Over the past two decades, the Chinese domestic security apparatus has expanded dramatically. “Stability maintenance” operations have become a priority for local Chinese authorities. We argue that the birth of these trends dates to the early 1990s, when central Party authorities adopted new governance models that differed dramatically from those that of the 1980s. They increased the bureaucratic rank of public security chiefs within the Party apparatus, expanded the reach of the Party political-legal apparatus into a broader range of governance issues, and altered cadre evaluation standards to increase the sensitivity of local authorities to social protest. We show that the origin of these changes lies in a policy response to the developments of 1989-1991, namely the Tiananmen democracy movement and the collapse of Communist political systems in Eastern Europe. Over the past twenty years, these practices have flowered into an extensive stability maintenance apparatus, where local governance is increasingly oriented around the need to respond to social protest, whether through concession or repression. Chinese authorities now appear to be rethinking these developments, but the direction of reform remains unclear. ...
The past two decades have witnessed increased levels of domestic protest in China, despite a growing economy and rising living standards. While the literature on resistance has flourished, there remains limited scholarship on how China’s coercive institutions have responded to this challenge. We join a rising scholarly interest in coercive institutions in China, but our approach is distinctive in focusing on Party-state leaders and the internal organization of the Chinese bureaucracy.
Beyond China, we also speak to the broader literature on authoritarian regimes. There has been a long tradition in the social sciences that views coercion as the pillar of model nation states. The recent uprisings in the Arab world have again called attention to the dependence of authoritarian regimes on coercive organizations. The loyalty of such organizations is said to explain the survival of the Bahraini monarchy, while the defection of the military contributed to the breakdown of autocratic rule in Tunisia and Egypt. However, our study argues that the response of the authoritarian Chinese regime to the “survival dilemma” goes beyond simply ratcheting up the use of coercion. Chinese authorities have remodeled the internal bureaucratic organization of the Party state apparatus, incentivized local authorities to aggressively respond to citizen protests (whether through repression or concession), and reworked the political-legal apparatus to address citizen grievances in a more flexible and coordinated manner.
Our research is based on both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Quantitatively, we manually constructed a Chinese Political-Legal Leaders Database, covering all national and provincial political-legal committee chairpersons, public security heads, procuratorate presidents, and court presidents from 1978 to 2013. The database includes variables measuring the Party bureaucratic positions concurrently held by these leaders. Qualitatively, we conduct a close reading of government and Party documents (including analyzing the public speeches of Qiao Shi, Party political-legal head during the late 1980s and early 1990s) to explain relevant changes in these bureaucratic practices. The next section details our quantitative data collection methods. The third section offers a descriptive analysis of the rank of political-legal leaders at the national and local levels. The fourth section identifies the early 1990s as a turning point of development in the political-legal apparatus and provides a historical analysis of relevant shifts. The fifth section examines recent developments. The sixth section discusses possible implications of our findings. The last section then concludes with a summary of our findings and broader implications of the study.