impact their ability to operate effectively and profitably. The rise of the urban militia is a perfect example of how the CCP is adapting to new global realities.

The CCP is indeed every bit a business as much as a political organization. In the end, it will do whatever is necessary to preserve its power and protect its interests. In that regard, it is vulnerable to succumbing to radical political change, should enough of the silent majority choose to rise up against it. The job of the urban militia is to ensure that does not happen.

*Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". John Margeson is a research analyst with CRS in New York City.


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