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China launches political policing task force to control dissent

China has launched a special task force to ramp up political policing to maintain social stability, according to the official Procuratorial Daily. It is the latest move to rein in dissent over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus and protests in Hong Kong.

According to the undated notes from a meeting of the task force published in the paper on Monday 6 July 2020, the taskforce should: 

“crack down on all kinds of infiltration, subversion, sabotage, violent terrorist activities, ethnic separatist activities, and extreme religious activities”.

Referencing the fight against coronavirus, the notes said a government can only guarantee its people’s safety if it maintains a stable political environment.

“Political security is related to national safety and people’s well-being.”

The news came on the day that Xu Zhangrun, a law professor with Tsinghua University who has written articles criticising government policies and its handling of the health crisis, was taken away by police in Beijing. 

Gu Su, a political scientist with Nanjing University, believed the new political security task force was set up for more narrowly focused coordination.

“Bodies such as the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security down to the municipal level are already doing the job of [ensuring] political security, and the [party’s] Commission for Political and Legal Affairs itself is already overseeing inter-agency coordination,” he told South China Morning Post.

“But Beijing may think that it needs more effective and narrowly focused inter-agency coordination on political security given the impact of the pandemic on public opinion and economic performance.”

The taskforce is part of the “Build a Peaceful China” coordination group set up in April and led by Guo Shengkun, the party’s most powerful law enforcement figure and a Politburo member.

As head of the party’s Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, Guo oversees all police officers, spies, courts, prosecutors and prisons in China.

It’s launch comes after China’s parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong at the end of June which punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

“[We] must keep up our vigilance and stay on high alert at all times, and hit hard on subversive activities, terrorist acts, ethnic secession and religious extremism in accordance with the law,” an undated statement from the meeting said.

The task force has been set up as Beijing is facing growing criticism – including from the United States, Europe and Australia – over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The new virus, first reported in China in December, has now infected nearly 11.5 million people and killed more than 500,000 worldwide. The World Health Organisation last week revised its timeline on the pandemic, clarifying that it was alerted by its own office in China – not by Chinese authorities – to the first cases in the early stage of the outbreak.

At home, Beijing has clamped down on criticism of its response to the pandemic, including rounding up prominent academics, like Mr Zhangrun, who have openly challenged the party’s handling of the crisis in the past few months.

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