Forward-leaning policing and stability maintenance: The politics of penal control in Xi's China

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorEnshen Li
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Forward-leaning policing
and stability maintenance:
The politics of penal control
in Xis China
Enshen Li
City University of Hong Kong, China
This article seeks to address the intensif‌ication of incarceration in Xis China. By situat-
ing the analysis of incarceration within the theory of penal politics, I ascribe the Chinese
system of penal control to a purposeful and politically charged change in policing prac-
tices. Through what I call forward-leaning policing(), China under the cur-
rent leadership has co-opted the exercise of carceral power through more aggressive
and proactive policing as an intensif‌ied response to an eclectic mix of developing social
issues which threaten public order and political stability, emergent from Chinas transi-
tion to modernity. All the while, the countrys community and social policy interventions
have been inadequate in addressing the evolving risksin Chinese society. Those two
converging forces, together, pave the way for individuals to have increased contact
with the justice system, as well as exposing them to a higher probability of falling within
the remit of formal punishment, including imprisonment.
penal control, social stability, incarceration, policing, China
Extant scholarship has done much to inform our understanding of how contemporary
punishment is politically shaped and conditioned. It has been observed that, until at
least a decade ago, the US and many Continental European nations moved rapidly
Corresponding author:
Enshen Li, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.
Punishment & Society
2024, Vol. 26(2) 368393
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14624745231218473
towards a carceral state. This stance towards punishment responds to, among others: the
emergence of populist penalitywhich works to mobilise votes by advocating for penal
punitiveness (Newburn, 1997; Pratt, 2007); the new paradigm of managerial justice
which optimises the costs of incapacitation (Feeley and Simon, 1992; Wacquant,
2009); and a decline of social control functions by mainstream institutions which pivot
governments towards mass incarceration(specif‌ically the US) (Garland, 2001, 2020;
Ramsay, 2012). Yet, as Vanessa Barker (2006: 11) highlights, the punishment-politics
relationship plays out differently in culturally divergent jurisdictions. Typically, penal
policy and practice are immersed in a governments models, priorities, interests and inter-
actions with social developments and subsequently shape how states perceive crime and
disorder. Considering this, understanding why incarceration has become the primary
form of modern penality, referred to as penal control(Garland, 2020: 326), requires a
close inspection of the nexus between politics and carcerality (e.g. Iturralde, 2021).
Exploration of this phenomenon, thus far, has focused disproportionately on Anglophone
democracies. But western theoretical accounts of penality, as evinced in region-specif‌ic
research, do not offer an adequate explanation for the prevalen ce of penal control in the
Global South with its idiosyncratic social structures, culture dimensions and political
ethos. This article aims to contribute to southern criminologyscholarship (Carrington
et al., 2016) by exploring the political sociology of penal control in the Peoples
Republic of China (China) since Xi Jinping came to powerin 2012. It is perhapsself-evident
that politics plays a pivotal part in undergirding every aspect of social relations in this
Marxist-Leninist regime. Its proximity with the ruling Communist Party (the Party)s
desire to maintain a permanent monopoly on power has led some to conclude that punish-
ment is not only a political tool but a distinct expression of the political(Trevaskes, 2010:
11). Much of the literature has spoken to the politicisation of sanctions (criminal and admin-
istrative punishments) which serve the Partys quest for political stability and legitimacy
(Biddulph, 2007; Fu, 2018; Lewis, 2011; Liang, 2005; Trevaskes, 2010; Wang, 2020).
Along the lines of this previous research, I focus on incarceration as a specif‌ic tool of
punishment to understand its place within the political sphere. Over the past decade, the
incarcerated population in China has steadily increased despite the emergence of more
lenient penal policies and a decline in the severity of crimes. While prior research has
described the dominance of the Party over punishment regimes, it has not gone much
further than recognising and documenting this political inf‌luence. We are then left in
the shadows regarding the inner workings of the politics of incarceration specif‌ically
how political considerations and priorities produce their intended effect on penal controls.
One particular purpose of this article is to tease out the mechanism of the
politics-incarceration cycle, and the legal and penal circumstances in which this
process is conf‌igured by state discourse, motivation and action.
Divided into three parts, this article argues that the increase in Chinas incarcerated
population under Xi is a result of the intensif‌ied response of penal control to an eclectic
mix of developing social dislocations threatening public order and political stability,
including the most recent Covid-19 pandemic.
Through what I call forward-leaning
policing, the current Government has inherited hard policing from its predecessors
and co-opted more aggressive police powers to advance the countrys overriding
Li 369

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