How China spends more on quashing dissent than on defence

China’s public safety spending reached $210 billion in 2020. It was also as much as 7 per cent higher than its national defence spending in 2020.

Protests erupted in China recently against Covid lockdowns after an apartment fire killed 11 (Photo: India Today)

By Tirtho Banerjee: The recent protests in China go beyond a shrill cry to lift Covid restrictions. They are adamant appeals to give people the freedom to express and change political policies that muffle dissent.

Fervent calls like ‘Step down Xi (Jinping)’ and ‘We don’t want dictators’ had resonated across Chinese cities as public took to streets in an unprecedented show of defiance against the Communist regime. It was bottled-up frustration and anger not just against the snap lockdowns, relentless testing, strict travel caps and prolonged quarantines, but at the root was a graver issue: Chinese government’s inhuman measures to crack down on anti-government narrative.

At many places, mobile phones of people were checked for photos and messages, along with their IDs. The police ensured that banned apps that might show sympathy for the protests were nowhere there. Even as people held marches in a peaceful manner, the cops detained many of them, adding fuel to the unrest.

The blaze in Anyang city, in the central Henan Province, which claimed more than 10 lives, and the clashes between security personnel and workers at Apple’s i-Phone making-plant in Zhengzhou, catalyzed the protests. Many experts said that the Covid restrictions were a ploy to quash the outcry against larger issues like pay disparity, and poor working conditions.

READ | Unprecedented protests in China: Key questions answered


China has always had a zero-tolerance policy against dissent. And when it comes to quelling dissidence, the Communist government leaves no stone unturned. In fact, it spends more on controlling or combating internal disturbances than on its defence.

China calls it “public safety” or internal security. And its public safety spending reached $210 billion (approximately 1.39 trillion yuan) in 2020. This was a threefold increase in the past decade. It was also as much as 7 per cent higher than its national defense spending in 2020.

Reports indicate that since 2010, the allocation for “public safety” has surpassed the country’s military spending, with a difference of roughly 166 million yuan in 2019.

The “public safety” expenditure includes state security, police, domestic surveillance, armed civil militia, and other measures to deal with public disturbances. Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Xinjiang were the top three provinces in terms of “public security” spending.

The increased allocation for “public safety” is also indicative of the fact that the Chinese are piling more pressure on the government, which continues to try to control free speech at home.

If we go by the present protests, there are signs that even though the demonstrations have thinned out, the demands would stay. Wouldn’t this drive up the government spending on “public safety” further?

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It was after the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989 – in which hundreds were killed — that the Chinese government realized how grave was the public angst centered around demands for more political freedom and less censorship. The internal security was ramped up, and a strategy focusing on controlling the unrest rather than using immediate force was put into place.

Ten years later, the changed strategy became apparent when more than 10,000 Chinese followers of Falun Gong meditation sect gathered on the streets outside the Communist Party headquarters in April 1999, posing a challenge to the Communist government. The government, then headed by president of China Jiang Zemin, took swift action against the demonstrators but spilled little blood.

In 2008, there was a Tibet uprising as anti-government riots rocked Lhasa and its ripples were felt in western China. Following the protests, there was a massive crackdown on dissidents. However, the situation was brought under control quickly, and without much violent action.

As many as 197 people – mostly Han Chinese civilians – were killed in Ãœrümqi riots in July 2009. Members of the Uyghur Muslim minority, who were involved in the clashes with the Han people, were sentenced to heavy jail terms and the tension defused. It was through the massive “public safety” spending that the Chinese government was able to bring about a semblance of calm and take control over the disturbance.

Following the recent protests against Covid restrictions, the shift from use of direct force to monitoring online content for anti-government messages, banned news and apps is quite discernible. China’s security mechanism has a digital challenge to face ahead. And it’s equipping itself for it. But the pertinent question is how far it’s justified and sustainable?

READ | From Shanghai to Hong Kong: Protests in China for ‘freedom’ from Covid lockdowns in pics and videos

WATCH | Can protests against China’s zero-Covid policy pose a threat to Xi Jinping regime?

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