Among the outcomes of the recently concluded 18th Party Congress in China was a subtle but important institutional shift: the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s security forces is now no longer in the Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s seat of power consisting of seven men. But he will instead be a member of the Politburo, a body of 25 cadres that wields less unchecked authority.
For nearly a decade the agency that oversees almost all aspects of law enforcement, called the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee (PLAC), was essentially a personal fiefdom controlled by men loyal to former regime leader Jiang Zemin. This included from 2002 Luo Gan, his trusted lieutenant, and from 2007 Zhou Yongkang, a grim-faced Jiang loyalist with deep ties to the oil industry.
The new leader is Meng Jianzhu, the current secretary of the public security bureau and a recent inductee to the Politburo.
The matter of who controls the PLAC is a crucial one for the CCP. The Party spends $110 billion on domestic security, more than the amount spent on national defense. The coercive apparatus managed by the committee is massive: it includes a system of courts, labor camps of various kinds, jails, detention centers, brainwashing centers, the prosecutor’s office, the police, a number of secret police forces, and the 1.5 million-strong People’s Armed Police—effectively a standing army.
Without oversight, whoever controls the security forces is able to play a decisive role in influencing domestic policy, as well as cultivate an army of client cadres who benefit from the enormous disbursal of funds overseen by the PLAC. Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist that escaped from house arrest earlier this year, reported much cash being handed out to the people who watched over him, many of whom had ties to local officials.
The fact that the PLAC will now be controlled from the Politburo is a product of the political struggle between Hu Jintao’s leadership and the faction of former leader Jiang Zemin, which controlled the agency for so long, according to analysts of China’s blackbox politics.
Jiang needed to keep the security forces in his hands after initiating the persecution of Falun Gong in 1999, an unprecedented security campaign that has required massive, sustained investment of state resources that many saw as needless and wasteful. Countless yuan have been spent in prosecuting the campaign, including the construction and expansion of labor camp and brainwashing facilities, the development of highly advanced surveillance systems, and mass mobilization of security personnel across the country to enforce the regime’s edict.
When Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, Jiang expanded the Standing Committee by two places, and inserted Luo Gan and Li Changchun, respectively heads of the PLAC and the Propaganda Ministry, to ensure that the campaign would not be disrupted. Zhou Yongkang took over from Luo Gan. But with the events of this year, there was no one else to give the job to.
Once Bo Xilai was gone there was nobody qualified to be in the Standing Committee with the experience or credit to take over Zhou Yongkang’s position.
“Bo Xilai was their candidate for heading the PLAC,” said Xia Yiyang, senior director of policy and research at the Human Rights Law Foundation, based in Washington, in a telephone interview. “Once Bo Xilai was gone there was nobody qualified to be in the Standing Committee with the experience or credit to take over Zhou Yongkang’s position.”
The plan to give the job to Bo broke apart in spectacular fashion beginning in February of this year, when Wang Lijun, Bo’s chief of police, defected to the U.S. Consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Previously there had been what analysts called two centers of power within the regime, with Zhou Yongkang controlling the PLAC outside the effective oversight of regime leader Hu Jintao. That was a dynamic engineered by Jiang on his way out, where significant authority over portfolios was devolved to individual members of the Standing Committee.
The recent shift means that the PLAC is no longer a plaything of Jiang Zemin, but is now firmly within the control of the Party proper, and the idea of there being “two cores” within the Party, one being the PLAC, is no more.
“It’s about consolidating one-Party rule, so they can use the PLAC to oppress the people more effectively, and not have it get involved in intra-Party struggle,” said Zhong Weiguang, a scholar of totalitarianism based in Germany.
“But we must be clear: there will be no change in how they use the PLAC to persecute the Chinese people,” he added.
The role of the PLAC, and the difficulties inherent in any major reassessment of its role in social control, means that little change is actually possible, despite the lowering of the agency’s profile, according to Xia, the researcher.
“The problem is that this notion of ‘maintaining stability’ is the Party’s policy. This is the only way they can maintain their power,” he said. The term “maintaining stability” is a catchall for a range of coercive techniques by the regime to repress dissent, ranging from Internet censorship at the light end, to incarceration and electric-baton torture at the harsh end.
“This is a warzone. It’s fighting. The CCP is fighting against the whole nation. There are so many issues that they cannot handle in a regular way, like other countries,” said Xia. “Other countries can manage social problems, but there’s no management here. They have to use power to crack down.”
The stability maintenance system, at least in its current form, owes in large part to the innovations in how coercion was used against Falun Gong practitioners. The techniques used against Falun Gong were then reapplied to the wider population, according to a paper that Xia presented to the European Parliament in 2011.
But given that the current, sophisticated system of violence has grown over the last 13 or more years, in lockstep with China’s rapid economic development and the social dislocations that unbalanced economic growth has brought, finding a new means for addressing problems will be impossible, Xia believes.
“They need something to take the place of the current system if they no longer want to use it, but that would mean the whole society would have to change. That means political reform. They won’t take that road. So they have to use this system.”
The ubiquity with which the PLAC’s power invades the daily lives of Chinese citizens could not have been on clearer display than in the period leading up to the 18th Party Congress, which concluded last week in Beijing. Kites and pigeons were banned from the skies, vegetable knives were removed from shelves, thousands of dissidents were detained or driven out of Beijing, stifling Internet restrictions were put in place, and taxis were made to lock their rear windows, in case riders planned on tossing out political leaflets.
“This time for the 18th Party Congress they used about 1.4 million security personnel,” said Xia. “How do you imagine that they would need this massive security force? It means they consider the whole nation their enemy.”
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Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing any longer to participate in the persecution. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.