China marked its first “State (National) Security Education Day” on April 15. The event received international media attention, in large part due to a Beijing propaganda poster campaign called “Dangerous Love.” In the campaign, a young woman named Xiao Li, who works in the civil service, becomes romantically involved with David, a stereotypical foreigner. David compels Xiao Li to share confidential state communications to support his “academic research.” Unfortunately, Xiao Li soon finds herself arrested and accused of sharing state secrets with David, whom the government accuses of being a foreign spy.
In addition to the obvious warnings to Chinese citizens, the campaign might put foreigners on guard about detention and discrimination risks in China—particularly NGO employees or researchers working on sensitive subjects. Indeed, China under Xi Jinping is making foreigners feel less welcome. But even though there is truth to such interpretations, there are additional factors that should inform our analysis.
State Security Education Day is largely aimed at increasing the masses’ consciousness of state security and their sense of responsibility to participate in its preservation. This highlights an idea in China’s state security concept, broadly overlooked in existing analyses: that each member of Chinese society has a responsibility to uphold the Chinese Party-state’s security. To understand this requires bearing in mind that China’s state security strategy is fundamentally aimed at upholding the Communist Party of China’s leadership.
As the party has elaborated on numerous occasions, China’s “comprehensive” state security concept, in addition to the western connotation of “national security,” is inclusive of political security, homeland security, military security, economic security, cultural security (i.e., CCP-sanctioned culture), social security (implying social stability) and information security. In official elaborations of the “state security” concept, these Party-state preservation issues are the key emphasis.
Domestic in focus, China’s state security policy is strongly linked to the CCP’s “social governance” or “social management” process. Social management is the process by which the CCP leadership attempts to manage its relationship with both the party cadres and society, to ensure that it remains the ultimate authority in power.
A key requirement that the central party leadership relies on for the process to work is cadre responsibility and citizen responsibility. The concept of individual responsibility is built into the 2015 State Security Law, as Article 11 is straightforward in stating: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, every state organ and the armed forces, each political party, the militia, enterprises, public institutions and social organizations, all have the responsibility and obligation to maintain state security.”
On a theoretical level, as Xi Jinping elaborated on State Security Education Day, this means that the party and the masses must uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is not a new feature in the governance of China, but rather one that is being continually refined. As the “Dangerous Love” campaign suggests, this process is inclusive of foreigners. Strengthening state security awareness will ensure that Communist Party–led China can navigate an ever complex and uncertain security environment.
The fundamental challenge the party has always faced in ensuring state security is that its security environment is always changing. Conflicts always arise. This feature is inevitable, no matter the political system. In a system like China’s, however, which is built entirely around upholding a single party rather than the state separate from the party, it is more challenging to manage these threats.
The party is not in control of which threats emerge, or when or how. The point of state security preservation tactics, like the social management process, is to shape and control society and party cadres at all levels so that these threats are more manageable.
The State Security Education Campaign also highlights the fact that the CCP is engaged in an increasingly unapologetic campaign to also shape the narrative outside of China to conform to its state security preservation tactics. The propaganda effort is not new, and there is certainly a long-standing anxiety over real or imagined Western attempts to subvert the Communist Party of China.
What is new under Xi Jinping, however, is that the Chinese government is engaging in a process of creating a more coherent legal framework, which on the surface reflects normal international legal standards, but in reality is used to enforce its party-centric “state security” preservation efforts. The 2015 State Security Law is just one of several examples; the new NGO law is the most recent.
As Didi Kirsten Tatlow noted, many Beijingers paid little notice to the “Dangerous Love” campaign. The apathy demonstrates that while the Party-state’s security is central to the party leadership’s daily efforts, it is not central to the daily life of the average citizen. This does not mean that the state’s efforts are ineffective; only time can tell.
If the party cannot fully control dialogue within China, it cannot do so outside of China. Even so, it will keep refining its methods. In January 2016, Swedish NGO cofounder Peter Dahlin was detained on allegations of “endangering state security,” and while he was deported, a return to China could mean prosecution. Perhaps it is time for us outside of China to view the party’s efforts as the new normal.
Samantha Hoffman is an independent China analyst/research consultant. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, researching Chinese state security and social governance policy. She holds an MSc from the University of Oxford (2011) in Modern Chinese Studies and BA degrees from the Florida State University (2010) in International Affairs and Chinese Language and Culture. She tweets at @he_shumei.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Army MWR