Chen Wenqing: China’s New Man for State Security

Chen is rising at a time when China's security sector is reforming and restructuring.

On October 8, Chinese media confirmed that Chen Wenqing became the party secretary of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), suggesting a transition is underway in the ministry responsible for intelligence and counterintelligence. Rumors in the overseas Chinese press indicated that Chen would be the next MSS chief, and that he would use the party secretary position to transition into running the ministry. The move can be read as another attempt by President Xi Jinping to rein in the security and intelligence apparatus as well as a sign that oversight of the MSS has not yet become institutionalized. Chen’s rise, though novel, brings a seasoned security professional to the MSS leadership and offers a good option for the soon-vacant minister position to guide the MSS through its evolution ahead.

Chen began his career in the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), China’s national police agency, which was also responsible for counter-espionage until 1983 and the creation of the MSS. According to his official biography, Chen switched over to the MSS in 1994, becoming deputy director at the Sichuan provincial state security department (SSD). Chen may well have been part of the original Sichuan SSD leadership, as the MSS stood up the department in the early- to mid-1990s. In 1998 during the now-disgraced Zhou Yongkang’s tenure as Sichuan party secretary, Chen took over leadership of the department. He held the position until 2002, when he moved over to head the Sichuan provincial people’s procuratorate. In 2006, Chen moved over to Fujian, where he served until 2012 as a both a secretary of the provincial commission for discipline inspection and as provincial deputy party secretary. Following the 18th Party Congress at which Xi Jinping came to power, Chen came to Beijing to become one of the deputy secretaries of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the central party agency that would spearhead Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

Chen’s selection as party secretary and reported selection as a successor to Geng Huichang establishes (or would establish) a number of firsts for the MSS. The appointment marks the first time the MSS has had two CCP Central Committee members in its ranks. The minister, by virtue of his position, sits on the committee. If Chen does succeed Geng, as was rumored earlier this year, then he will become the first minister to serve on the Central Committee prior to assuming MSS leadership. Chen also would be the first former MSS officer to leave and return to the ministry at a higher level, an unusual career path for senior MSS officers. Minister Geng and the vice ministers for whom some limited biographical data is available, such as Lu Zhongwei and Qiu Jin, predominantly worked their careers at the ministry in Beijing, going out to the provincial departments to take charge for a year or two before returning to Beijing as vice minister of state security.

Moving Chen over from the CCDI appears to be yet another move by Xi Jinping to rein in the security services. Many believed them to be out of control or overly politicized while the now-disgraced Zhou Yongkang oversaw law and order on the Politburo Standing Committee from 2007 to 2012. Ahead of the leadership transition in 2012, the Central Party School headed at the time by Xi published a series of critiques of Zhou’s management of the security apparatus. These critiques suggested the security apparatus was undermining China’s development goals and that security needed to be downgraded from the Politburo Standing Committee to bring it into line with other government policy. These changes did occur, and, in 2013, Xi established a State Security Committee that further diluted the authority of Zhou’s old platform, the Central Political-Legal Committee. By the beginning of this year, two MSS vice ministers were purged for corruption and misuse of ministry resources. Chen is now the third CCDI deputy secretary moved to a ministry where corruption investigations have ousted a number of the top leadership.

A few preliminary concerns about Chen and the MSS’s future are worth raising at this point, because the ministry itself appears to be in a kind of structural limbo. The MSS, its leadership and the party center all face a number of choices about the ministry’s direction and priorities, such as whether its efforts should be directed externally or internally. The other intelligence bureaucracies are evolving in ways that open opportunities for, and compete with, the MSS.