Written by Yanhua Deng.

Relational repression is a social control of protest in China. It amounts to relying on relatives, friends, and native-place connections to defuse popular action. It hinges on persuasion, pressure and the impact of influential people. Its distinguishing feature is that when popular action breaks out, local officials, staff of public organizations and beneficiaries of government largesse with ties to protesters are assembled into a work team to conduct “thought work.” Team members are then expected to use their influence to pacify and “transform” activists, and to coax or pressure them into abandoning popular action.

Relational repression is one of many techniques short of force that Chinese local authorities use to demobilize protesters. It entails listening, talking and “moving the masses.” But it also involves an irreducible amount of pressure, applied by people who can be difficult to resist. In this sense, although it does not rely on physical coercion, relational repression shares some traits with harder forms of control. It is a type of “psychological engineering” that rests on both emotional blackmail and feelings of affinity.

Then how do the authorities use social ties to demobilize protesters? In most cases, relational repression unfolds in four, roughly sequential steps: first, information is collected about ties between protesters and individuals who may be able to influence them. The second phase of relational repression entails building up the work team. Local authorities, when faced with this, typically judge the desirability of new recruits according to two criteria: the strength of relations a person has with one or more protesters, and their willingness to help end the protest. Government cadres from the area and others who depend on the state and have close ties to protesters, are prime targets for recruitment, since they score high on both counts.

The third phase involves organizing and deploying work team members to carry out relational repression. To do this, local governments often establish “person-to-person” responsibility, so that one thought worker is charged with reforming the mind-set of one activist. Work team members are expected to rely on personal influence to persuade relatives, friends and fellow townspeople to stand down. For relatives in particular, they are encouraged to tap into “feelings of affection” to transform their targets. Team members are also instructed to play on protesters’ worries that, however willing they might be to sacrifice themselves, refusal to stop protesting would have a negative effect on those close to them. Work team members with only weak ties to protesters or bystanders who might join the action are typically urged to undertake thought work with extra diligence and to mobilize second-order connections. When work team members lack close, direct ties to protesters, they are often asked to contact relatives and friends who do.

The last stage of relational repression involves motivating and disciplining work team members. To ensure high levels of commitment, local governments use every opportunity to explain what will happen should a team member fail. Those who fail to “transform” the protesters they are assigned are often subject to punishment, including suspension of salary, removal from office, and even prosecution.

The effectiveness of relational repression rests largely on two factors: (1) how much sway the local state has over work team members and (2) the strength of ties between team members and protesters. Influence over thought workers varies greatly. At the high end of the scale, local authorities have much say over work team members from government offices and public organizations through their control of salaries and career prospects. Local entrepreneurs and pensioners are also vulnerable to pressure, since the government can slow the growth of enterprises by, for instance, turning down a loan application, and pensioners fear that local authorities may instruct employers to withhold pension payments. Officials generally have less influence over other team members, including elected cadres mainly paid with village funds, workers from privately owned factories, and other rank-and-file citizens who are more able to resist pressure to conduct thought work diligently.

Another factor that affects the effectiveness of relational repression is the strength of ties between work team members and protesters. The authorities assume that thought workers have great influence over close relatives, and punishment for being ineffective can be high for those who fail to persuade a family member to stand down. The prospect of punishment increases the odds that protesters will withdraw to protect their relatives. When team members and their targets are not close relatives, relational repression becomes much more difficult. Local governments are less likely to punish ineffective thought workers with weak ties to protesters, and protesters are more likely to ignore or even fight back against non-relatives who try to pressure them. Anticipating few or no sanctions and knowing they will probably fail however hard they try, these people often have little commitment to thought work and simply go through the motions.

For a state that does not penetrate as deeply as it once did, relational repression offers access to protesters over whom officials have limited sway, protesters who may not trust or fear local cadres as much as they did in the past. As an alternative to mobilizing the police or hiring local toughs, relational repression is becoming increasingly common at a time when pressures are growing to preserve social order without resorting to force. When it is effective, relational repression enables local authorities to soften popular demands, explore compromises, and minimize concessions.

As a form of social control, relational repression harks back to the baojia and the lianzuo systems of mutual responsibility in imperial China. The practice of “guilt by association” reminds us that local authorities have long held the population in check by making relatives, friends, and neighbors responsible for each other. The thought work at the heart of relational repression also resonates with governance practices from China’s past. Assembling work teams and descending on villages was a standard policy implementation tool in the Maoist era that has received little attention recently. But grassroots thought work and the sudden appearance of big work teams persists, as leaders still seek to “engineer emotions” by mixing “practical incentives and psychological pressures” and tapping a “Confucian stress upon social bonds and obligations.”

That work teams are used to demobilize protesters also speaks to a large literature on networks and popular action. Many studies have shown that protest recruitment “flows along lines of preexisting social relationships” as social ties enhance feelings of trust and offer newcomers reassurance, while also providing opportunities to apply subtle forms of pressure. Relational repression in China, on the other hand, illustrates how family, friendship, and native-place ties are not just “pull factors” that draw individuals to popular action; they can also be deployed to push people away from contention.

Finally, attention to relational repression fills in one more piece in the puzzle of protest control. Most accounts of policing focus on the police. This is especially true in China, where the authorities are not hesitant to rely on force to put down popular action. But just as local toughs may be used to carry out hard repression, relatives, friends and fellow townspeople can be agents of soft repression. Societally-based control has advantages that state coercion lacks; most notably, it suppresses contention in a less visible way that does not reflect directly back on the state. By filtering pressure through people the state has influence over, and then expecting them to be the familiar, friendly face that persuades a protester to give up an “inadvisable” course of action, social power is combined with state power. Putting the onus of “soft violence” on individuals whom protesters are related to, know, or at least share a hometown with, blurs the origins of repression, shields the state from owning up to its authoritarian impulses, and—when it succeeds—diminishes the need to rely on naked coercion.

Yanhua Deng is Professor of Political Science at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, China. This post is a modified excerpt of an article published in the China Quarterly. Image credit: CC by Austronesian Expeditions/Flickr.

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