Relational Pressure and Policing Vulnerable Populations in China

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Street-Level Bureaucrats (SLBs) like the police interact directly with citizens
of all statuses and situations over the course of their line duties, and
in doing so they use substantial personal discretion in executing public
responsibilities (Lipsky, 1980, 2010). Police officers do this either by
routinizing procedures and assessing contextual priorities or adopting
approaches tailored for specific cases. In other words, they develop discretionary
practices that permit them, in some ways, to process or even
reformulate the work itself. Such personal discretions are often entangled
in various social, legal or ethical quagmires, and are also conditioned by
certain deeply embedded cultural and political factors, especially when
dealing with vulnerable populations in a society. As Lipsky (2011: 188)
noted, the broader social environment ‘significantly affects bureaucratic
relations’; accordingly more attention should be paid to the study of
the vulnerable people outside the Western democratic societies like the
United States and the United Kingdom, and how policing of such a population
has been affected in different contexts.

This chapter explores relevant social practices and problems featured
in a culturally and politically diversified society like China. In the following
sections, we first highlight that the issue of vulnerability amongst
the population is understood differently in a modern Chinese context,
compared to Western understandings. Then we will examine how SLBs
operate in China in conceptual terms, and how certain Chinese officials
at local level deal in practice with protesting groups within a political system
of centralised authority and under-developed legal standardisation.
This chapter examines a culturally embedded practice of ‘relational
pressure’, which is a psychological engineering approach adopted by
Chinese frontline officials for policing vulnerable populations. It is suggested
that shaping and applying relational repression as a social control
approach in targeting the vulnerable social groups, reflects the unique
strength of China as an authoritarian high capacity state, yet SLBs in
wider social contexts should be enlightened as well that they do have a
whole range of social and relational tools too to leverage in executingtheir public duties. Two problem scenarios will be examined later in this chapter to showcase the discretionary or even indiscrete choices open to SLBs. We conclude that appreciating case examples of mobilising extensive social and economic resources by Chinese SLBs to ensure that policies are carried out dutifully and diligently, could be the key to understanding the phenomenal economic success and relative social stability in countries like China in recent decades
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPublic Management and Vulnerability
Subtitle of host publicationContextualising Change
EditorsJoyce Liddle, Gareth Addidle
Place of PublicationNew York and London
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9780429352683
ISBN (Print)9780367371012
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


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