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
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 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.
By September 2012, the critiques were bold enough to suggest that the security-focused approach to social management and stability was jeopardizing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) long-term viability. Moreover, ahead of the Eighteenth Party Congress, Chinese media reported that the Politburo Standing Committee had led a study session earlier in the year where the possibility of a new mass line campaign was discussed as a supplement to existing social management policies. Additionally, several articles since at least 2011, published in the Study Times and Seeking Truth, suggested “social governance” replace “social management” as the guiding framework for internal stability. Social governance is a concept that seeks to involve social organizations and the private sector in the management of society—a kind of “mass line” approach to build positive feedback for Beijing’s policies among important non-party organizations.
Along with critiques of the security-focused approach, there have been some calls for institutional reforms. For example, last March, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), China’s national police force, released a paper calling for institutional innovation for social governance throughout the MPS’s central, provincial, and local elements. Arguing the importance certain centralization and coordination measures have had in optimizing the system’s functionality, the paper argued that such measures within the MPS have led to reducing firearms and human trafficking. And ahead of the Eighteenth Party Congress, the current security czar in the Politburo, Meng Jianzhu,
Writing in the middle of last year’s propaganda campaign,
Western analysts and governments should not interpret relevant reforms as possible indicators of democratization or structural political reform, because this is not their intent. Rather, these reforms reflect a conscious effort to shape society, if not control it. They are more likely aimed at preempting public demands for political reform— keeping in mind that the CCP’s driving goal is to stay in power.
To date, China has reduced the influence of local party chiefs on security operations, demoted the security czar position from the Politburo Standing Committee to the Politburo, and instituted a mass line campaign to reinforce the CCP’s role as a governing party. The proposed State Security Committee, seemingly designed to develop strategic policies to tackle internal security problems without the problems of the security-first approach, should be read as a natural follow-on to the security and social management reforms that have been discussed extensively over the last eighteen months.
The shape and composition of the State Security Committee has yet to be made public, but observers should keep their eyes on which ministries or party departments are represented, whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is involved, and what organizations are charged with executing its decrees.
On the distant chance that this State Security Committee turns out to be a little more like the U.S. National Security Council (and its staff), then there is at least one important question that should be answered before analysts celebrate Beijing’s recognition of the need to create a new policy coordination body: Who represents the PLA? In the two existing coordination bodies—namely, the Foreign Affairs and National Security Leading Small Groups—the PLA’s representation is a Deputy Chief of the General Staff Department with the intelligence portfolio, who is several levels down from the decision-makers in the Central Military Commission (CMC). The coordination desired by foreign analysts—and, indeed, foreign governments—cannot be attained without more senior PLA representation.
The State Security Committee might help Xi Jinping assert more operational authority over the civilian security and intelligence agencies, to incorporate them into his broader “social governance” policy, but this is different from making the PLA subject to other policymakers’ and civilian ministries’ influence. It is doubtful that such a committee would ever supersede the CMC in terms of its power to influence political-military policymaking, especially since the decisions of the Third Plenum include optimizing the CMC’s constituent offices to manage China’s national security challenges. The PLA remains the ultimate guarantor of the party’s power, and only a politically naïve leader would forfeit his trump card.
Samantha Hoffman is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary China Studies and an independent contractor providing research and analysis on China and the Asia Pacific. Peter Mattis is a Fellow in The Jamestown Foundation’s China Program and a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.