While the ruling Chinese Communist Party's apparent reluctance to put a figure on defense spending grabbed headlines on Tuesday, the confusion has masked an even murkier area of the national budget: the money the government spends keeping its people quiet.
State news agency Xinhua stepped in amid queries over the lack of figures in the finance ministry's report to parliament with an article confirming total defense spending at "about one trillion yuan" (U.S.$145 billion).
But there has been no equivalent amount reported for the government's nationwide operations--known collectively as the "stability maintenance system"-- aimed at curbing mass protests, petitions, and other forms of peaceful dissent.
The domestic security budget was last reported in 2013 at U.S.$130 billion, when it exceeded military spending.
Since then, no further figures have been forthcoming.
But a rare disclosure by a county government in the northern region of Inner Mongolia suggests that "stability maintenance" spending is easily keeping pace with the military budget.
The Duolun county government recently said it had spent U.S.$48,650 on round-the-clock surveillance of a single petitioner, Wang Fengyun, who has 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.
Millions of complaints
According to official figures, some six million complaints are registered against the government across the country every year, which would result in a nationwide bill of U.S.$146 billion if half of those petitioners were surveilled in a manner similar to Wang.
Wang's brother Wang Fenglong told RFA that he has every reason to believe that the figure is on the increase, but that the government may be keeping it quiet for other reasons.
"Naturally, the government doesn't want to make the figures for spending on stability maintenance public," Wang Fenglong said. "This is because the local officials would embezzle it all."
"My sister Wang Fengyun is in the detention center now, and they have people watching every member of our family who is directly related to her, for the duration of the parliamentary session," he said.
Tianjin petitioner Zheng Jianhui told RFA that she has seen no evidence that domestic security operations are being rolled back.
"Stability maintenance spending can't come down, and it has been so high in previous years," Zheng said. "The local governments won't resolve our complaints, and when we complain to a higher level of government, they send out teams of people to follow us."
"That's got to cost money, right?"
Prevention and control
Premier Li Keqiang repeatedly mentioned "stability" in the context of potential social unrest during his work report to the National People's Congress (NPC) on Sunday.
"What we faced was a complicated situation ... [an] increase in the factors that affect social stability," Li told delegates.
Li pledged to perfect a computer-based "prevention and control" system for public security and to fully implement plans for a social credit systems that awards points to citizens for behavior 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 northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said he estimates the domestic security budget at a little over a trillion yuan (U.S.$145 billion), representing a rise of some 6.5 percent over last year.
"Previous budgets have shown that they don't usually deviate much," Lui said. "As for whether a huge increase in domestic security spending is likely to produce a highly oppressive stability maintenance regime, I'd say that's entirely likely."
He said the entire stability maintenance budget is aimed at preventing social unrest before it starts.
"If there are 10 potential pressure cookers, the government will put 20 lids on them," he said. "They are constantly tamping things down."
"But this strategy of relying on access to resources and force can't last long without the necessary remedy to resolve social tensions, which is a fair and impartial judicial system that people can use as a channel for redress," he said.
Costs invite corruption
Beijing-based eviction activist Ni Yulan said the numbers of security personnel keeping tabs on people like herself is continuing to rise.
"I was watched for the whole of last year by three to five people who were there long-term," Ni said. "That number goes up when security is tighter during the NPC."
"The huge amounts being spent on stability maintenance are only going to make local officials even more corrupt," she said.
"They report to those higher up, this is how much we spent, but who really knows?"
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.