Zhou Yongkang and the Recent Police Reform in China

Article excerpt

This article is an attempt to understand the conflicting imperatives of police reform and the underlying constraints affecting it in a one-party state. When China entered the 21st century, police abuse of powers was a conspicuous national problem. Facing mounting public outcry, as crystallised in the series of scandals before 2003, the police, under the leadership of the powerful new Minister, started a nationwide campaign to control police abuses. The article analyses the competing explanations for police abuses in China and the conflicting demands placed on the police in China's social and economic transition. The article concludes that the ultimate restriction on police reform in China is its politicisation. As long as China remains an authoritarian state, which uses police to maintain its political stability, the police will still be unable to be truly responsive and accountable to public need.


Since 1978, the police in China have undergone continuous reform. The scope of the reform is broad, covering not only the relationship between the police and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the substantive and procedural aspects of police powers, and the mechanisms of accountability, but also police budget allocation and internal organisations. While these reform programs vary in their speed, scope and intensity, they have become a constant, perpetual and permanent feature of the police in post-Mao China. Police reform intensified when Zhou Yongkang, a powerful leader of the CCP, became the Minister of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) in late 2002 and started his crusade against police abuse of power. His crusade gained greater impetus in 2003 as a result of several police scandals.

Police abuse of powers was a conspicuous national problem in China at the start of the 21st century. Largely due to the frequent exposure of police scandals on China's active Internet, the police became the least liked institution in China and frequently ranked at the bottom of all government institutions. The public treated police with ridicule and hostility. Like police in other societies in transition (Shelley, 1996; Wolfe, 1992), China's police have been experiencing an identity and legitiraacy crisis.

This article is an attempt to understand the conflicting imperatives and the underlying constraints affecting police reform in a one-party state. Through the examination of the continuing police reform under Zhou Yongkang, the article analyses the demands placed on the police in China's social and economic transition as well as the competing explanations for police abuse. This article also studies the process by which the police strategically use police scandals to manipulate public opinion to their own institutional interests, and effectively turn police reform into police empowerment.

Police Reform in a One-Party State

There are competing imperatives in reforming China's police. On the one hand, continuing social and economic reforms over the past 20 years have placed increasingly heavy pressure on the political and legal systems. While the political and legal institutions have undergone significant changes during the reform years, these institutions, the police included, are strained and barely able to adapt to the vibrant economy and society today. Social and economic progress in China has given rise to an increasing demand for professionalism, institutional autonomy and procedural justice in the criminal justice system and to a growth in the general public cognisance of their rights. On the other, China remains a Communist authoritarian state, and ultimately, the CCP rules by force. The police play a critical role in maintaining social order and political stability under the CCP rule.

Over the past two decades, the police have undergone important reform. First, the CCP has been distancing itself from the police, allowing police professionalism and autonomy to grow. …