China Analysis: Control at the grassroots

ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

Maintaining social stability is at the core of China’s authoritarianism. An elaborated system of ‘social management’ aims at anticipating and preventing social disorder. The Chinese Communist Party has been able to extend its reach by embracing new technologies and embarking on cautious reforms.


The latest edition of China Analysis (‘Control at the grassroots: China's new toolbox’), published by ECFR and Asia Centre, examines China's system of social management, political control and public security. The paper explains how the different parts of the system are being transformed – and it explores the public debates surrounding China's security apparatus:

  • China’s complex ‘stability maintenance machine’ is made up of different ministries and administrative bodies – but the system seems incapable of dealing with China’s underlying social problems.
  • ‘Social stability’ has become a costly activity for local governments as it is their responsibility to deal with incidents that threaten stability. The logic of ‘zero incidents’ led not only to superficial solutions but also to a privatisation of stability maintenance. The central government increasingly controls the public without relying on biased local authorities.
  • The mission of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) is changing. The PAP is transforming itself from a paramilitary force into a modern integrated and multi-tasking force with a broad mandate to ‘defend national security and maintain social stability’.
  • The reform of China’s criminal procedure law sparked a lively debate about the role of the state and how liberties of the individual can be upheld. However, covert investigations, secret detentions and the death penalty remain a feature of the legal system in China.  

Useful facts:

  • Public spending for the “preservation of stability” (including but not limited to traditional public security) has increased significantly over the last years. It is estimated that it exceeds China’s military budget.
  • The People’s Armed Police (PAP) was established in 1982 and carries out counter-insurgency measures in autonomous regions, it leads the fight against terrorism, and coordinates disaster response teams.
  • In 2011 there were 180.000 mass incidents in China. A mass incident is defined as demonstration/riot/unauthorised public meeting involving more than 500 people.

The ‘China Analysis’ series, published by ECFR and Asia Centre, analyses the debates over China’s policies and direction within China’s expert community itself.

Visit ECFR China Programme page here

You can also subscribe to receive a French-language version by emailing Asia Centre at: [email protected]

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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