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China: Historical Background
Country Study > Chapter 13 > Criminal Justice and Public Security > Law Enforcement > Historical Background

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND


However much the public security system may have been influenced by communist ideology and practice, it remained rooted directly in the traditional Chinese concept of governmental control through imposed collective responsibility. Even in the pre-imperial era, a system was proposed to organize the people into "groups of families which would be mutually responsible for each other's good behavior and share each other's punishments." The Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) dynasties made use of the concept, and the Song dynasty (960-1279) institutionalized it on a nationwide basis in the bao jia (tithing) system. It entailed the organization of family households into groups of ten, each unit being organized successively into a larger unit up to the county level of administration. Each family sent a representative to the monthly meeting of its unit, and each unit elected a leader to represent it at the next higher level. Since the head of each unit was responsible to the next higher level for the conduct of all members of his unit, the system served as an extension of the central government. Eventually, each group of families also was required to furnish men to serve in the militia. Bao jia, which alternately flourished or languished under later rulers and usually existed more in theory than in practice, was reinstituted during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

During the Qing period, the people's aversion to legalistic procedures and the rulers' preferences for socially and collectively imposed sanctions continued. Technically, the magistrate was to hear even minor criminal cases; but local elders and village leaders were allowed to handle most disputes, freeing the magistrate for more important work and saving the government expense. The people preferred to handle matters in this way, outside the intimidating court system.

Other practices for maintaining public order in China during the imperial era included the formation of mutual aid groups of farm households, which over time came to assume police functions. In a manner similar to twentieth-century means of ideological control, the Qing bureaucracy organized mass lectures that stressed the Confucian principle of obedience. Still another traditional form of policing was the appointment of censors to investigate corruption and misconduct up to the highest levels of government. Doing that job too well cost many censors their lives.

In 1932 Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang government reinstituted the bao jia system. In the Guomindang's revised bao jia system, in addition to the chief, there were two officers of importance within each 100-family unit. The population officer maintained the records and reported all births, deaths, marriages, moves, and unlawful activities to the district office. The bao jia troop commander headed a self-defense unit and was responsible for maintaining law and order. In rural China, however, the local village was generally a self-contained world, and the peasants remained aloof from distant and higher-ranking centers of authority.

The Japanese were introduced to the bao jia system on Taiwan when they assumed control of the island after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), and they found the system highly suitable for administering occupied areas. They instituted modified versions of it in north China after 1937. The Japanese imposed severe restrictions on the population, and the system aided in taking the census, restricting movement, and conducting spot checks. Each household had to affix a wooden tablet on the front door with the names of all inhabitants inscribed. Anyone missing or not on the list during an inspection by Japanese troops was assumed to be an insurgent. Since there were not as many Japanese troops in south China as in the north, the local leaders assisted the Japanese in administering the areas. They also disseminated propa- ganda at neighborhood meetings and established self-defense and youth corps.

The Communists were themselves products of Chinese society, and when they came to power in 1949 they liberally borrowed from these historical examples. They extensively organized the population and maintained the principles of mutual surveillance and mutual responsibility. They also retained the concept of self-defense forces. Communist control, however, exceeded that of bao jia or any other traditional system and extended into virtually every household. Under communist rule, the family was not considered an effective control mechanism. To achieve near-total control, a large number of administrative agencies and social organizations were established or adapted. Police forces resembling the Soviet police in organization, power, and activities were organized with the aid of Soviet advisers.

From 1949 to 1953, the newly established government of the People's Republic made use of the PLA, militia units made up of demobilized soldiers and other civilians, the police, and loyal citizens to put down resistance and establish order. Remnants of the Guomindang armed forces remained in pockets on the mainland, and communist efforts to enforce tax laws and agricultural rules provoked disturbances and riots. Extending responsibility for public order to include the police, military, and citizenry proved to be a highly effective arrangement, and the concept was written into the Common Program that preceded the 1954 state constitution.

The PLA and the militia continued to share responsibility for internal security and public order under the 1954 state constitution. The PLA's involvement in internal affairs was most extensive during the more turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution, was purged, soon followed by heads of the courts and procuratorates.

Initially, the military tried to remain uninvolved. But on Mao's orders, the PLA, which had once been told to support (actually to acquiesce to) the Red Guards, moved in to quell the chaos that Mao had inspired. The PLA gradually took over public security functions by establishing military control committees to replace the government bureaucracy. Revolutionary committees were set up as provincial-level and local administrative organs, usually with a PLA cadre in charge, and order gradually returned. By the summer of 1968 the Red Guards were being disbanded, and mass trials were used to punish and intimidate rioters.

With nineteen of China's twenty-nine provincial-level people's revolutionary committees headed by PLA commanders, the military again was in charge of administration and security throughout the country, but it badly needed help from experienced police officers. A policy of leniency toward most former officials evolved, and some public security cadres returned to work. The PLA also recruited inexperienced people to form auxiliary police units. These units were mass organizations with a variety of names reflecting their factional orientation. Perhaps the best known unit was the "Attack with Reason, Defend with Force Corps" named for the militant slogan of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Public security forces were composed largely of nonprofessionals and lacked the disciplined informant networks and personnel dossiers previously used to maintain order.

Beginning in 1968, the authorities called upon the PLA to help remove millions of urban dwellers from the overcrowded cities and relocate them to the countryside and to transport cashiered officials to special cadre schools for indoctrination and labor. The migration to the country mostly involved students and other youths for whom there were not enough jobs or places in the school system within the cities. Yet despite the discontent these campaigns caused, reported crime declined after 1970. Increased concern over the threat from the Soviet Union in the wake of armed clashes on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969 forced the PLA gradually to return to barracks, and control of the country reverted to the civilian leadership.

The Beijing-based Central Security Regiment, also known as the 8341 Unit, was an important PLA law enforcement element. It was responsible over the years for the personal security of Mao Zedong and other party and state leaders. More than a bodyguard force, it also operated a nationwide intelligence network to uncover plots against Mao or any incipient threat to the leadership. The unit reportedly was deeply involved in undercover activities, discovering electronic listening devices in Mao's office and performing surveillance of his rivals. The 8341 Unit participated in the late 1976 arrest of the Gang of Four, but it reportedly was deactivated soon after that event.

The militia also participated in maintaining public order in the 1970s. Their involvement was especially evident in the 1973-76 period. In 1973 the Gang of Four, concerned over the transformation of the PLA into a more professional, less political, military force, took control of the urban militia from the PLA and placed it under local party committees loyal to them. For the next three years, the urban militia was used extensively to enforce radical political and social policies. It was the urban militia, along with the public security forces, that broke up the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square honoring the memory of Zhou Enlai in April 1976 -- the event that served as the pretext for the second purge of Deng Xiaoping. In rural areas the militia was more under the control of the PLA.

Data as of July 1987




Last Updated: July 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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