By Lynette Ong
April 27, 2021
In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a nationwide “Sweeping Black” (saohei chu’er) campaign aimed at rooting out corrupt grassroots officials who provide “protection umbrellas” to the mafias and criminal organizations. The campaign received such great attention that it had been dubbed one of President Xi Jinping’s signature campaigns to shore up the Party’s legitimacy and resuscitate eroded public confidence.
The campaign was intended to work in tandem with Xi’s infamous anti-corruption campaign ongoing since 2012 to reduce endemic corruption plaguing the Party. The anti-corruption campaign targets both high-ranking officials, known as the “tigers”, and lower-ranking officials, popularly depicted as the “flies”. Meanwhile, the “Sweeping Black” campaign was more focused on swatting the “flies”. The campaign’s scope extended deep into the local Party-government system (党政系统) that governs the society.
Practically, the “Sweeping Black” campaign provided evidence for the Party’s—and Xi’s—stark recognition that criminals and mafias, who were growing stronger, could become potential challengers to the Party’s power. As Xi himself put it, “it’s about restructuring grassroots political and legal systems, building the Party’s own networks, and resolving grassroots political crisis.” In other words, Xi foresaw a looming grassroots political crisis into which the “evil forces” of criminals and mafias were deeply embedded.
The growth of criminals and mafias is a by-product of China’s market reforms and weakening local states in the reform era. Political centralization and strong party building had largely eliminated criminal elements in the society during the Mao era. Economic transition in the 1980s created black markets for illicit goods, which became hotbeds for criminal activity. Later, the 1994 tax reform recentralized local revenue sources to the central government, which left local authorities with many unfunded mandates. These fiscal reforms have long-lasting implications for local governance. Public security spending became decentralized, resulting in uneven law enforcement capacity across regions. Policing in poorer regions was more adversely affected than in wealthier areas. Worsening local governance resulted in increased clientelist relationships between local police and criminals, made worse by underfunding of local police forces. The police received bribes in return for the political protection they provided to criminals, particularly in connection to mafia-run illicit businesses. The central government launched a number of “strike hard” campaigns targeted at criminal groups in the 1980s and 1990s, but their effects were never long-lasting, with crime rates climbing back up after the campaigns ended.
Given this context, the “Sweeping Black” campaign singled out two types of organizations for elimination. The first were the “dark and evil forces” (heishili), which are smaller and less sophisticated criminal groups. These violent groups consist of more than three members but operate without a clear leadership, and repeatedly commit illegal acts, bully citizens, and cause serious harm to society. This group belongs in what I term in my research the ‘thugs-for-hire’ (TFH). TFH are loose gangs of individuals who are hired by local governments, among others, to carry out “dirty work”, including evicting residents, collecting taxes and exactions, and harassing protesters. Local authorities outsource to TFH coercion they need to get done, and the elusive identity of private agents provides the scope for plausible deniability for the hiring authority. It is therefore a lower-cost repressive measure compared to the deployment of formal coercive agents.
The second group were criminal organizations (heishehui zuzhi), which refer to structured and well-financed violent criminal groups that enjoy political protection to control certain territories. The first “evil force”-type criminal groups occupy the lower echelon of a “black society”, while the second represent the more sophisticated, structured, and well-funded mafia organizations. However, when left unchecked, the former TFH-like groups may grow to become the latter mafia-like organizations. The distinctions between the two types are consistent with the definitions of criminal organizations and mafias in the Chinese Criminal Law and criminology. On the one hand, TFH are structurally and characteristically more proximate to the less sophisticated criminal groups. On the other hand, mafias are hierarchical criminal organizations with distinct codes of conduct and whose primary activities include protection racketing, dispute arbitration and resolution between criminals, brokering and enforcing illegal transactions.
The campaign specifically targeted 12 types of criminal and mafia groups involved in a range of illegal activities, including TFH involved in land grabs, housing demolitions, and construction projects, as well as mafias who colluded with local governments as part of the crime-politics nexus. In addition, the singling out of “village tyrants” (cunba) as a target also underscored the central government’s recognition of criminals’ infiltration into village politics.
Up to 2018 year-end, the campaign had swept away 100 mafia organizations (shehei fanzui zuzhi) and destroyed 1,129 criminal organizations (heishili fanzui zuzhi) in the first ten provinces investigated. It had also frozen and confiscated 4.9 billion RMB worth of illegal assets, of which 2,896 cases involved “protective umbrellas”. Due to the mounting local government debts, the “Sweeping Black” campaign also had the unstated objective of confiscating illicit wealth in order to finance local fiscal shortfalls. As such, a large number of private enterprises were targeted and their “illicit wealth” transferred to local government coffers once the firms were found to have criminal connections.
However, as with all Maoist-style campaigns, once hard targets are set, overzealous implementation by local officials ensues, as they would be punished if targets set by higher-up were not met. What constitutes “criminal targets” are ambiguously and arbitrarily defined. Some village authorities, for example, have included “left behind children” (of parents who are migrant workers) in their definitions of “criminals”. As some adolescents, left behind by their parents who depart for the cities as migrant workers, become juvenile delinquents, their inclusion into the local campaign scope is a bureaucratic short cut to meet the set target.
Though this three-year campaign officially ended in 2021, Xi Jinping’s efforts to further shore up the Party’s legitimacy continued with yet another rectification campaign to punish corrupt and disloyal conduct among the police, the court, and others in the political-legal apparatus. Under Xi Jinping, where political power is being increasingly centralized, these political campaigns are a means to get rid of his political opponents within the system. These political maneuvers strengthen the power of the ruling faction, while weakening the alternative powerbases. Under the pretense of bolstering the Party’s legitimacy, they result in arbitrary punishments of Party cadres and citizens alike, and thus undermine the rule of law in the long-run.
Dr Lynette H. Ong is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Her research deals with authoritarian politics, violence, state repression and contentious politics. Her first book, Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China, was published by Cornell University Press in 2012. Find out more about her work at lynetteong.com and follow her on Twitter @onglynette.
 The warning was issued in a closed-door meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Jiangtao Shi, “Xi Jinping Puts China’s Mafia in Cross Hairs, but Fears of Judicial Abuse Remain,” South China Morning Post, January 26, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/print/news/china/policies-politics/article/2130629/xi-puts-chinas-mafia-cross-hairs-fears-judicial-abuse.
 Fazhi, “What’s the ‘Sweeping Black Campaign’ Getting Rid of? ‘扫黑除恶’ 在扫除什么？法官、扫黑办主任和政法教师这样说,” Initium Media, August 21, 2019, https://theinitium.com/article/20190822-mainland-nationwide-campaign-against-gang-crime-and-evil/.
 Jing Liang, “‘the Sweeping Campaign’ Is a Challenge to Xi Jinping’s Governance Ideologies and Capability ‘扫黑’ 考验习近平的治国理念和执政能力,” Radio Free Asia, January 30, 2018, https://www.rfa.org/cantonese/commentaries/lj/com-01302018080449.html.
 Ming Xia, “Assessing and Explaining the Resurgence of China’s Criminal Underworld,” Global Crime 7, no. 2 (2006): 169.
 Lynette H. Ong, Prosper or Perish: Credit and Fiscal Systems in Rural China, Cornell University Press, 2012.
 Xia, “Assessing and Explaining the Resurgence of China’s Criminal Underworld,” 170.
 Baifeng Chen and Leiming Dong, “Weakness of Rural Governance 乡村治理的软肋: 灰色势力,” Comparative Economic & Social Systems, no. 4 (2009): 142–46.
 “What’s the ‘Sweeping Black Campaign’ Getting Rid of? ‘扫黑除恶’ 在扫除什么？法官、扫黑办主任和政法教师这样说.”
 Lynette H. Ong, “‘Thugs-for-Hire’: Subcontracting of State Coercion and State Capacity in China“, Perspectives on Politics, 16 (3), 2018.
 Ko-lin Chin and Roy Godson, “Organized Crime and the Political-Criminal Nexus in China,” Trends in Organized Crime 9, no. 3 (2006): 5–44; Sally Atkinson-Sheppard and Hannah Hayward, “Conceptual Similarities; Distinct Difference: Exploring ‘the Gang’ in Mainland China,” The British Journal of Criminology 59, no. 3 (May 2019): 614–633, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azy051.
 Diego Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993); Federico Varese, ed., Organized Crime: Critical Concepts in Criminology (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).
 Details of the groups targeted could be found in the CCP’s 2018 Notice, “Launching the Special Criminal Syndicate Combat” (根据中共的<关于开展扫黑除恶专项斗争的通知>). Sheena Greitens, “The Saohei Campaign, Protection Umbrellas, and China’s Changing Political-Legal Apparatus,” China Leadership Monitor, no. 65 (Fall 2020).
 “The Central Committee’s Announcement of the First-Round Supervision, Rectification and Implementation of Launching the Special Criminal Syndicate Combat 中央扫黑除恶专项斗争第一轮督导整改落实情况公布,” Xinhua Net, January 31, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/2019-01/31/c_1124072249.htm.
 For instance, in Liaoning province, 36 black societies and 83 dark forces had been destroyed from January 2018 to the end of April 2019, with the confiscated property valued at 16.1 billion RMB. See Peng Wang, “Politics of Crime Control: How Campaign-Style Law Enforcement Sustains Authoritarian Rule in China,” The British Journal of Criminology 60, no. 2 (2019): 422–43, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azz065.
 Liang, “‘the Sweeping Campaign’ Is a Challenge to Xi Jinping’s Governance Ideologies and Capability ‘扫黑’ 考验习近平的治国理念和执政能力.”
Header image credit: UN Geneva.
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