ENDLESS ‘WAR’ WITHIN CHINESE SOCIETY
Image by Airam Dato-on (Courtesy of Pexels)
By Shaw Xiao, Ludwig Loh, and Quin Tsing Xiao
In China, the concept of “pocket crime” (口袋罪, koudaizui) has always been controversial. It refers to those charges based on ambiguously written and arbitrarily applied Chinese laws pertaining to safety, security, and public order. Enforcement officers, therefore, always have the option of arbitrary arrest in their pockets. The pocket crime is not a new concept, but one built on long traditions of statecraft in which authorities could deem any unreasonable behavior a crime. It originally draws on ancient Chinese political philosophy, in which both Confucianism and Legalism view the law as a tool for asserting order and not for guaranteeing liberty. For examples, the Confucian philosopher Zuo Qiuming argued that “laws should be unknowable, and authority should be unpredictable” (刑不可知，则威不可测, xingbukezhi, zeweibukece), while the Legalist Shang Yang maintained that there is no better way to stop evil than to severely punish it (禁奸止过, 莫若重刑, jinjianzhiguo, moruozhongxing).
"The pocket crime is not a new concept, but one built on long traditions of statecraft in which authorities could deem any unreasonable behavior a crime."
In modern times, starting in the first three decades of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule (1949-1979), pocket crime was used to target those who were labeled detrimental to the socialist regime. The most representative example was the so-called “counterrevolutionary crime” (反革命罪, fangemingzui). The CCP introduced this accusation in the 1950s with the aim of eradicating the residual power of its biggest enemy at the time, the Kuomintang. However, instead of abolishing this crime after the CCP established stable rule, they intensified it to eliminate so-called “internal enemies.” During the CCP’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), this crime gradually encapsulated individuals deemed as class enemies, including top national leaders. Among the most well-known examples is the former Chairman of the CCP Military Commission, Lin Biao, who initially played a significant role in advancing the Cultural Revolution. However, during his political downfall and his defection to Mongolia, his plane mysteriously crashed, and he himself was subsequently labeled as a so-called counterrevolutionary.
As China entered its reform and opening-up period in 1978, pocket crimes started to focus on hooligans and market speculators through the creation of the “hooligan crime” (流氓罪, liumangzui) and the “speculation crime” (投机倒把罪, toujidaobazui). Unlike the revolutionary era in China, pocket crimes no longer understood criminals as enemies outside the social order, but as destabilizing elements within the social body. Consequently, the role of pocket crimes gradually shifted from a weapon of war to suppress class enemies and other enemies of the state to a tool to quell social unrest. The pocket crime fetishized social order, with dramatic consequences for wide sectors of the population.
The Sun Zhigang case, which caused a sensation in China in 2003, exemplified the brutality and ruthlessness of this indiscriminate approach to governance. Sun Zhigang was a college student who had come to Shenzhen in search of job opportunities. However, he was forcibly arrested and detained by the police merely because he had not obtained a temporary residence permit. He was ultimately subjected to abuse and beaten to death (Nesossi 2008). Similarly, the Tang Hui case in Yongzhou, Hunan, also caused a sensation. Tang Hui was a single mother whose daughter was raped and forced into prostitution while in the fifth grade of elementary school. During her appeal for justice on her daughter’s behalf, the police detained her on charges of disturbing social order and was ultimately sentenced to one and a half years of labor education (BBC 2013).
Pocket Crimes under China’s New Authoritarianism
The pocket crime trend underwent another dramatic shift under the leadership of President Xi Jinping since he took office in 2014. “Picking quarrels and provoking troubles” (寻事滋事, xunshizishi) has become the new representative of pocket crimes. While China’s official approach has always involved pocket crimes as a governance tool, there has been a significant shift in their use against targeted individuals between Deng Xiaoping’s administration (1978-1989) and today. In Xi's era, China has reverted to a stance reminiscent of the Mao era, viewing dissenters as enemies who must be eradicated, rather than simply perceiving them as troublemakers or rogues who merely disrupt social order. The latter, at least, leaves room for negotiation. In contrast, the legal interpretation of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” encompasses any behavior deemed by those in power to be detrimental to political rule, whether it is a street brawl or a political protest.
The white paper movement in Shanghai in 2022 serves as an example. This movement aims to commemorate the lives lost when people could not escape burning buildings due to strict epidemic controls in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Numerous people gathered on Urumqi Road in Shanghai to protest the government’s harsh lockdown policies. The movement originated in a Soviet political joke, well known in Chinese society, that subsequently emerged as a form of protest in recent political movements. In the joke, police arrested people with white paper in their hands, indicating that they knew their intentions to resist even if they said nothing.
In China, as an act of resistance, people take to the streets holding up white paper to protest the illegality of speaking out against the CCP. This protest tactic has been observed in various political movements, starting from the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong in 2019-2020. The Chinese government fiercely repressed the white paper movement with many participants arrested and charged with picking quarrels and provoking troubles. These arrests led to their subsequent disappearance. Even lawyers were denied access to them (Made in China Editors 2023).
"The ubiquity of policing and pervasive paranoia lead to a widespread conspiracy mentality, with everyone accusing one another in a veritable war of all against all."
Furthermore, picking quarrels and provoking troubles is often just the beginning of repression. If the crackdown becomes extreme, political dissidents are likely to be identified as a national security threat, thereby facing even harsher penalties. Fang Ran, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Hong Kong, was surveilled and detained by the National Security Bureau in 2021 for subverting China’s state power. He has since lost contact with the outside world (Lau & Lau 2021). Arbitrary prosecution allows the Chinese government to control political opposition and even prevent it from forming in the first place. Hence, the law becomes a weapon in its unjust war against citizens and society, supposedly to maintain national security.
The White Civil War in China
There is no sensationalism in concluding that we must speak of a permanent war in China. Recall the events of Hong Kong four years ago. In the summer of 2019, the local authority declared a war against the protesters almost as soon as the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement began. When the indignant protesters occupied the legislative council, a speaker of the Chinese government bluntly referred to them as a “mob” and even “terrorists.” According to the officer, China holds zero-tolerance towards separatism; hence, the only choice is a war that aims at complete destruction of the protestors who are now deemed as the most deplorable of China’s enemies.
Without a doubt, pocket crimes are key weapons in this enduring war that the Chinese government is waging against its own citizens. A paradigm of politics is now materializing, wherein the politics itself is nothing but a permanent war. Such a permanent war can no longer be deemed a war in the classic sense of two enemy states opposing each other on the battlefield. Instead, it is a war waged by a state aspiring to totalitarian control over its perceived enemies within, aiming to identify and eradicate all potential risks that may threaten the status quo.
It should be emphasized that everyone is a potential enemy. To be an enemy is to be a subject of governance, just as this war of pacification is a technique of governance, both made possible with the reapplication of the pocket crime. This facilitates the CCP’s stringent surveillance measures that not only target specific groups for repression but also extends to monitoring and intimidating every corner of society. Pocket crimes thus construct a terrifying social atmosphere where anyone could potentially be convicted for any behavior that violates the will of the rulers. This atmosphere further strengthens the citizens’ psychological fear and submissiveness towards the regime. The ubiquity of policing and pervasive paranoia lead to a widespread conspiracy mentality, with everyone accusing one another in a veritable war of all against all.
BBC. April 12, 2013. “China labour camp victim sues local authorities”. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22119622
Lau, Mimi, and Jack Lau. 2011. “Fang Ran: the haunting case of the Hong Kong labour rights researcher held in China”. South China Morning Post. September 11th. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3148386/fang-ran-haunting-case-hong-kong-labour-rights-researcher-held-china
Made in China, Editors. 17 April 2023. “Lest We Forget: The Disappeared Women of 2023.” Made in China. https://madeinchinajournal.com/2023/04/17/lest-we-forget-the-disappeared- women-of-2023/
Shaw Xiao’s research interests include critical criminology, migrant studies, and Chinese sociology. He conducted some studies about borderline female offenders, and he has some field fieldwork experience on such Chinese detention centers.
Ludwig Loh studies critical theory and French theory. During Loh’s spare time, he likes to install some interesting art assemblies in Shanghai that demonstrate the incongruity of the body, space, and capitalist ideology to the public.
Quin Tsing Xiao studies radical Internet in UK. In his research, he hopes to reveal the power of human agency in opposition to political control and economic platforms.
Cite this article as: Xiao, Shaw, Ludwig Loh, and Quin Tsing Xiao. “Endless ‘War’ within Chinese Society.” August 2023. Today's Totalitarianism. https://todaystotalitarianism.com/china-endless-war