“Thugs-for-Hire”: Subcontracting of State Coercion and State Capacity in China
by Lynette H. Ong, University of Toronto
Using violence or threat of violence, “thugs-for-hire” (TFH) is a form of privatized coercion that helps states subjugate a recalcitrant population. I lay out three scope conditions under which TFH is the preferred strategy: when state actions are illegal or policies are unpopular; when evasion of state responsibility is highly desirable; and when states are weak in their capacity or are less strong than their societies. Weak states relative to strong ones are more likely to deploy TFH, mostly for the purpose of bolstering their coercive capacity; strong states use TFH for evasion of responsibility. Yet the state-TFH relationship is functional only if the state is able to maintain the upper hand over the violent agents. Focusing on China, a seemingly paradoxical case due to its traditional perception of being a strong state, I examine how local states frequently deploy TFH to evict homeowners, enforce the one-child policy, collect exorbitant exactions, and deal with petitioners and protestors. However, the increasing prevalence of “local mafia states” suggests that some of the thuggish groups have grown to usurp local governments’ autonomy. This points to the cost of relying upon TFH as a repressive strategy.