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Bank customers protested in Henan, China. Who attacked them?

Research on ‘contractors for hire’ explains the extraordinary attempt to disperse angry crowds who wanted local banks to return their deposits

An image from social media shows men in white shirts dispersing protesters in Zhengzhou, China, on July 10. (Reuters)

Earlier this week, more than a thousand angry customers gathered at the Chinese central bank’s branch in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan province, to protest frozen accounts in the village banks. The protesters hoisted a banner that read, “Opposing the Henan government from colluding with the mafias to violently beat up depositors.”

An unusual message, perhaps — but the banner turned out to be somewhat prescient. An unidentified group of muscular men in white shirts attacked the protesters, dragging them down a flight of steps before hauling them away in vehicles. Uniformed police officers stood by and watched, and eyewitnesses who recorded the proceedings shared the story on social media worldwide.

What do we know about this perhaps surprising pattern of behavior?

Why governments outsource repression

While local governments outsourcing unsavory work, such as protest control, is not uncommon in China, this highly publicized event points to the limitations of “outsourcing repression,” the title of my recently released book. My research explains how Chinese officials hire anonymous “contractors” to carry out coercive acts to minimize citizen resistance — and potential backlash. It’s a strategy that is intended to minimize the costs of protests and accountability typically associated with government repression. But the strategy is effective only if carried out covertly and the “contractors” keep casualties to a minimum.

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In my research on repression in China, I studied how the Chinese government mobilizes outside contractors and neighborhood volunteers, to use a range of low-grade violence as well as nonviolent tactics to get citizens to comply. Who are these hired “contractors,” exactly? My research finds these are loose gangs of individuals who sell their muscle power for a profit. They’re typically people without regular jobs and are not necessarily well-organized mafia group members or trained hit men. Most of the time, these contractors rely on verbal threats, as well as physical actions like shoving and beating people, to intimidate citizens into compliance. It’s rare, however, that deaths result from their violent acts.

In my book, I analyzed more than 2,200 instances of land grabs and housing demolitions in China, collecting the details from the accounts of victims or eyewitnesses, and from local media sources. I wanted to understand how citizens respond to the local government’s deployment of different groups to carry out moves like land grabs. Consistently, my data reveals that outside contractors were less likely to provoke protest compared to when the police, or government or grass-roots officials, were deployed. This is despite the fact that hired contractors were more likely to carry out violent acts than the police or other agents.

Local governments seek plausible deniability

However, it’s noteworthy that in these events, hired contractors are typically deployed on their own, late at night or early in the morning, often in dark alleys, carrying out acts of intimidation out of public view. Their elusive identities allow the hiring authority — typically the local government — plausible deniability, and thus the ability to evade accountability. Hiring contractors to do a dirty job can be an expedient strategy to get things done quickly — without having to bear the consequences most of the time — provided that the hired agents don’t kill or seriously injure people. That would attract widespread attention or generate sympathy from the public.

On rare occasions where conditions deteriorate — if the hired contractors use excessive violence, resulting in deaths, or harm to the elderly or pregnant women, for instance — higher-level officials would likely step in to press for accountability and identify a scapegoat to face up to public pressure. In Zhengzhou this week, Henan government officials announced some concessions, promising to return some of depositors’ funds right away.

What gets local governments in trouble?

In China’s decentralized system, the central government faces pressure to maintain its ruling legitimacy — while local governments are burdened with unfunded central mandates. Thus, outsourcing repression has become a popular and expedient strategy for local or provincial officials to gain citizens’ compliance with policies that are unpopular or appear to lack legitimacy.

Drawing on detailed case studies, I highlight examples of local mayors and political leaders who were removed from their positions and punished by the central government, when exceedingly violent land grabs or housing demolitions resulted in serious casualties — and violence that took place under their watch. These events are rare in relation to the total number of cases when local leaders deployed hired contractors but clearly carry significant implications for the authorities doing the hiring.

Outsourcing repression has become a prevalent strategy used across a wide range of policy areas in China, from urbanization, protest and petition control to enforcement in the past of the one-child policy and collection of illegal taxes. The common element among these situations is the immense pressure local governments face in meeting the central-level targets imposed on them, and the lack of legality or legitimacy of their actions on citizens. A recipe for provoking public outrage, as the case studies in my book suggest, is when hired contractors beat up hapless victims, while the police or other authorities watch. Under those circumstances, plausible deniability — the very advantage this strategy might offer — is denied at the outset. Instead, the outcome may bear the telltale signs of official complicity in criminal behavior.

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Yes, this happens elsewhere

Beyond China, the use of contractors to carry out government coercion conjures up images of the “Battle of the Camel” in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution or the 2019 Yuen Long attack in Hong Kong. Both incidents, like the protests in front of the central bank in Zhengzhou, provoked public wrath because they were carried out in broad daylight under the scrutiny of international media. Of course, this defeats the very purpose of outsourcing repression. Yet, when executed with precision, this can be a powerful autocratic tool to coerce citizen compliance, while minimizing the political backlash.

In this particular incident in Zhengzhou, the burly white-shirted men might have been plainclothes police, though there is no way to confirm their identities. However, since the protesters had previously encountered attacks by unidentified men, they had reasons to anticipate a similar repressive strategy would be used against them.

Lynette H. Ong is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of “Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China” (Oxford University Press, 2022). Follow her on Twitter @onglynette.