Inside China's New Security Council

What it says about Beijing's struggle for internal stability.

At the end of China’s Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress, the party’s communiqué announced the creation of a “National Security Council.” Although the translation may be technically accurate, the reality is that the proposed body probably is related to a series of reforms promoted by the Central Party School last year while President Xi Jinping served as the school’s director.

The information available from the Third Plenum supports this domestically-focused interpretation. The initial announcement was made in the context of a paragraph on “social governance” (shehui zhili). Additionally, Xi Jinping issued a clarification on the State Security Committee that said state security and social stability are the preconditions for reform and development.

Clarifying comments from an analyst with the civilian intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), add weight to these claims. Li Wei, Director of the Anti-Terrorism Study Center at an MSS think tank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told Chinese reporters “the committee is an organization that has the power to coordinate different government organs at the highest level in response to a major emergency crisis and incidents which pose threats to the national security…China desperately needs an organization like the state security committee to develop long-term national strategies to tackle the problem from its roots.” Li noted the Ministry of Public Security could counter terrorist plots, but could not resolve the sources of terrorism by itself. MFA spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at the regular press briefing that China’s decision to establish a state security committee is intended to improve systems and strategies to promote national security. “That should make terrorists, extremists, and separatists nervous. Anyone who would disrupt or sabotage China’s national security should be nervous,” he said.

Although the Chinese name for the proposed committee can be translated as National Security Committee, or National Security Council—the Chinese use the same name for the U.S. National Security Council—it is better to think of it as the “State Security Committee.” State security, as defined by Chinese law, deals with collusion and connections between Chinese citizens and foreign elements that undermine the People’s Republic, including revelation of state secrets, subversion, sabotage, and any other acts that might be construed as undermining China or the leading party.

We can add that it is not just “terrorists, extremists, and separatists” that are the concern driving the creation of a State Security Committee. More important are the many “contradictions” in Chinese society—such as income disparity, the urban-rural divide, and central-local relations—that contribute to the day-to-day causes of social instability. These issues are the underlying drivers of the “social governance” strategy.

The most obvious area where state security and internal security need reform is the plethora of leading small groups that deal with problems related to China’s stability. Currently, there are at least three central offices with constituent channels with responsibility for managing internal security operations, all of which can draw on the resources of the Ministries of Public Security and State Security. They include the following:

● The Political-Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees intelligence, police, and prisons;

● The Leading Small Group for Preventing and Handling the Problem of Heretical Organizations, especially Falun Gong, executing policy through the 610 Office; and

● The Leading Small Group for Preserving Stability, executing policy through the Office of Preserving Stability.

During the summer of 2012, as Xi Jinping cruised toward his coronation, the Central Party School published a series of articles arguing strongly that “social management”—the party’s euphemism for stability, internal security, and political control—had been overly securitized, despite the cross-cutting nature of issues like terrorism that Li Wei noted. That these articles appeared in the leading party publications published by the school—Study Times, Red Flag and Seeking Truth—implied or stated outright that the coercive police aspects of social management had overtaken the softer sides, such as cadre performance and propaganda.