Lynette Ong headshot and the cover of her book Outsourcing Repression
Munk School, Asian Institute

Dark delegation: Lynette Ong’s multiple award-winning book examines the workings of repression in China

When Xi Jinping became president of China in 2012, he began promoting urbanization as an engine of economic growth. Learning this, Lynette Ong knew she’d found the subject for her next book.

Ong has been conducting research on the ground in China since the 1990s, with a particular interest in how the country’s political and economic systems interact. She’s a professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Political Science, jointly appointed to the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. One of her previous books — Prosper or Perish — explored credit and fiscal systems in rural China.

But when she began researching urbanization in the country, she was taken aback at what she found.

Chinese cities were indeed growing at a rapid pace: farmland on the outskirts of municipalities such as Beijing and Shanghai were being steadily replaced by new construction. But the human price was high. Houses were being demolished to make way for high-rises and their owners evicted — victims of intimidation, beating and arson carried out by thugs and gangsters.

“I thought, what is going on? I didn’t think gangsterism existed in China,” Ong says, explaining that the all-powerful nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would seemingly never allow for such activity. “I started talking to western scholars as well as China scholars about it and people would dismiss me, saying the problem was non-existent. But I was curious enough to want to investigate it.”

What Ong learned, over the course of ten years and some 200 interviews, was that gangsters not only existed in China: they were in fact instrumental in helping the government to meet its urbanization targets.

She also found that after Xi’s 2018 “Sweeping Black” campaign — aimed at rooting out gangsterism in the country — housing evictions and expropriations continued, this time thanks to the insidious persuasion of paid and unpaid community members instead of the threats of criminals.

Ong’s findings are documented in her new book, Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China. As of this writing, the book has received four major awards and has been hailed as an essential contribution to our understanding of Chinese politics, economics and human rights.

“I wanted to write about state repression,” Ong says. “But in China, it’s not the state that’s doing the job: it’s people the state hires to do the job. They pay people instead of sending their own police to do it, because having non-state actors doing it provides them with an opportunity for plausible deniability. If things go wrong, they can blame someone else.”

And things have gone wrong. Farmers have been forced into cramped high-rises and been deprived of their livelihoods. Suicide and divorces have risen dramatically. “The social fabric in the country,” Ong says, “has been torn apart in these communities because of forced relocation.”

I learned so much about why people would throw away everything they have to protest an authoritarian regime. I spent a lot of time with them, and I felt I had to get their story right. I spent 20 years in school trying to understand how social movements work, but they just intuitively get it. My admiration for them is genuine.

Ong points out that eviction through intimidation was in place well before Xi came to power. In the book, she writes about how the Kuomintang, predecessor to the CCP, deployed the infamous Green Gang to kill communists. “My contribution has been in terms of contextualization,” she continues. “I show how this system has served the CCP very well. In the book, I also compare the way China uses gangsters with the way they are used by governments in South Korea, India and Russia. I ask why this system works better in China, and the answer is that the CCP is very strong. They make sure the people they hire are under their control.”

Yet no government has full control over how people respond, and some time ago profound unhappiness started giving rise to protests — ones that attracted the world’s attention. Hence Xi’s Sweeping Black campaign, and the subject of Outsourcing Repression’s second half: achieving expropriation through what’s known as “harmonious demolition.”

“With this method, you mobilize trusted members of the society to convince people. It’s persuasion as a means of state repression,” Ong says. These community members might say, for example, that new apartment buildings need to be built because the old ones are dilapidated, and the purpose is to accommodate families in need. “You become ostracized if you refuse to comply,” Ong adds. “And this is a very powerful tool in Chinese society, where everything is based on relationships.”

Ong finished her extensive research before the COVID-19 pandemic began. But the recent wave of protests in the wake of China’s zero COVID policy provided empirical proof of her book’s arguments — since China outsourced repression over COVID in much the same way it had over housing demolition.

“For the first two and a half years of zero-COVID, you didn’t see much resistance at all,” she says. Then came the 2022 Shanghai lockdown.

“At the start of the pandemic, people would have their temperature taken five times a day by volunteers and neighbourhood committees – the kind of grassroots brokers who facilitate “harmonious demolition” that I write about in the book. Compliance was very high initially, because of this outsourcing to trusted volunteers. This was outsourcing repression at its best.”

But as the restrictions wore on, cracks began to form. A bus carrying people to a quarantine centre crashed, killing 27. Locked down firefighters were prevented from reaching a building on fire, resulting in more deaths. Unemployed and lacking sufficient food, the people had had enough. The virus mutated and became even more uncontainable.

“So once again, the government started hiring ruffians or any able-bodied person willing to work,” Ong says. Social media featured images of citizens being beaten; the massive protests that followed were powerful enough to put an end to zero-COVID.

Ong dedicates Outsourcing Repression to “all those who received the short end of the stick in the state’s ambitious scheme.” A stunningly courageous researcher herself, she is in awe of the ordinary citizens who allowed her into their lives while she was researching the book.

“I learned so much about why people would throw away everything they have to protest an authoritarian regime,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with them, and I felt I had to get their story right. I spent 20 years in school trying to understand how social movements work, but they just intuitively get it. My admiration for them is genuine.