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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Policing China: Struggles of Capacity, Order, and Organization

  • Author(s): Scoggins, Suzanne Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): O'Brien, Kevin J.
  • et al.
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Why would police officers look the other way when criminals run? Why would an officer fix a busted lock in exchange for the victim calling to say she reported a break-in by mistake? This dissertation investigates issues of front-line policing and security capacity in the People’s Republic of China. It probes the challenges faced by ground-level officers and their superiors as they attempt to do their jobs in the face of funding limitations, reform challenges, and structural issues that complicate police response. Drawing from 22 months of fieldwork in eight cities, the project uses interviews, station data, news reports, internal documents, and social media postings to understand how local policing in today’s China works.

The data show that, despite China’s reputation as a highly securitized state that spends more on internal security than national defense, ground-level policing is plagued by problems of capacity that even a well-organized central ministry is, for the most part, unable to resolve. As a result, the local state has difficulty responding to nearly every type of crime except public protest. Only in the domain of stability maintenance are police able to overcome the problem of low capacity by redirecting limited resources, implementing reforms that overcome institutionalized biases, and centralizing ministerial control by wresting power away from local actors. Security capacity remains low, however, for other areas of policing such as response to theft, violent crimes, and drug control, all of which continue to face problems of limited resources, poorly devised or executed reforms, and insufficient assistance from higher ups.

The result is that the internal security state in China suffers from weak capacity but can work well when Central officials redirect resources, bring local forces in line, and overcome institutional and cultural barriers to effective policing. This pattern explains why scholars and journalists who focus exclusively on protest control mistakenly bill the Chinese internal security state as strong and robust. It also gives us cause to rethink how we assess security capacity in authoritarian states, since scholars tend to look at protest control capacity and ignore everything else. In the Chinese case, a comprehensive review of ground-level police operations raises questions about capacity that challenge claims of authoritarian resilience. Capacity failures also demonstrate the limits of decentralized control over the Chinese local state, which for the police bureaucracy only exacerbates strains on frontline response.

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This item is under embargo until November 2, 2020.