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  • Sheena Chestnut Greitens

The Saohei Campaign, Protection Umbrellas, and China’s Changing Political-Legal Apparatus

Sheena Chestnut Greitens CLM Issue 65 September 2020
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Gangster-Busting Slogan in the South Lake Park, Panzhou, Guizhou, China
In January 2018 China began a three-year campaign, known as the saohei campaign, to crack down on “underworld forces.” A key emphasis of the campaign was its targeting of “protection umbrellas,” an effort to break the links between criminal organizations and their government and party protectors at the local levels. In the rhetoric of the campaign, “black and evil” underworld forces not only threatened the safety and finances of ordinary citizens but also infiltrated and weakened political authority, thereby damaging both social stability and the party’s ruling foundation. Saohei, therefore, is not only a cleansing of corruption at the grassroots levels but also a purification and re-strengthening of governance under party supervision. The campaign has resulted in the removal of a large number of personnel throughout the political-legal system, moving from initial removal of key leaders to lower levels of the system as the campaign has continued to unfold. It has also allowed local authorities to use the idea of “black and evil” to target specific local groups, from housing-demolition protestors to alleged “underworld forces linked to the Dalai Lama clique.” The saohei campaign will end early next year, but many of its key themes and foci will continue in the 2021 “education and rectification campaign” announced by Chen Yixin for the entire political-legal apparatus, suggesting that the party leadership perceives unfinished work within the political-legal apparatus. Xi Jinping, having already successfully replaced most of the leadership in the political-legal apparatus, now appears to be using saohei and its successor rectification campaign to push his authority down to lower levels of the political-legal system.

On 24 January 2018, China began a three-year campaign to crack down on “underworld forces” that were facilitating corruption, known as the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (扫黑除恶专项斗争, saohei chu’e zhuanxiang douzheng, or saohei for short).[1] The announcement by the Central Committee and the State Council called the campaign a “major decision made by the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core,” and framed it as integral to social stability and the consolidation of grassroots government. Echoing other themes in Xi Jinping’s approach to the long-term maintenance of social stability, the announcement argued that the campaign is an attempt to deal with root causes rather than merely treating symptoms, and a way to strike at problems when they are early and small (打早打小, dazao daxiao) – i.e., before they escalate.

Unlike other campaigns, however, this campaign aimed not only at using law enforcement to crack down externally on organized criminal groups and networks in China. Equally important is the campaign’s role in purging the influence of those groups within the law-enforcement apparatus; gangsters do not only threaten the safety and finances of ordinary citizens but also infiltrate political authority and threaten both social stability and the regime’s political security.[2] A central feature of the campaign is its targeting of “protection umbrellas” (baohusan, 保护伞): officials who provide the shelter of law enforcement and legal cover to organized crime and thereby tolerate and facilitate (and usually profit from) their activities. The launch of the campaign portrayed crime and corruption as deeply intertwined, and it directed officials to embed cadre supervision and party discipline deeply into the work of law enforcement and crime-fighting. In a videoconference announcement of the campaign, Guo Shengkun (郭声琨), head of the Central Political and Legal Commission (CPLC, 中央政法委, zhongyang zhengfawei), emphasized the importance of the campaign and directed listeners to incorporate the anti-corruption campaign into the heart of the anti-crime campaign.[3] A National Saohei Office (全国扫黑办, quanguo saoheiban), led by Chen Yixin (陈一新, secretary-general/秘书长of the CPLC), was established to coordinate the effort.

Understanding “Protection Umbrellas”

The idea of “protection umbrellas” is integral to the definition of the saohei campaign.[4] As one recent Xinhua article describes, the shift from “striking” (打, da) to “sweeping away” (扫, sao) evil forces reflects major changes in the context of anti-corruption investigations over the course of the past decade.[5] Evil or underworld forces are now more deeply concealed and are operating more covertly, using the cloak of legality rather than open violence to achieve their ends and shifting the industries in which they primarily operate.[6] The discursive shift from strike to sweep, then, indicates a change both in the definition of the problem and in the approach used to attack it: saohei involves broader coordination between party and state organs and a correspondingly broader governmental approach involving almost thirty departments (rather than the dozen or so departments involved in the previous campaigns).

But saohei involves more than broadening interagency and party-state cooperation in fighting crime. It also has been explicitly framed as an effort to consolidate the party’s ruling foundation and to maintain long-term peace and stability (夯实党的执政根基… 维护国家长治久安, hangshi dang de zhizheng genji…weihu guojia changzhijiu’an). The obstacle to these objectives – the one that requires sweeping away – is grassroots corruption, wherein evil forces form cliques with local officials; wine, dine, and bribe them; and benefit from their shelter and protection to continue operating without punishment under the law.[7] As party rhetoric frames it, weak officials collude with criminal elements to obtain material benefits, while others avoid aggressive crackdowns for fear that they will jeopardize their image, harm their careers, and damage the local investment environment.[8] The key idea behind the effort to eliminate “protection umbrellas” is that the party-state must investigate and break the links between criminal organizations and any protectors at the local levels of governance: these protectors are concentrated in, though not exclusively located inside, the political-legal system. News coverage has suggested that in criminal cases the authorities must look for both criminal elements and “protection umbrellas,” and they should investigate both.[9] The cleansing of corruption at the grassroots level, therefore, is not only a crackdown on crime but also a purification and re-strengthening of governance at the grassroots level – under, of course, the leadership and direction of the CCP.

An April 2019 article from Xi’an outlines fifteen different sub-types of “protection umbrellas.”[10] Offenses that fall under this category include: creating a company to share profits with criminal forces; using one’s position to provide time and space for criminal activities; illegally using law-enforcement resources to support criminal activities; retaliating against whistleblowers; failing to pursue a case; leaking details about a case to help criminals evade punishment; filing cases involving organized crime as “ordinary cases” to hide the involvement or organized crime; fabricating or destroying evidence; insufficiently pursuing recovery of illicit gains; dereliction of duty in supervising criminal suspects; accepting property (including food) from criminals or their families while they are under investigation or under law-enforcement supervision; illegally commuting a sentence (for example, through medical parole); improperly interceding in the progress of a case; obstructing the investigation and handling of a case (for example, by convincing others to give false testimony); and other acts of corruption that simply render law enforcement ineffective in the efforts to combat organized crime.

The Course of the Campaign

On 24 January 2018, the CCP Central Committee and the State Council issued the “Notice Regarding the Launch of the Special Campaign to Sweep Away Black and Eliminate Evil.” [11] The purpose of the campaign was to integrate two objectives “sweeping away black and eliminating evil” and “opposing corruption and graft at the grassroots level.” The announcement also focused on the need to eliminate the “protection umbrellas” of criminal organizations to eradicate the soil in which criminal offenses could flourish.

The late January announcement was followed on 5 February by regulations issued by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP), the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Justice.[12] Calling the evil forces a “malignant tumor” (毒瘤, duliu) on the healthy development of the economy and society, the regulations allowed for voluntary confessions prior to March 1 in order to receive lighter punishments as well as promising lighter punishments to those who assist in investigating others. It also called on the masses to report crimes and protection umbrellas, promising to protect their personal information and safety, offering unspecified rewards, and setting up a reporting website, mailbox, and phone line.[13] By the end of the year, over twenty departments, particularly those with authority over key industries (for example, the Ministry of Natural Resources), had established their own issue-specific guidance for the crackdown.[14]

By summer, the basic organizational architecture for the campaign had been established at the national level. In May 2018, the office of the National Leading Small Group for the Saohei Campaign was established, headed by Guo Shengkun (全国扫黑除恶专项斗争领导小组组长, quanguo saohei chu’e zhuanxiang douzheng lingdao xiaozu zuzhang).[15] Guo’s deputies included Zhao Kezhi (minister of Public Security); Zhou Qiang (chief of the Supreme People’s Court); Zhang Jun (chief prosecutor); Li Shulei (deputy secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection [CCDI]); Qi Yu (deputy minister of the Central Organization Department); and Chen Yixin (secretary-general of the CPLC). The Leading Small Group’s Office is headed by Chen Yixin, with six deputies: three deputy secretaries-general from the CPLC (Chen Xunqiu, Bai Shaokang, and Lei Dongsheng); Supreme People’s Court Vice President (副院长, fuyuanzhang) Jiang Wei; Supreme People’s Procuratorate Deputy Member (最高检检委会副部级专职委员, zuigaojian jianweihui fubuji zhuanzhi weiyuan) Chen Guoqing; and Deputy Minister of Public Security Li Wei.

In June, the Office met and announced plans to form ten supervision teams, totaling 335 people, who would rotate through the provinces in three rounds (each round including a number of provinces, regions, or municipalities) between July 2018 and July 2019. The first round included Hebei, Shanxi, Liaoning, Fujian, Shandong, Henan, Hubei, Guangdong, Chongqing, and Sichuan.[16] According to this work plan, the first year would be centered on containment and combat; the second year would focus on digging into the roots of the problem; and the third year would emphasize long-term management.

A report on this first round in the Legal Daily recited the usual impressive-sounding statistics: the supervision teams went “deep into the grassroots” by visiting 823 villages in 627 townships and 390 counties in 99 cities and speaking directly with 5,764 party members; this process claimed to have uncovered over 6,000 important tips/clues (重要线索, zhongyao xiansuo), facilitated elimination of 96 criminal organizations, and investigated 1,791 corruption and protection umbrella cases. It also credited mass mobilization for some of the campaign’s initial success: citizens submitted over 300,000 reports (and received over 15 million RMB in reward money for doing so).[17] The interagency offer of voluntary confession and surrender also appears to have been effective; an alleged 180,000 suspects turned themselves in “due to fear of the powerful offensive” (强大攻势, qiangda gongshi).

In mid-August 2018, Chen Yixin presided over the second meeting of directors of the National Saohei Office.[18] He used the meeting to indicate the campaign had, after some initial results, entered a deepening phase in which the work would become more difficult; he then outlined ten problems to confront moving forward. These ranged from insufficient prioritization of and focus on the campaign among local officials and insufficient mobilization of the masses to engage in reporting inconsistencies across law-enforcement institutions and insufficient investigation and supervision of cases. He also indicated that a remaining problem was the entrenchment of protection umbrellas due to an inability and unwillingness to investigate, and a fear that “shedding light on the black” (灯下黑, deng xia hei) would damage the officials’ careers.

In addition to exhorting listeners to “dare to cut the knife inward and scrape the bone” (敢于刀口向内、敢于刮骨疗伤, ganyu daokou xiangnei, ganyu guagu liaoshang),[19] Chen called for strengthening cooperation between the political-legal organs and their CCDI counterparts (纪委监委, jiweijianwei) to ensure that “sweeping black” and “opening the umbrella” (打伞, dasan) would be carried out simultaneously.[20] Chen also proposed implementation of an exchange mechanism between county-level Public Security Bureau directors (县级公安局长, xianji gong’an juzhang) and police station chiefs (派出所长, paichusuozhang) and ordered regular rotation of personnel, presumably to avoid the coalescence of protective cliques.

In mid-October 2018, a National Conference to Promote the Saohei Campaign was held in Wuhan.[21] The meeting announced that investigation of “protection umbrellas” would be one of the main foci of the campaign’s upcoming work. Media coverage in late 2018 illustrated the importance of the issue by profiling a Shanxi gang whose leader, Chen Hongzhi, had been protected by a village head (村主任, cunzhuren), village party secretary (村支部书记, cun zhibu shuji), and police station chief (派出所原所长, paichusuoyuanzhang); when the group was arrested, the seized assets totaled an alleged 7.8 billion RMB.[22]

The second round of the campaign began in April 2019, after training sessions were held in Beijing in March. This round targeted Tianjin, Jilin, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangxi, Hainan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Xinjiang (including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps).[23] In late May and early June, the third round began, covering Beijing, Shanxi, Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Qinghai, and Gansu, followed by Tibet and Ningxia; reporting at the time noted that the supervisory efforts had then covered all of China’s provincial-level units.[24]

Each round of supervision in a provincial-level unit has been followed by at least one round of a shorter or “look back” review (回头看, huitoukan), which lasts approximately ten days.[25] In these reviews, the supervision group examines the list of problems uncovered during the first visit and the suggestions made to remedy those problems, and then compares them to current practices and results to check how thoroughly the directives have been implemented. Review of the first round of supervision was completed in spring 2019, and the second and third tranches of review, comprising 21 provincial-level units, were completed over the course of the summer and fall of 2019. In covering the launch of the second and third review rounds (in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on 14 October), the National Saohei Office reported that these reviews were a key link in the implementation of “rectification” (整改, zhenggai), laying the groundwork for the transition to a broader rectification campaign that would be announced in summer 2020 (see below).

Reports on these visits typically include at least one anecdote about the negative impact of evil forces that “oppress the people” (for example, a report on Harbin refers to evil forces bullying the people for a long time: 长期欺压百姓, changqi qiya baixing)[26] – positioning the supervision campaign as liberating the people based on the desire of the masses. On 28 May 2019, the National Saohei Office held a press conference to release a new intelligent reporting platform (智能化举报平台, zhinenghua jubao pingtai) that allowed citizens to report on a website, via QR code or via Wechat.[27]

The Office’s indication that it would use cloud computing and big data analysis in its work, and comments that the upgrade (from the previous letter-and-phone reporting system) would establish an integrated and efficient intelligent reporting platform and parallel leadership rhetoric about the importance of technology and data integration throughout the political-legal system. Official rhetoric around this time also began to refer to the “sharp sword” (利剑, lijian) of supervision, implicitly elevating it alongside the gun (a metaphor for the armed forces) and the knife (used to refer to the domestic security forces).

On 9 April 2020, the Ministry of Public Security launched a “Reducing to Zero” (清零, qingling) operation for the saohei campaign to pursue fugitives.[28] By mid-May, authorities reported that 934 of 1,481 domestic fugitives had been apprehended as well as 33 who had fled overseas. Little additional information is currently available about from which country these individuals were returned or how their return was effectuated.

Assessing the Impact of the Saohei Campaign

One major result of the campaign has been significant purging and removal of lower-level personnel within the political-legal apparatus. Media reports suggest that at least 67,190 law-enforcement officials have been investigated and prosecuted for serving as protection umbrellas.[29] As Ling Li has noted, this approach to corruption within the political-legal system during Xi Jinping’s first term (2012–2017) produced a paradigm change in the party’s disciplinary regime, marrying ideological and disciplinary campaigns to render anti-corruption into a simultaneous tool of power consolidation for Xi Jinping.[30]

The work report of the SPP (最高人民检察院, zuigao renmin jianchayuan), released in March 2019, provides a snapshot of the results during the first year of the saohei campaign.[31] It notes that some of the work involved issuing notices and formulating guidance as well as defining eleven major points of attack for the campaign (打击重点, daji zhongdian) and listing sixty-nine “major gang-related cases” (重大涉黑案件, zhongda shehei anjian) for supervision. Arrests were authorized for 11,183 people on suspicion of gang-related crimes (涉黑犯罪, shehei fanzui), of whom 10,361 were prosecuted, and of the 62,202 people suspected of crimes (涉恶犯罪, she’e fanzui), 50,827 were prosecuted.[32] The report also notes that the “ruthless crackdown” on the ‘protection umbrellas’ over black and evil forces resulted in the prosecution of 350 people.

To accomplish this, the National Office had to portray both a severe problem and success in rooting out the problem. Interim reports from the first year of the campaign offer four main categories of metrics to gauge success: investigations into gang-related criminal activity; investigations into other criminal suspects; “protection umbrella” investigations; and the amount of assets involved. One review in August 2018, for example, rattled these figures off in a range of provinces to demonstrate the campaign’s efficacy:

During the supervision period, Guizhou produced new investigations/prosecutions (侦办) of 20 gang-involved criminal organizations (涉黑犯罪组织); 45 criminal groups (恶势力犯罪集团和团伙); and 731 arrests of criminal suspects (犯罪嫌疑人). Gansu investigated and prosecuted 7 gangs and 56 criminal groups…Jiangxi destroyed 82 gangs and criminal organizations. The number of criminal gangs destroyed, suspects detained, and “protection umbrella” cases handled in Shanghai was 1.54, 1.37, and 1.87 times the numbers before the start of the campaign. Heilongjiang destroyed 46 criminal gangs and seized/froze 2.17 billion RMB of assets – 7.8 times the monthly average since the start of the campaign.[33]

The non-comparability of the statistics offered across different provincial-level units raises the obvious possibility that these figures are selected to demonstrate the campaign’s success and the importance of its work.

The 2020 SPP report, which was released on 25 May 2020, shows an increase in prosecutions for “protection umbrella” activity during the campaign’s second year.[34] It reports 30,547 prosecutions for gang-related activities; 67,689 prosecutions for criminal activity; and 1,385 prosecutions for involvement in protection umbrellas. Zhao Leji’s January 2020 report to the CCDI, however, suggests potentially broader impacts when the party’s disciplinary procedures are included in the tally.[35] A total of 38,000 cases involving crime, corruption, and protection umbrella issues were filed nationwide; 32,000 party disciplinary and government sanctions were imposed; and the cases of over 4,900 suspects were transferred to prosecutors.

The report emphasizes the importance of continued struggle against corruption, describing it as “the biggest threat facing the party” (腐败是我们党面临的最大威胁, fubai shi women dang mianlin de zuida weixie). Overall, the national discipline and supervision organs (全国纪检监察机关, quanguo jijian jiancha jiguan) filed and investigated 619,000 cases; gave 587,000 party discipline and government sanctions; and transferred 21,000 suspected criminals to prosecutors (检察机关, jiancha jiguan); the CCDI/National Supervision Commission (NSC) filed for review and investigation 45 centrally supervised (中管干部, zhongguan ganbu) cadres. Nationally, 10,357 people voluntarily turned themselves in, including 5 centrally supervised cadres and 119 provincially supervised cadres (省管干部, shengguan ganbu).

The report also mentions efforts to strengthen international cooperation on anti-corruption efforts, including a “Clean Belt and Road” summit and other efforts. It notes that the “Skynet 2019” operation (天网2019 行动, tianwang 2019 xingdong) had resulted in the repatriation of over 2,000 expatriates, including 40 people who were Interpol “red notices” (红通人员, hongtong renyuan) and 860 who were party members or government officials, and recovered 5.4 billion RMB in stolen assets. The work plan for 2020 indicates that the operation will continue into the saohei campaign’s final year.

Full data are not yet available for the campaign’s third year (2020). A CCDI report released for the first six months of 2020, however, gives the sense that the campaign has expanded even further.[36] It claims to have received 1.431 million letters and visits, handled 807,000 tips/clues, and filed 286,000 cases. A total of 240,000 individuals were sanctioned, the majority (208,000, or about 87 percent) via party discipline. Of those punished, 13 were provincial- and ministerial-level cadres; 1,314 department/bureau-level cadres; 9,000 county/department cadres; 33,000 township/department cadres; 39,000 general cadres; and 159,000 other personnel.

The campaign has had other important political effects. In several cases profiled in the media, the Central Supervision Group’s (中央督导组, zhongyang dudaozu) oversight and supervision work has prompted provincial and local authorities to re-do cases that the central authorities deemed were previously improperly handled. In Shaanxi, for example, provincial authorities re-indicted three cases allegedly involving triad activity that the prosecutor had previously declined to pursue; the re-investigation of a case in Yunnan increased the number of “public officials and important persons” involved to a total of 20; the Central Steering Group’s involvement doubled the assets in a Ningxia case, involving 7 department-level cadres, and broke open the first “protection umbrella” case in Qinghai, with over 100 million RMB in seized assets.[37] Reporting on these incidents seems designed not only to show the overall effectiveness of the campaign but the particular importance of central supervision and intervention in local proceedings.[38] While Chinese scholarship on the campaign is generally favorable in its evaluations,[39] one English-language article describes more mixed results: while it may improve legitimacy among local populations by tackling local corruption, it also distorts the criminal justice system in its demands for speed and may also produce distortions in terms of who is targeted.[40]

Another important impact of the campaign has been to empower local authorities to interpret the campaign directive as license for broadened definitions of so-called “black and evil” forces, in ways that suit their particular interests. In a number of cases, authorities have targeted organizers of anti-demolition protests in local contention over housing and development policies or organizers who facilitate petition movements.[41] Local authorities in Tibet call on the masses to report “underworld forces connected to the Dalai Lama…who promote separatist activity,”[42] while in Xinjiang, descriptions of underworld forces include criminal gangs that operate under “ethnic or religious banners” to promote extremism.[43] The campaign in Yunnan has integrated its saohei campaign efforts with anti-smuggling, anti-drug, and counter-terrorism activity.[44] Other critics have charged that the campaign is being used to suppress religious life.[45] Perhaps as a result, officials from the CCDI warned in spring 2019 of the need to define the campaign’s targets precisely – suggesting that they had been rather indiscriminately applied to date.[46]

Summer 2020: From Saohei to Rectification

​In July 2020, Chen Yixin made a speech announcing a new “education and rectification” (教育整顿, jiaoyu zhengdun) campaign within the political-legal apparatus, which would begin nationally in 2021, picking up where the saohei campaign is scheduled to leave off.[47] The campaign will begin with a three-month pilot in five cities and four counties (as well as two prisons) from July to October of 2020. The national campaign will then launch nationally in early 2021 and finish in the first quarter of 2022. Chen’s announcement called on the political-legal apparatus to focus on four tasks (四项任务, si xiang renwu), the first of which he described as follows:

First is to eliminate bad apples (清除害群之马, qingchu haiqunzhima); investigate two-faced people (两面人, liangmianren) who are disloyal and dishonest with the party; thoroughly investigate the protection umbrellas of evil forces; deeply investigate law enforcement and judicial corruption; and investigate corruption that has not been curbed or stopped since the 18th Party Congress.[48]

The other tasks focus on constructing a system to improve the supervision and management of law enforcement and judicial organs; promote the spirit of heroes and models and encourage law-enforcement officials in their duties; and improve the ability and quality of these officials to conduct their duties in the new era, including educating them on the differences between “passive and active investigation.” It suggests that police and other figures in the political-legal apparatus will be prompted to engage in both criticism and self-criticism in order to “mobilize law-enforcement officials to truthfully explain their own violations of discipline and law” with “proactive confessions and sincere regret.” It also indicates that the supervision teams will attempt to follow through on enforcement and implementation in the campaign within set time frames, to ensure that the work has been done as they desire.

The new rectification campaign repeats some similar themes from other signature domestic security initiatives previously conducted by Xi Jinping. First is the continued focus on eliminating “protection umbrellas” within law enforcement. Second, there is the use of the tifa (提法) “scraping poison off the bone” (刮骨疗毒, guagu liaodu), a formulation used in 2016 to describe efforts to purge the corrupting influence of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission who were both purged in the early years of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign within the military, but has also been employed at times in saohei rhetoric.[49] Finally, the new campaign employs the metaphor of removing “tumors” from the political-legal system (政法系统, zhengfa xitong), an analogy that has been used extensively to describe the party’s domestic security and re-education efforts in Xinjiang. The education and rectification movement, therefore, appears to be an extension, both in time and scope, of some of the key themes and foci of the saohei campaign This suggests that perhaps the party leadership, particularly its disciplinary personnel, perceive unfinished work within the political-legal apparatus.

A campaign that encompasses the entire political-legal system is rare, meaning that there has not been another one quite like this during the post-Mao era. Ling Li argues that the last campaign with a similar focus directed by the top leadership was the judicial reform campaign in the early 1950s that aimed at eradicating KMT influence; she interprets this to mean that “a pan-zhengfa-apparatus rectification campaign is not a decision that the Party makes lightly.”[50] Moreover, Chen Yixin’s references to the party’s rectification campaigns in Yan’an (延安整风, Yan’an zhengfeng) as models for the upcoming rectification have heightened speculation that the campaign will be ruthless and that it will serve as an exercise in personal power consolidation for Xi Jinping.[51] Because several of Xi Jinping’s former rivals previously held important positions in the zhengfa xitong, personnel purges may be designed to consolidate Xi’s personal hold over the political-legal system.[52]

It is notable that the campaign is being led by Chen Yixin, a close associate of Xi Jinping, rather than Guo Shengkun, who is the formal head of the Central Political-Legal Commission but who is not close to Xi. Chen, currently an alternate member of the Central Committee, worked with Xi in Zhejiang and quickly rose to prominence, serving in several key roles: as deputy director of the General Office of the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (a group created by Xi Jinping); as party secretary of Wuhan and deputy party secretary of Hubei; and now as secretary-general of the CPLC, while also playing a major role in China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.[53]

As previously noted in China Leadership Monitor, Xi Jinping has replaced many of the top leaders in this political-legal system with people who are close personal associates (with Guo Shengkun as one of the highest-ranking exceptions).[54] The most recent four to transition out of the political-legal apparatus are Fu Zhenghua, minister of Justice who resigned as deputy party chief within the ministry in late April as he approached retirement age;[55] Meng Hongwei, the deputy minister of Public Security and head of Interpol who was detained in fall 2018 and sentenced in January 2020 on corruption charges;[56] Sun Lijun, an official with a background working on both Hong Kong and public health; and Gong Dao’an, deputy mayor and head of the municipal Public Security Bureau in Shanghai, who was placed under investigation in August 2020.[57] Party rhetoric describing Sun’s removal was caustic, characterizing his fall as “an inevitable result of his long-standing disregard of party political discipline and political rules, his failure to observe discipline and rules, [and for his display of a lack of] awe and wanton behavior,” the latter of which was interpreted as showing insufficient respect and deference to Xi Jinping.[58] Both Meng Hongwei and Sun Lijun were also close to fallen CPLC head Zhou Yongkang, and the meeting made it clear that this was part of the reason for their removal, arguing that it was necessary to “eliminate the influence of Zhou Yongkang, Meng Hongwei, Sun Lijun, and others from the ideological, political, organizational, and work style.”

These efforts suggest a continued push on Xi Jinping’s part to remake China’s coercive apparatus into a force that is entirely politically responsive to his direction. During his first term, Xi concentrated on anti-corruption efforts within the PLA and laid out a new framework for thinking about domestic security as well as beginning to replace some of the top leadership in the political-legal apparatus. His second term has seen more emphasis on re-making the domestic security apparatus, including personnel replacement throughout the leadership team within the Ministry of Public Security.[59] It may be that on the heels of a successful 19th Party Congress,[60] and having replaced most of the leadership of the political-legal system, Xi has decided to use the saoheicampaign (which was launched in January 2018 after the 19th Party Congress) – and more recently, the upcoming education and rectification campaign – to push his authority downward to the lower levels of the political-legal system, thereby consolidating fuller control over the political-legal system by the time of the 20th Party Congress in 2022. That this campaign is centered in the party-state’s newly reorganized and centralized discipline-and-supervision agency is further evidence both that the ongoing trend is toward centralization, and that this centralization is intended to consolidate Xi Jinping’s leadership.

In estimating the impact of the remaining months of the saohei campaign and next year’s education and rectification campaign, at least three additional developments could affect the trajectory of the political-legal system. The first development is the creation of a “peaceful China construction and coordination team” led by Guo Shengkun, announced in April. In July, this body announced a new task force for “political security” (a term often used to refer to the security of the ruling party) led by Lei Dongsheng, which is being added to existing task forces that focus on social security and security affairs at the municipal level.[61] The second potential development has to do with ongoing rumors about investigations into Meng Jianzhu, who was a patron of the recently removed Sun Lijun.[62] Third, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in China, the CCDI and State Supervision Commission have placed increased focus on anti-corruption efforts in the medical field, which may distract their lower-level agents from a unified focus on the political-legal apparatus.[63] How these factors unfold and interact with each other will have a strong impact on the future shape and behavior of China’s political-legal system.

About the Contributor

Sheena Chestnut Greitens is Associate Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and an affiliate of the University’s Strauss Center and Clements Center for National Security. She thanks Steve Bai and Hang Qi for research assistance, Nancy Hearst for excellent copy-editing, and Minxin Pei, Joseph Fewsmith, Carl Minzner, Suzanne Scoggins, and several additional colleagues for helpful feedback.


[1] The name is sometimes translated more poetically as the Campaign to Sweep Away Black and Eliminate Evil. “中共中央, 国务院发出《关于开展扫黑除恶专项斗争的通知》” [“The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council Issue ‘Notice on Carrying out a Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces’”], Xinhua, 24 January 2018, See also “把扫黑除恶专项斗争不断推向深入” [“Pushing Forward the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces”], Legal Daily, 13 October 2019,

[2] 杨宇枫 and 陈雪晴,“黑社会性质组织与保护伞勾结模式研究” [Yang Yufeng and Chen Xueqing, “Analysis of the Investigation and Identification of ‘Protection Umbrellas’ by Evil Forces”], China Criminal Police, No. 4 (2019): 20–23; 于阳 and 吴承麟, “黑社会性质组织与保护伞勾结模式研究” [Yu Yang and Wu Chenglin, “Study on the Collusion Mode of Underworld-Society Organizations and their Protection Umbrellas”], Police Science Research, No. 6 (2019): 21–30; The Economist, “China is Waging a Nationwide Campaign against Gang Crime,” 28 February 2019,

[3] “郭声琨: 深入开展扫黑除恶专项斗争 切实保障人民安居乐业社会安定有序国家长治久安” [“Guo Shengkun: Intensively Carry out the Saohei Campaign to Conscientiously Ensure that the People Live in Peace and Work Happily, Society is Stable and Orderly, and the Country has Long-Term Peace and Stability”], Xinhua, 24 January 2018,

[4] The campaign has produced new scholarship focused on “protection umbrellas.” See for example, 陈梅, “黑恶势力‘保护伞’职务犯罪的成因及对策研究” [Chen Mei, “Study on the Causes and Countermeasures of the Crime of Protecting Criminal Forces”], Journal of Hubei University of Police, No. 6 (2018): 82–87; 王秀梅 and 戴小强, “ ‘打伞’式扫黑的法理分析” [Wang Xiumei and Dai Xiaoqiang, “Legal Analysis on ‘Umbrella-type’ Protection of Gang Organization Crimes”], Journal of Henan Police College 23, No. 6 (2014): 5–17; 徐永伟, “黑社会性质组织‘保护伞’的刑法规制检视与调试: 以涉黑犯罪与腐败犯罪的一体化治理为中心” [Xu Yongwei, “Inspection and Adjustment of Criminal Law Regulation of Underworld Organizations’ ‘Protection Umbrella’: Centering on Integrated Governance of Underworld Crimes and Corruption Crimes”], Social Sciences of Beijing, No. 5 (2019): 4–14; 王秀梅, 司伟攀, “‘扫黑打伞’刑法适用问题研究” [Wang Xiu-mei and Si Wei-pan, “Study on Cracking Down on ‘Mafia-Type Organized Crimes and Breaking up Umbrellas’ through Criminal Law”], Journal of SUIBE 27 (2020): 74–89.

[5] “从 ‘打’黑除恶到 ‘扫’黑除恶,一字之变有何深意?” [“What is the Meaning of Changing from ‘Smashing’ Black and Eliminating Evil to ‘Sweeping’ Black and Eliminating Evil?”], Xinhua, 24 January 2018,

[6] Ibid.; for academic perspectives, see 张翔, 李康震, “广东省黑社会性质组织犯罪实证调查研究: 基于已判刑的 25 个黑社会性质组织的考察” [Zhang Xiang and Li Kangzhen, “An Empirical Study of Underworld Crimes in Guangdong Province: Based on an Investigation of 25 Sentenced Underworld Organizations”], Journal of Jiangxi Police Institute, No. 3 (2018): 44–48; 黄京平, “黑恶势力利用’软暴力’犯罪的若干问题” [Huang Jingping, “Some Problems of ‘Soft Violence’ Crimes Committed by Mafia-like Gangs”], Journal of Beijing Union University 16, No. 2 (2018): 1–12, 23.

[7] 余志忠, 林磊山, “扫黑除恶中村干部涉黑涉恶问题研究” [Yu Zhizhong and Lin Leisha, “Study of the Problem of Village Cadres’ Involvement in the Organized Crime”], Research on Crime and Transformation, No. 8 (2018): 10–15; 李小华, “试析扫黑除恶中村干部涉黑涉恶问题” [Li Xiaohua, “Analysis of the Problem of Village Cadres’ Involvement in Organized Crime in the Process of the Saohei Campaign”], Legal Vision, No. 4 (2019): 165.

[8] “从 ‘打’黑除恶到 ‘扫’黑除恶,一字之变有何深意?” [“What is the Meaning of Changing from ‘Smashing’ Black and Eliminating Evil to ‘Sweeping’ Black and Eliminating Evil?”], Xinhua, 24 January 2018,

[9] “扫黑除恶: 注意了!黑恶势力‘保护伞’的15种类型” [“Sweep Away Black and Eliminate Evil: Pay Attention! 15 Types of ‘Protection Umbrellas’ for Underworld Forces”], Central Committee Propaganda Department, Xi’an Baqiao District, 4 April 2019,

[10] “扫黑除恶小讲堂(三): 什么是黑恶势力‘保护伞’?” [“Small Lecture about Sweeping Away Black and Eliminate Evil (3): What are ‘Protection Umbrellas’ for Black and Evil Forces?”],Xi’an xincheng, 18 March 2019, See also “扫黑除恶: 注意了!黑恶势力‘保护伞’的15 种类型” [“Sweep Away Black and Eliminate Evil: Pay Attention! 15 Types of ‘Protection Umbrellas’ for Underworld Forces”], Central Committee Propaganda Department, Xi’an Baqiao District, 4 April 2019,

[11] “中共中央, 国务院发出《关于开展扫黑除恶专项斗争的通知》” [“Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and State Council Issue ‘Notice on Carrying Out Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces’”], Xinhua, 24 January 2018,

[12] 最高人民法院、最高人民检察院、公安部、司法部印发《关于办理恶势力刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知 [“Notice by the Supreme People’s Court, the SPP, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Justice on Issuing Opinions on Several Issues Concerning the Handling of Criminal Cases Involving Evil Forces”], 28 February 2018, translation by PKU Law,

“最高法等四部门通告依法严厉打击黑恶势力违法犯罪” [“Supreme People’s Court and Four Other Departments Announce Crackdown on Illegal Crimes Committed by Black and Evil Forces in Accordance with the Law”], Xinhua, 5 February 2018,

[13] For a subsequent example of a notice encouraging citizens to report (请积极举报!), see; for an example of a reporting/reward hotline, see

[14] “ ‘扫’出清风正气 ‘扫’出朗朗乾坤” [“Get a Pure and Honest Environment and a Bright Future by ‘Sweeping’”], Legal Daily, 27 December 2018,

[15] “4位副国级‘坐镇’ 10位正部级督战,只为这场硬仗” [“Four Deputy State-Level Officials ‘Personally Attend to Garrison Duty’ and Ten Ministerial-Level Officials Supervise the War, Only for this Hard Battle”], CCTV News, 26 June 2018,

[16] “ ‘扫’出清风正气 ‘扫’出朗朗乾坤” [Get a Pure and Honest Environment and a Bright Future by “Sweeping”], Legal Daily, 27 December 2018,

[17] Similar figures are listed for subsequent rounds. See “高擎督导 ‘利剑’ 再掀强大攻: 中央扫黑除恶第二、第三轮督导综述” [“Holding High the ‘Sharp Sword’ of Supervision and Launching a Powerful Offensive Again: Summary of the Second and Third Rounds of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work”], Xinhua, 16 August 2019,

[18] The first meeting was held on 20 June, “陈一新:扫黑除恶从全面推开向纵深推进,破解 ‘十个问题’” [Chen Yixin, “Saohei Chu’e from a Comprehensive Way to a Deep One, and Solve the ‘Ten Problems’”], Pengpai, 17 August 2018,

[19] “Knife handle,” a euphemism for the domestic security apparatus, is a term popularized by Xi Jinping early in his time in office as part of his emphasis on reforming China’s coercive forces. See Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Domestic Security in China under Xi Jinping,” China Leadership Monitor, March 1, 2019,

[20] See also 陈景, “着力提升扫黑除恶的法治化水平” [Chen Jing, “Strive to Improve the Level of the Rule of Law in the Fight Against Crime”], People's Tribune, No. 6 (2019): 102–103; 李敬崇, “对推进扫黑除恶与反腐败结合战略向纵深发展的思考” [Li Jingchong, “Thoughts on the Deepening Development of the Strategy of Combining Anti-crime and Anti-corruption”], Public Security Science Journal: Journal of Zhejiang Police College, No. 6 (2019): 41–45; 白晓红, “开展基层政权‘双结合’扫黑除恶之我见” [Bai Xiaohong, “Opinion on Carrying Out the ‘Double Combination’ of Grassroots Political Power Against Organized Crime”], New West, No. 3 (2019): 83–84.

[21] “全国扫黑除恶专项斗争推进会在汉召开” [“National Conference on the Promotion of the Saohei Campaign Held in Wuhan”], Hubei Government, 18 October 2018,

[22] “ ‘扫’出清风正气 ‘扫’出朗朗乾坤” [“Get a Pure and Honest Environment and a Bright Future by ‘Sweeping’”], Legal Daily, 27 December 2018,

[23] “中央扫黑除恶专项斗争第二轮督导工作全面启动” [“Second Round of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work Is Comprehensively Launched”], Xinhua, 11 April 2019,

[24] “ 中央扫黑除恶专项斗争第三轮督导工作全面启动” [“Third Round of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work Is Comprehensively Launched”], Xinhua, 6 June 2019,

[25] “中央扫黑除恶第二、三轮督导‘回头看’正式启动” [“‘Looking Back’ at the Second and Third Rounds of the Official Launch of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work”], Xinhua, 19 October 2019,

[26] “高擎督导 ‘利剑’ 再掀强大攻势: 中央扫黑除恶第二、第三轮督导综述” [“Holding High the ‘Sharp Sword’ of Supervision and Launching a Powerful Offensive Again: Summary of the Second and Third Rounds of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work”], Xinhua, 16 August 2019,

[27] “全国扫黑办发布升级后的智能化举报平台 群众动动手指就能一键举报黑恶线索” [“National Anti-Crime Office Releases an Upgraded Intelligent Reporting Platform; Masses Can Report Criminal Clues with One Touch”], China Daily, 28 May 2019,

[28] “ 扫黑除恶追逃‘清零’行动:境内目标逃犯到案率63.1%: A通逃犯到案率63.6%” [“The ‘Clean Up’ Action of the Saohei Campaign: The Arrival Rate of Targeted Domestic Fugitives is 63.1%, and that of Class-A Fugitives is 63.6%”], Xinhua, 12 May 2020,

[29] William Zheng, “China’s Top Law Enforcement Body Unveils Campaign to Purge ‘Corrupt Elements,’” South China Morning Post, 10 July 2020,

[30] Ling Li, “Politics of Anti-Corruption in China: Paradigm Change of the Party’s Disciplinary Regime, 2012–2017,” Journal of Contemporary China 28, No. 115 (2019): 47–63.

[31] “第十三届全国人民代表大会第二次会议 最高人民检察院工作报告” [“Report on the Work of the SPP at the Second Session of the 13th National People's Congress”], Xinhua, 19 March 2019,

[32] The distinction between "涉黑犯罪" and "涉恶犯罪" is somewhat difficult to accurately translate; the activities involved can be similar, or even overlap; however, the stability, longevity, degree of stability in the structure, and degree of control are somewhat different. The former suggests more gang-related/organized crime–related criminal activity than the latter; the latter can also develop into the former. See “涉黑与涉恶有什么不一样?” [“What is the Difference Between Black and Evil?”], 中央纪委国家监委网站 [CCDI/State Supervision Commission website], 23 December 2019,; “对恶势力的司法认定” [“Judicial Identification of Evil Forces”], 10 August 2020, available at: See also 中华人民共和国刑法 (2017 修正) (PRC Criminal Law [2017 amended version]), especially Article 294.

[33] “ 高擎督导 ‘利剑’ 再掀强大攻势: 中央扫黑除恶第二、第三轮督导综述” [“Holding High the ‘Sharp Sword’ of Supervision and Launching a Powerful Offensive Again: Summary of the Second and Third Rounds of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work”], Xinhua, 16 August 2019,

[34] “第十三届全国人民代表大会第三次会议 最高人民检察院工作报告” [“Report on the Work of the SPP at the Third Session of the 13th National People's Congress], Xinhua, 25 May 2020.

[35] 赵乐际, “坚持和完善党和国家监督体系; 为全面建成小康社会提供坚强保障-在中国共产党第十九届中央纪律检查委员会第四次全体会议上的工作报告” [Zhao Leji, “Uphold and Improve the Party and State Supervision System; Provide Strong Guarantees for Comprehensively Building a Comfortable Society: Work Report at the 4th Plenary Session of the 19th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection”], Xinhua, 24 February 2020,; see also “被赵乐际点名的高官都有谁?2020年抓什么” [“Who Are the Senior Officials Mentioned by Zhao Leji? What Will Be Captured in 2020?”], Caixin, 24 February 2020,

[36] “中央纪委国家监委通报2020年上半年全国纪检监察机关监督检查、审查调查情况” [“The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the State Supervision Commission notifies the National Discipline Inspection and Supervision Agencies in the First Half of 2020”], 17 July 2020,

[37] “ 高擎督导 ‘利剑’ 再掀强大攻势: 中央扫黑除恶第二、第三轮督导综述” [“Holding High the ‘Sharp Sword’ of Supervision and Launching a Powerful Offensive Again: Summary of the Second and Third Rounds of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work”], Xinhua, 16 August 2019,

[38] For a Chinese-language academic assessment, see 刘伟琦and 苏维, “扫黑除恶多方协作机制研究” [Liu Weiqi and Su Wei, “Research on Inter-agency Cooperation Mechanisms in the Fight Against Crime”], 山东警察学院学报 [Journal of Shandong Police College] 6, No. 162 (November 2018).

[39] See, for example, 康均心, “从打黑除恶到扫黑除恶” [Kang Junxin, “From Crime Crackdown to Crime Elimination”], Journal of Henan Police College 27, No. 3 (2018): 5–14; 金佳哲, “扫黑除恶专项行动视阈下公安民警涉黑腐败问题探究” [Jin Jiazhe, “Research on the Corruption of Police Officers During the Special Campaign Against Organized Crime”], Journal of Shanxi Politics and Law Institute for Administrators 32, No. 4 (2019): 32–35.

[40] Peng Wang, “Politics of Crime Control: How Campaign-Style Law Enforcement Sustains Authoritarian Rule in China,” British Journal of Criminology 60, No. 2 (2020): 422–443.

[41] Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “Special Report: Migrant Neighborhoods a Target of Anti-Vice and Crime Campaign,” 2019,

[42] “西藏自治区公安厅号召群众举报与达赖集团相勾联的黑恶势力等” [“Tibet Autonomous Region Public Security Department Calls on the Masses to Report Evil Forces Linked with the Dalai Lama Clique”], The Paper/Xizang ribao, 10 February 2018,

[43] Xinjiang Wusu City, Public Security Bureau, “Notice on Reporting and Revealing Underworld Forces,” 6 February 2018, translation online at China Law Translate,; Xinjiang, Yining City, “Notice of Crackdown on Violations and Crimes by Underworld Forces,” 6 February 2018, translation at China Law Translate,

[44] “ 高擎督导 ‘利剑’ 再掀强大攻势: 中央扫黑除恶第二、第三轮督导综述” [“Holding High the ‘Sharp Sword’ of Supervision, Launching a Powerful Offensive Again: Summary of the Second and Third Rounds of the Saohei Campaign’s Supervision Work”], Xinhua, 16 August 2019,

[45] Feng Gang, “扫黑除恶行动矛头直指宗教信徒” [“‘Saohei’ Campaign Attack Directed at Religious Believers”], 寒冬[Bitter Winter], 16 November 2018; Gu Qi, “‘扫黑'实则镇压信仰”[“‘Saohei’ in Reality Suppresses Religious Faith”], 寒冬[Bitter Winter], 18 February 2019.

[46] Zhang Yan, ‘‘扫黑除恶必须精准识别精准打击” [“Saohei Campaign Requires Precise Distinctions and Attacks”], 中国纪检监察报 [China Discipline and Inspection Daily], 17 April 2019.

[47] “陈一新:来一场刀刃向内、刮骨疗毒式的自我革命” [“Chen Yixin: “Bring the Knife Blade Inward to Scrape the Bone, Have a Self-Revolution”], 9 July 2020,

[48] “全国政法队伍教育整顿试点启动!陈一新,是党中央提出的新要求” [“National Political-Legal Team Education and Rectification Pilot Program Is Launched! Chen Yixin, This is a Request Made by the Party Central Committee”], 中国长安网 [China Chang’an Net], 8 July 2020,

[49] James Mulvenon, ““Scraping Poison Off the Bone” (刮骨疗毒): An Examination of the Campaign to ‘Eliminate the Baneful Influence of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou,’” China Leadership Monitor, No. 52.

[50] Ling Li, “New Political-Legal Rectification Campaign, 2020–21,” China Collection, 14 July 2020,

[51] Ibid; see also Alex Payette, “Cleaning the Security Apparatus Before the ‘Two Meetings,’” Asia Focus, No. 139, May 2020 .

[52] Andrew Wedeman, “Xi Jinping’s Tiger Hunt: Anti-corruption Campaign or Political Purge?” Modern China Studies 24, No. 2 (2017): 35–82.

[53] William Zheng, “Chinese Official Leading Security Purge ‘May Be on Fast Track to Promotion,’ Analysts Say,” South China Morning Post, 17 July 2020,; Jane Cai, “Beijing Pins Hopes on ‘Guy with the Emperor’s Sword’ to Restore Order in Virus-hit Hubei,” South China Morning Post, 12 February 2020,

[54] Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Domestic Security in China under Xi Jinping,” China Leadership Monitor, March 1, 2019,

[55] William Zheng and Echo Xie, “China’s Justice Minister Leaves Communist Party Role ‘Is Sign Career is Coming to an End,’” South China Morning Post, 21 April 2020,

[56] “Meng Hongwei: China Sentences Ex-Interpol Chief to 13 Years in Jail,” BBC, 21 January 2020,

[57] “上海市副市长、市公安局局长龚道安接受中央纪委国家监委审查调查” [“Gong Dao’an, Shanghai deputy mayor and head of the municipal Public Security Bureau, accepts the investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and State Supervision Commission”], People’s Daily Online, 18 August 2020,

[58] Cissy Zhou, “China’s Deputy Public Security Minister Faces Corruption Probe for ‘Serious Violations of Discipline and the Law,’” South China Morning Post, 19 April 2020,

[59] For a review of these personnel shifts, see Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Domestic Security in China under Xi Jinping,” China Leadership Monitor, March 1, 2019,

[60] On the 19th Party Congress as a success for Xi Jinping, see Joseph Fewsmith, “The 19th Party Congress: Ringing in Xi Jinping’s New Age,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 55 (January 2018),

[61] “平安中国建设协调小组政治安全专项组第一次会议召开” [“First Meeting of the Peaceful China Construction and Coordination Group is Held”], Renmin fayuan bao, 6 July 2020,; Jun Mai, “China Sets Up Task Force to Boost Political Policing Amid Threats to Stability,” South China Morning Post, 6 July 2020,

[62] Katzuji Nakazawa, “Xi Returns to his Favorite Hobby: Crushing Dissent,” Nikkei Asian Review, 23 April 2020,; Ling Li, “New Political-Legal Rectification Campaign, 2020–21,” China Collection, 14 July 2020,;

[63] “重点领域正风反腐观察: 深挖彻查医疗腐败” [“Observing Important Areas in Rectification and Anti-Corruption: Digging Thoroughly to Investigate Medical Corruption”], CCDI/SSC website, 4 August 2020,

Photo credit: Huangdan2060 - Own work, CC BY 3.0,


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