‘Thugs-for-Hire’ and Outsourcing of State Repression in China

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Convener: China Centre

Speaker: Lynette H. Ong

This paper examines 'thugs-for-hire' as a form of state repression, particularly through the use of third-party violent agents. Local governments regularly deploy third-party violence to evict homeowners, expropriate land from farmers, manage illegal street vendors and deal with petitioners and protestors in China. This study contributes to the state repression literature by elaborating the role of thugs and gangsters as a repressive measure. Violence is effective and efficient in implementing unpopular and illegal policies. Third-party violence as a form of privatized repression also allows the state to evade responsibility for using violence and to maintain a veneer of legitimacy. However, it may encounter agency problem, run the risk of backfiring from the society and impose cost on state legitimacy. 

Lynette H. Ong is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, with a joint appointment at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She writes about authoritarian politics, contentious politics and the political economy of development. Her book, Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China, published by Cornell University Press in 2012, was among the first to raise warning flags about the China model and perils of its local government debt. Her publications have appeared or are forthcoming in Perspectives on PoliticsComparative PoliticsInternational Political Science ReviewChina QuarterlyChina Journal, among others. Her writings have also appeared in the Washington PostForeign Affairs and New Mandala.