“Thugs-for-Hire”: Subcontracting of State Coercion and State Capacity in China

That is the title of a recent paper by Lynette H. Ong of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Here is the abstract.

Using violence or threat of violence, “thugs-for-hire” (TFH) is a form of privatized coercion that helps states subjugate a recalcitrant population. I lay out three scope conditions under which TFH is the preferred strategy: when state actions are illegal or policies are unpopular; when evasion of state responsibility is highly desirable; and when states are weak in their capacity or are less strong than their societies. Weak states relative to strong ones are more likely to deploy TFH, mostly for the purpose of bolstering their coercive capacity; strong states use TFH for evasion of responsibility. Yet the state-TFH relationship is functional only if the state is able to maintain the upper hand over the violent agents. Focusing on China, a seemingly paradoxical case due to its traditional perception of being a strong state, I examine how local states frequently deploy TFH to evict homeowners, enforce the one-child policy, collect exorbitant exactions, and deal with petitioners and protestors. However, the increasing prevalence of “local mafia states” suggests that some of the thuggish groups have grown to usurp local governments’ autonomy. This points to the cost of relying upon TFH as a repressive strategy.

Here is the actual introduction.

At the height of the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong in October 2014, when thousands of residents peacefully occupied the streets to de- mand universal suffrage, unidentified thugs and goons were deployed to dismantle barricades, tear down posters, and assault peaceful protestors. Rumors speculated that the thugs were hired by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to intimidate protestors into giving up their activism. Some of the gangsters were reported to have links with the under- ground criminal groups or triads in Hong Kong, while others were hired from the neighboring Guangdong province in China.
Why do states recruit third parties such as thugs and gangsters to carry out state policies and to coerce and repress citizens? Who are these thugs and what are their characteristics? How are these thugs different from other non-state violent agents, such as the mafias, paramilitaries, and vigilantes? When do states hire these thugs? How sustainable is this strategy of outsourcing violent repression to third-party agents? What are the costs of deployment and the implications for state capacity and legitimacy? These are the questions that animate this study.
I conceptualize the notion of “thugs-for-hire” (TFH), an understudied phenomenon. It brings into focus the nature of these thugs—who they are, what they do, what functions they serve—by drawing comparisons with underground criminals and what they do. TFH serves as an extension of the state, bolstering the state’s coercive capacity. I contribute to the literature on state repression by augmenting the discussion of the use of thugs and gangsters as a private repressive measure. Most studies of state coercion and repression focus on overt or observable actions carried out by state agents. As Davenport and Earl have noted, we currently know very little about private repressive measures or the circumstances under which the state deploys them.
TFH augments the state’s coercive capacity to induce acquiescence in addition to its traditional repressive capacity, such as the military, the police, and the intelligence agencies. However, it diverges in a few dimensions from the traditional coercive institutions undergirding illiberal states. First, a private agent as the actor is distinct from state agents such as the military and police connected with political elites. Second, in contrast to the formal coercive apparatus that forms part of the state’s permanent coercive capacity, “thugs-for-hire”(while serving useful functions under certain conditions), are dispensable at other times. The third-party nature of TFH allows the state to shed and disengage it when it is not in use. This is strategic from the perspectives of costs and evasion of responsibility.
Third, the acts performed by TFH are at times covert, such as intimidation and physical abuses carried out late at night to avoid public attention. At other times they are performed in broad daylight. TFH’s covert actions can be contrasted with overt coercion and repression, such as police arrest or military attacks on civilians.7
To shed light on these issues, I focus on a common phenomenon in China, the hiring of thugs by the Chinese state to coerce citizens into complying with its policies as well as to repress them. Thugs are regularly recruited to evict homeowners in demolition projects and to dislodge farmers from their land. This pattern of thuggish state behavior and the consequential human right violations are well documented. Thugs were also hired to intimidate families and to force sterilizations on women in the implementation of the state’s one-child policy. Before the abolition of rural taxes and fees in the early 2000s, the use of thuggish violence in extracting payments from peasants was also pervasive. The state also regularly deploys third-party violence to intercept petitioners who try to lodge petitions with the central authority and to threaten activists who take their grievances into the streets. In general, the state employs extralegal coercive force by thugs when implementing unpopular and illegal policies and when taking repressive actions by the use of violence or threat of violence in execution.
My empirical focus is China, but the theoretical implications are not specific to any country or authoritarian regime. In the Philippines, a country that holds regular elections, the thuggish group Abu Sayyaf—notorious for kidnapping for ransoms—offers local politicians the service of harassing voters and opposition members during election seasons. The post-authoritarian state of South Korea similarly hired gangsters to evict slum dwellers to clear urban space for the Asian Games and the Olympics in the 1980s. In the “liberalized” authoritarian state of Jordan, a government that preserved limited civil liberties and political autonomy, similarly paid thugs and individuals known to be convicted criminals to intimidate activists. Ukraine under President Yanukovych also hired Titushky, who were skinheads in tracksuits to assault political opponents, journalists, and peaceful protestors. Russia under the Putin administration is notorious for its use of criminal gangs to assassinate dissidents abroad. Indeed, a wide range of regimes from autocracies to semi- authoritarian countries have deployed TFH to repress activists and contain members of opposition groups.
“Thugs-for-Hire” are most frequently engaged by weak states, defined by their low capacity or their relative strength from dominant societal forces, though their use by strong states is not ruled out. In this respect, China may seem like a paradoxical case. Why does a seemingly strong state like China need to subcontract coercion to third parties? Instead, I argue that local states in China, which are actually in charge of policy implementation, are weak in their capacity, and their autonomy is frequently usurped by key societal forces. Since the 1990s, endemic corru tion and chronic fiscal deficits have negatively affected the extractive, administrative, and coercive capacities of a growing number of local authorities, though the Chinese state at the national level is still relatively strong. As case study evidence suggests, the rudimentary organizations consisting of a few thugs often developed over time into full-scale criminal organizations. When local thuggish and criminal gangs grow stronger and progressively more organized, local governments become correspondingly weaker. In Migdal’s “state-in-society” framework, the state’s relative weakness vis-à-vis the society necessitates its reliance on these dominant societal forces for policy execution. By way of contrast, strong states are most likely to use TFH for the purpose of blame avoidance, rather than to bolster their capacity.
While the “state” in this study refers to the government entity as a whole, it is subject to a slight caveat. Admittedly, this definition can be problematic in a multi-level country such as China where the central and local governments may operate under different sets of conditions. Despite the fact that TFH is exercised mostly by local governments, it is often with the knowledge of and hence implicitly sanctioned by the central government. Local governments hire thugs to get a job done owing to the central government-imposed pressure to maintain social stability. Accordingly, “state weakness” in China’s context refers to local states’ declining capacity, as I will illustrate. Yet it is only by aggregating the state as a collective unit that the utility of the concept can be extended to a wide range of countries beyond China.
A key implication of my argument is that though serving useful functions, “thugs-for-hire” are most likely a stopgap measure. Equilibrium in the relations between the state and TFH is maintained only when the former as principal is able to continuously exert control over the latter as agent. Intensification of the use of TFH will likely result in a disequilibrium in which the thugs are no longer “for hire” either because they have grown too powerful to become independent from the state or have become capable of usurping the state. In other words, weak states that deploy TFH to bolster their coercive capacity risk becoming weaker as these societal forces grow stronger.
The primary data in the paper were drawn from my interviews conducted with residents and villagers affected by housing demolition, land expropriation, and party cadres over the period 2012–2014.15 The field sites included the city centers and rural outskirts of Kunming, Chengdu, Zhengzhou, and Beijing municipalities. A total of 105 semi-structured interviews were conducted as part of my broader project on contentious politics surrounding state-led urbanization in China. During a visit to the infamous “petition village” in Beijing in the summer of 2014, I interviewed petitioners who traveled from afar to channel their grievances through the official petition system. I also draw on Chinese-language scholarly litera- ture and media reports as secondary evidence. (Refer to the online appendix for details on methodology and field- work.)
The article is organized as follows. The first three sections elaborate on a general theory of “thugs-for- hire”, first by placing it in a larger framework of violent agents, then conceptualizing it as a form of repressive measure carried out by third-party agents, and followed by a description of its scope conditions and the costs of deployment. The next section situates TFH in the context of the literature on the mafias, as they similarly rely on violence or threat of violence in their services. I then offer three scope conditions under which TFH is the preferred strategy compared to other forms of re- pression. The conditions are when state actions are illegal or policies are unacceptably unpopular; when evasion of state responsibility becomes highly desirable; and when states are relatively weak in their capacity or are less strong than their societies. While the presence of any of the three conditions will explain deployment of TFH, thugs are most likely used when all three conditions are met. What follows examines the costs of TFH and the implications for regime legitimacy. The next section draws on empirical evidence from China as a case illustrating TFH as a coercive strategy and the conditions under which it is deployed. My conclusion draws implications for regime legitimacy and state weakness.

The rest can be read here.

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