They were equipped with police truncheons, attack dogs, private jails and special armored vehicles. The whole escort organization, for so it was called, was staffed much like a military outfit: one political commissar, one battalion chief, three captains, a central battalion made up of two to three companies, and seven or eight men to a company. They were outfitted just like riot police, with the same uniforms and helmets. On their left and right shoulders were dark patches emblazoned with white characters: “Special Service.”
And this entire apparatus of violence was operated as a private enterprise. Put another way, this was the private militia of legend. And the fact that this private militia could operate for so many years is something that leaves us all staring speechlessly.
Hired By Local Governments
If this was a private enterprise, it of course had to have clients. And who were their clients? Media reports have revealed that the clients of this private enterprise were a number of local governments, and particularly the Beijing representative offices of these local governments. The objective in hiring their services was to utilize their strength to round up petitioners in Beijing, a systematic extralegal application of force of the kind that could not be wielded by local governments themselves as they were subject to legal restrictions.
This private contingent is a joint stock company publicly registered with the Beijing Municipal Industrial and Commercial Administration, and its name is Anyuanding (安元鼎).
This is truly a strange creature: an entity spawned by modern market mechanisms involving the privatization, profit-ization and commercialization of every stage of the administrative work of “stability preservation,” from arrest and detention to physical violence and dispatching petitioners home by force — all of these tasks have become modes of profit-making, translatable into maximum profits.
This remarkable phenomenon has no precedent in China or anywhere else. Put plainly, Anyuanding, this contingent with Chinese characteristics, was essentially a kidnapping company with rights of special license, and its core business was sanguine violence.
Any age might have its reactionaries. Even well-governed America became home to Jim Jones’ quasi-religious organization People’s Temple. So the chief problem here is not the existence of Anyuanding per se. The real issue is: how was it that the reactionary group Anyuanding was able to obtain these special permissions, and how was it able to sign contracts with so many local governments, building up its business? If they had not been favored with these contracts, Anyuanding would not have survived a single day.
Actually, saying they were favored [with these contracts] is not entirely accurate. Because this was not a one-directional bestowal of favors, but rather a mutually beneficial commercial exchange. Anyuanding was able to make money hand over fist, and these local governments benefitted even more richly — they were relieved of a great deal of trouble that had heretofore vexed them, and their political performance and future positions were insured as a result. What great satisfaction to everyone concerned!
Of course, their mutual satisfaction has been purchased at the grave cost of the sacrifice of rights petitioners traveling to Beijing, and at the cost too of our national system of laws. The latter, alas, is the gravest of dangers. The harm done by Anyuanding is about not just naked violence — rather, it is about local governments and their utter desolation of human rights and rule of law. It is about their total dependence upon extralegal violence.
It was the vast market opportunity presented by extralegal violence that spawned the strange phenomenon that is Anyuanding. What we are witnessing at work here is the objective incompetence and recklessness of local governments, whether it’s about government sending their own people to intercept petitioners, or whether it’s about the marketization of this process whereby private companies are entrusted with the task.
We see now that not only are local governments incapable of attaining to the ideal plain of rule of law, but they in fact find it nearly impossible to sustain even the autocratic status quo of the past. All they can manage is the control of people. They’ll take care of those they see as troublemakers first and then look to other things. If they can use money to take care of it, so much the better. If money is of no avail, well, I’m sorry, but they’ll just have to apply their own force directly to handle it. The business has nothing whatsoever to do with sympathies, reason or the law — if the situation is desperate enough, none of that matters.
The recent incident in Yihuang (宜黄), in which several people set fire to themselves to protest eviction from their home, is the perfect footnote to this problem.
After the tragedy of the self-immolation, two female family members of the victims tried to travel to Beijing at the invitation of a Phoenix TV program, but local authorities, who thought they were heading to the capital to petition for official action, conducted a hair-raising mission to intercept them and prevent their departure. Just picture how a handful of women were under siege by scores of riot police, requiring no legal procedures whatsoever, until the women were forced to take refuge in the women’s restroom at an airport. As cruel and brutal as Anyuanding is, the local government of Yihuang is no more gentle or honorable.
All of these outrageous and illegal acts are masked by a high-sounding abstract noun — the so-called “stability preservation” practiced by these local governments. So long as it’s done in the name of stability preservation, any extreme measures can be employed. So long as it’s in the name of stability preservation, there is no need whatsoever for legal restrictions. So long as it’s in the name of stability preservation, anything goes, fair or foul. Neither the Constitution nor any of the rest of our laws have the power to control this so-called “stability preservation” practiced by local governments. Every ugly deed outside the law, every ugly deed undertaken in the name of personal power, is whitewashed as politically correct.
The most pressing question of local governance now facing us is about how we can use the Constitution and the law to bring the “stability preservation” actions of these local governments under control, how we can effectively check these actions within the framework of our Constitution and laws, so we can fundamentally put a stop to this battle being waged by local governments against the people.
Fundamentally A Question of Development Modes
In fact, these petitioners flocking to Beijing with their grievances are perhaps all, without exception, the creation of the local governments themselves. They are fish who have escaped the encircling nets of their local government. Fundamentally, then, this is not a question of how to stop petitioners, and it is not a question, as local governments suggest, of “stability preservation.” These are all derivatives of the core issue, and that is the question of the present nature of development in our country.
It is generally believed that our current mode of development in China is traditional in nature. Traditional in what way? It is traditional in the sense that its nucleus is the same system we had in the past. Development of our economy requires the government’s hand of guidance, and creating dividends requires the government’s protection. No other powers can contend with the government, and so regardless of whether it’s about economic development or the distribution of dividends, the government has pride of place, and it cannot be resisted or hindered in its forward progress.
This is precisely why these local governments have the unbridled audacity to fight their own people, puffed up as they are with a pluck and nerve reminiscent of the age of the Great Leap Forward.
The self-immolation case of Tang Fuzhen in Chongqing, the self-immolation case of the Zhong family in Yihuang — in the minds of local governments cases like these are incidental exceptions. They believe their machine of tyranny can move mountains, and apart from surrender and capitulation what choice do those who face them really have? Clearly, they have underestimated the spirit of resistance. They never supposed that after these people had been deprived of every legal avenue of recourse, that once the iron walls of helplessness closed in, they would take up the only and final weapon left to them.
Who would dare trifle with their own life? That is the basis on which these local government leaders make their decisions. They are brimming with confidence, ready to exert force and psychological pressure to the last in a no-holds-barred struggle. They never consider the extremes those they stand against might go to. Once things actually do backfire, only then are they stricken dumb, at a loss as to how to respond. That’s when they move like madmen to contain the truth, because the truth is something they cannot withstand.
This is the operating logic of our traditional mode of development.
This mode is still capable yet of producing sustained economic growth within a limited period of time, but it is also constantly creating new social problems, and its price is the constant of social conflict. The sustained emergence of these problems and conflicts has at last outpaced the capacity of our current system to deal with them. It has reached such a point that so-called normal channels are utterly powerless to resolve them.
No Time to Be Lost for Political Reforms
Why do we need political reform? The reason is right here before us.
The crux of this development mode is our traditional political system. The stability preservation mechanisms of many of these local governments today are merely adaptations of the traditional political system to suit the age of the market economy.
Against this backdrop, these recent revelations about the private security firm Anyuanding are timely. They can rouse us to a realization of the evils of our traditional system as it has become inbred with the market, and show us the extremes to which these evils can reach.
For this reason, political reforms cannot wait. We can glimpse from this the importance of the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao, at a recent national meeting on lawful administration, and as he emphasized the need for political reform, particularly stressed the importance of building a law-based government, and the need for all offices and agencies to conduct themselves in accord with the law and the Constitution.
What this means is that building a law-based government (法治政府) is at the core of political reform, and a law-based government is as much at odds with our traditional system, which is subjected to no legal checks, as fire is to water.
The chief goal of political reform is to completely clear away the unreasonable aspects of our traditional political system, and this is just a matter of course. To wrestle political power into the cage of law, we must use rule of law to place checks on the government, and not allow local governments to bypass our national laws as suits their needs. If we hope to avoid cancers like Anyuanding, we must start by reaching a consensus on this question so that we can begin the work of political reform.
This editorial originally appeared in Chinese at Time Weekly.