Beijing’s moderate (and inaccurate) defence budget hides domestic security costs
by Wang Zhicheng

Controlling half of all petitioners could cost US$ 146 billion, as much as defence spending. A system of “smart" vehicle license plates is being vetted. Stability remains the government’s main concern. Defence spending does not include items that have a civilian application. Military spending in the disputed South China Sea islands is passed off as civilian.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – China’s 7 per cent defence budget increase has surprised many observers. Spending on the world’s biggest army will only be 1.044 trillion yuan (US$ 151 billion), this according to Xinhua. However, neither Prime Minister Li Keqiang, nor his finance minister, have said a word about the costs of domestic security, which is more or less the equivalent of defence spending.

This year’s 7 per cent increase, which came after Washington announced a 10 per cent increase in US military spending, is the smallest annual increase since 2000. It aims at correcting China’s image in the world as an aggressive power ready to fight countries in its immediate region: Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, etc.

Many scholars suspect that the defence budget is not accurate. For Dr Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, some military spending has civilian implications and so does not show up in the defence budget.

“Many expenses and investments are of dual capability use and serve strategic and military purposes but are not included normally as part of defence budget,” Chaturvedy said.

For example, China claims that its investment in the disputed South China Sea islands is aimed at improving shipping safety. However, radar installations, military bases, and airstrips have a clear defensive purpose.

Chinese Finance Minister Xiao Jie on Tuesday denied any problem with transparency in defence spending plans. Speaking about detailed figures at a press conference at the National Assembly on the side-lines of the National People’s Congress (NPC), he said that “there was no need to repeat them in the budget report” even though they are factored into the budget drafts.

The lack of clarity is also due to another factor, namely domestic security, the government’s main source of concern. The last time the latter was reported was in 2013 and stood at US 0 billion, exceeding military spending.

Defined as “stability maintenance”, domestic security is designed to stop mass protests, petition groups, and other forms of peaceful dissent.

As a measure of comparison, Radio Free Asia cited rough figures for Duolun County (Inner Mongolia) where the authorities recently said that they had spent almost US$ 50,000 for round-the-clock surveillance of a single petitioner, Wang Fengyun, who made nine trips to Beijing to complain about a land grab by local government.

Wang, a typical target for "stability maintenance," incurred costs to the county that included overtime for night-time surveillance, additional personnel, and even food for those tasked with watching her.

According to official figures, some six million complaints are registered against the government across the country every year. If only half of petitioners were monitored like Wang, this would result in a bill of US$ 146 billion. That is the equivalent of the defence budget for 2017.

Noting that the country faced “a complicated situation” and an “increase in the factors that affect social stability”, Li Keqiang told the NPC that "stability" was a problem in view of its social tensions.

Security spending is likely to increase even more. Li pledged to perfect a computer-based "prevention and control" system for public security and to implement fully plans for a social credit system that awards points to citizens for behaviour the government regards as desirable.

"Smart" vehicle license plates that track all vehicles and deny fuel to unlicensed vehicles are already being implemented in the north-western region of Xinjiang.