Could China Be Spending More on Stamping Out Dissent Than Funding Its Military?

Could China Be Spending More on Stamping Out Dissent Than Funding Its Military?
A petitioner is detained by police outside the Chaoyang Hospital where a group of people are protesting about medical and land grab issues in Beijing on May 8, 2012. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages)
Annie Wu
The Chinese Communist Party is playing a numbers game.
On March 5, China’s Ministry of Finance unveiled the country’s 2018 budget. China’s military spending would get an 8.1 percent boost to 1.107 trillion yuan (about $175 billion), while “public safety expenditures” will grow 5.5 percent to over 191.91 billion yuan ($30 billion).
Those expenses are known as “stability maintenance”—the oft-used Chinese term for the authorities’ efforts to crack down on dissent, from arresting petitioners who travel to Beijing to address their grievances, to detaining human rights activists and censoring opinions that criticize the Party. More often than catching criminals, police use advanced technology and other resources to surveil and catch dissidents.

During major political meetings and other “sensitive” times, the authorities double down, in an effort to stamp out anything that sullies the Party’s image. Just recently, as the Party’s rubber-stamp legislature convened on March 5 for a two-week session to pass decisions made by the top leadership, Beijing has received a record number of petitioners, who report mass arrests and detention. The capital is under tight security as people are searched and questioned at major metro stations and thoroughfares.

A man holds a protest banner outside the central petition office in Beijing on March 2, 2016. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds a protest banner outside the central petition office in Beijing on March 2, 2016. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
In previous years, China had consistently spent more money fighting its own citizens than building up its national defense.  
Prior to 2014, the Ministry of Finance published numbers for both central and local government spending. Based on those aggregate numbers, the budget for “maintaining stability” exceeded the military budget every year from 2011 to 2013.
According to the state-affiliated newspaper Chinese Social Sciences Today, the total “public safety” expenses first exceeded military spending in 2009, at 601 billion yuan ($95 billion) compared to 514 billion yuan ($81 billion). The same trend followed from 2011 to 2013.
The following year, the Ministry of Finance stopped including an appendix with local spending numbers. Since then, domestic security spending has remained opaque.  
Many observers believe the Chinese regime underreports its budget figures. In a recent interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Bruce Lui, senior lecturer in the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University, estimated that the real domestic security budget could total more than a trillion yuan ($158 billion)—comparable to the newly announced military budget.
Petitioners and human rights activists tell stories of how local authorities profit off arrests and harassment. Xu Qin of the China Human Rights Observer group told The Epoch Times in a September 2017 interview how police made money from monitoring her—from spying on her phone calls to constantly following her. “In some areas, there aren’t as many petitioners, so the local government will hype up the scope of the situation in order to request more ‘monitoring expenses’ from the higher-ups,” she said.
In a March 6 RFA article, a petitioner from Jiangsu Province told the radio station about a relative of a local official, who established a security firm that profited from arresting petitioners. The official would request ‘stability maintenance’ fees from Party authorities and split up the money with his relative.
Another petitioner from Wuxi City explained how a local security firm promised 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (about $1,100 to $1,200) compensation for every petitioner taken into custody.
One petitioner from Wuhan City explained that officials in his hometown collude with their friends and relatives to open security firms in Beijing. After a petitioner is arrested in Beijing, they earn a sum. When the petitioner is sent back to his or her hometown and detained, they earn another sum, forming a profit chain.
Li Xi and Xiao Lusheng contributed to this report.
Annie Wu joined the full-time staff at the Epoch Times in July 2014. That year, she won a first-place award from the New York Press Association for best spot news coverage. She is a graduate of Barnard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.