Think Tank (4/2023)
Dr Lynette Ong
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Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China
26 Jul 2023
Tiong Wei Jie

RSIS hosted a seminar on “Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China” on 26 July 2023. The seminar was chaired by Dr Stefanie Kam, Assistant Professor at the China Programme, IDSS. The speaker, Dr Lynette Ong, is Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto, and a Senior Fellow at the Asia Society.

In the context of rapid state-led urbanization, Dr Lynette presented on how the Chinese state was able to successfully “outsource” non-state actors to augment “everyday state power” – inducing and coercing compliance out of citizens while minimising popular resistance. She focused on two categories of non-state actors: “thugs for hire” and non-violent brokers. She explained how “thugs-for-hire” are an expedient extension of the state’s formal coercive capacity and how political, social, and economic brokers persuade citizens to comply with state urbanisation policies. She zoomed in on how social brokers, deeply embedded within the local communities, are able to persuade the masses into compliance through non-violent means. Drawing on extensive ethnographic research conducted annually from 2011 to 2019 of ordinary citizens who have experienced land grabs and housing demolition in China, her presentation encourages a reimagination of the contours of Chinese state power by revealing a counterintuitive form of state repression that minimises backlash.

Dr Lynette’s presentation was followed by a vibrant Q&A session where members of the audience; comprising media representatives, academics, students, and members of the public; fielded questions pertaining to her research. Some discussion topics include: the state’s success in minimising protests, how the state could reduce potential liabilities associated with hiring agents, and the implications of her research.  Additionally, the future of the “thugs-for-hire” phenomenon were discussed in the context of Xi Jinping’s emphasis on “sweeping black” and central-local government relations. The impact on China’s societal fabric as a result of hiring social brokers to induce compliance were also discussed.

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