China Delves into Past to Police Tibet’s Future

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People’s Police at the new Fengqiao-style police post in Chushul County, Lhasa Municipality, Tibet Autonomous Region, discussing their work, July 24, 2020.
© 2020 Tibet Daily

Since the 2008 protests in Tibetan areas of China, Chinese authorities have often been at the forefront when it comes to innovating repressive tactics. There are tech-enabled “convenience police posts” on city streets, Communist Party cadre teams in every village, and a “grid management” system combining digital surveillance with paid overseers for each street block. These measures were soon replicated and scaled-up in the predominantly Turkic Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Now this system is being extended using a name that harks back to the darkest days of the Mao Zedong era: the Fengqiao-style Police Station. Villages in Tibet have rarely, if ever, had police posts, but according to a state media announcement in July, 17 of the 20 administrative villages in Chushul, a county near Lhasa, now do. In time, every administrative village is expected to have one.  

The “Fengqiao Experience” is named after a town in Zhejiang province in eastern China where, in the 1960s, the “revolutionary masses” were encouraged to handle “contradictions” within their communities. That meant identifying and re-educating “class enemies” among neighbors – a form of persecution that characterized the violent Cultural Revolution. Under President Xi Jinping, it has now been revived nationwide by the Chinese Communist Party for the digital age. A recent People’s Daily editorial proclaimed the Fengqiao Experience as a model for “social governance.”

In Xi’s “New Era,” it refers to the “screening and elimination of social contradictions” at the village level, which means the use of human and technological surveillance to detect and defuse potential threats to social stability. Official propaganda presents village-level police stations as bringing government services to the doorstep. In reality, the extension of policing means that it will be easier for authorities to spot and constrain people who want to take grievances to higher levels of government.

“Keeping small things in the village,” a Fengqiao slogan, is still seen as a necessity for social stability, perhaps especially now that more “New Socialist Villages” than ever are being constructed across the Tibetan countryside. These communities often house farmers and nomads relocated en masse under state “poverty alleviation” policies, partly induced by official promises of better housing and employment opportunities. If those promises fall short, as seems likely, the Fengqiao-style police stations will be on hand to keep complainants out of sight.