November 2015

Back to the Future: Categorical Watchlisting in China 1959

(click on the title to view the document)

Few historians perhaps realize this, but more than half a century ago the CCP already operated what in the United States today goes by the name of “Expedited Watchlist Nomination Procedures for Temporary, Threat-Based Categories” of people. In China, the relevant quasi-legal provisions enabled entire categories of people (e.g. suspected Hu Feng elements, Bourgeois Rightists, etc.) to be upgraded in terms of watchlist status based on threat streams (敌情) that warranted the reasonable determination that they were knowingly engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to counterrevolution and/or counterrevolutionary activities. Categorical watchlisting had begun immediately in the wake of the founding of the PRC with the identification of the so-called “five categories of enemies,” and continued to evolve off and on after that in response to diffuse threats. On the ground, it deserves to be noted, public security officers charged with implementing it often expressed muted doubts about its rationality: “In the future, the more enemies we strike, the more enemies there’ll be,” one officer was quoted as saying in 1955, “given that we started with five categories of enemies and now we have sixteen!”

Temporary, threat-based expedited watchlist upgrades were made by public security organs at the discretion of the CCP Chairman and/or his designees, and were tailored to address specific threats. In 1963, the number of national watchlisting categories (as distinct from the estimated number of people involved) had been at a rare low, numbering only seven altogether. Minor variations typically distinguished regional and local lists: a Top Secret 1971 list from Shenyang, for example, included the recent addition of “五•一六嫌疑分子”, a category not included in a list circulating in Beijing in 1972.

This month’s Document of the Month appeared in Public Security Construction on 28 February 1959, together with other documents from a conference on statistical work, and shows the twelve categories of people to be nominated for watchlisting at that point on the assumption that they constituted the so-called “social basis of counterrevolution” (反革命社会基础) in the PRC. The changing criteria for inclusion remained classified: at one point, the PRC Vice-Minister of Public Security Xu Zirong observed that they “cannot be made public to the masses or to the individual in question, but are to be controlled internally.”

Note: The legibility of my copy of this issue of Pubic Security Construction is very poor, and for this reason I have transcribed text as PDF document.