Articles

Domestic Security is a Priority: China’s Version of the NSC

Chinese President Xi Jinping will chair the party’s central National Security Commission with Premier Li Keqiang and top legislator Zhang Dejiang, China’s second and third ranking leaders, as the body’s vice-chairmen, the politburo of the ruling communist party announced in a decision issued on 24 January 2014.

The new National Security Commission (NSC), reporting to the politburo and its seven-member standing committee, is reportedly responsible for decision-making, deliberation and co-ordination on national security work. The creation of the NSC was a decision made at the party’s four-day plenum held in Beijing last November.

According to the plenum communiqué, the NSC is set up to perfect the national security system and strategy so as to safeguard national security. “China is facing two pressures: internationally, the country needs to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests; domestically, political security and social stability should be ensured,” party chief Xi explained in his lengthy description of the reform blueprint in the wake of the party meeting. [1]

Xi’s new appointment came less than a month after he was named to chair the party’s Comprehensive Deepening Reform Leading Group, a newly formed elite organ responsible for designing overall reforms in political, economic and social sectors. Given that President Xi, in addition to authority over the party, government, military, and a new reform panel, has been at the helm of the NSC, this signalizes the centralization of security power in the supreme leader’s hands. As the most powerful person in recent memory, Xi will wield more political influence than his predecessors Hu Jingtao or Jiang Zemin.

A Top Level Decision-Making Body

With the veil of mystery lifted, the NSC, for first time ever, appears as a statutory organ with specified responsibilities in the domain of national security. Led by the top three leaders-the party chief who also heads the Central Military Committees (CMC), the head of the government, and the congress chairman, the NSC was hailed in state media as a perfect top level national security framework, cutting across the ruling party,government, legislature and the military.

The NSC is upgraded and enlarged on the existent national security co-ordination mechanism with inclusion of the party’s domestic security supervision sector. Its members are expected to include the politburo members responsible for security, defence, and foreign affairs, the leaders of the State Council for related portfolios, and the heads of government ministries ranging from foreign affairs, public security, and national security, to national defence and commerce. Other regular attendees will include the party’s propaganda chief, the directors of Hong Kong, Macau affairs office, and the Taiwan work office, etc.

Some international media noted the issue of the status as the agency is housed in the party structure. According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Wei Po, on 25 January 2014, when asked if the NSC should seek Congress approval, an unidentified Chinese expert explained, “Since the NSC is not a new government agency, it is unnecessary to go through the legislation for approval.”

It is unknown as of now whether a parallel state version of the NSC will be set up. However, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong media, Ta Kung Pao, on 24 January 2014, was of the opinion that a state form of the agency could probably appear in the annual session of the People’s Congress scheduled for March, 2014. Given the context of China’s party-state system, the arrangement, if it occurs, could go after the model of the CMC, which has a sole apparatus with an identical membership, but respectively bears the party and state titles. The CMC has exclusive authority over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Before the establishment of the NSC, the party’s national security leading group, which also bore the title of the central foreign affairs leading group, was in charge of the portfolios pertaining to national security and foreign policy. The national security group was set up in 2000 and merged with the foreign affairs group that was formed in 1981. Since then the body operated as one entity bearing the two different names.

China’s national security framework is somehow modelled after the American version, but with much more executive power and comprehensive portfolios. Back in 1997, then-President Jiang Zemin considered setting up a team modelled on the White House National Security Council, after his visit to America. The plan, however, was thwarted due to concern that too much power would be otherwise concentrated in the hands of the party chief who already had control over the PLA, according to South People Weekly on 25 November 2013.

Entering the twenty-first century, Chinese leaders eventually agreed to form a national security panel responding to co-ordination deficiency and, especially, the lack of speedy response in a security crisis. Allegedly, the co-ordination issue stood out in the wake of the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia on 7 May 1999. The incident sent bilateral relations to the lowest level ever seen before they began to improve.

Social Contradictory and Security Concerns

As was mentioned in a paragraph on social governance of the plenum communiqué, the NSC will primarily tackle internal security concerns as well as national security risks. Its domestically-oriented agenda is expected to cover such pressing issues as cyber-control, minority unrest in the peripheral regions, and social contradiction and disturbance cross the country.

Coincidentally, two fatal attacks, which occurred just days before the opening of the plenum, underscore the domestic security risks facing the country as a whole. On 28 October 2013, a jeep crashed in Tiananmen Square, a political landmark and tourist attraction in Beijing. Days later, a car exploded in front of the provincial government building in neighbouring Shanxi Province. In state media, the former was blamed as “a terror attack” and the latter described as “a revenge on the society.” Recently, a string of similar violent incidents in northwest Xinjiang region highlighted serious security challenges. [2]

In essence, violent acts reflect the fallout of the governance model of “stability maintenance” and, what is more, they mirror public resentment that are aiming at social injustice, wealth disparity, official corruption, and the abuse of power unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic. Some desperate people turn to radical means in an attempt to fix the faults in the system and their own problems as well. Security concerns threaten the legitimacy of communist governance. Hence it is the pressing social issues that partly prompt the creation of the NSC.

“The NSC is built on the existent mechanism due to new security concerns. Compared with conventional threats like foreign invasion, unconventional ones touch more areas, such as financial and economic security, environment safety and terror threats. Conventional risks are simple, but unconventional ones have now extended into new regions unknown before, “Gong Fangbin, a professor of the Chinese National Defence University, said in the South People Weekly on 25 November 2013.”Given that, so-called mega concept of security is applied.”

Further on the issue, Gong wrote in the International Herald Leader on 3 January 2014,

“…since new risks are highly intertwined, complicated and even virtual, a single agency is unable to tackle them on its own. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a high-level authoritative body to co-ordinate different forces to deal with them. That is why the NSC will be formed in the final analysis.”

Streamline Co-ordination Mechanism

Due to a paucity of details before, and even after the formation of the NSC was unveiled, media attention mainly centered on interviews or commentaries by China’s experts and academics, who interpreted the vague accounts about the body in official documents, and repeatedly stressed the importance of creating the agency from a macro-perspective.

In Chinese experts’ opinions, the NSC will reinforce the co-ordination and advisory mechanism. In the Beijing News on 13 November 2013, Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University of China, noted that the body will integrate and co-ordinate decision-making on national security, national defence, economic strategy and foreign policy. The organ will encompass all line agencies with security portfolios. “The NSC should be a flexible, functional structure,” Shi predicted.

Another scholar elaborated on the lack of a long-term security strategy. “No single complete text for national security strategy has as of now been promulgated in China, though the task to perfect the strategy was put forth ten years ago,” wrote Liu Yuejin in the Study Times on 16 December 2013, a subsidiary publication of the Central Party School. “Given the context, first of all, the NSC will design and implement a national security strategy, and then finalize a comprehensive text for the strategy as a significant landmark,” Liu added.

According to Gong Fangbin, a professor with a military background, such questions as how much authority and executive power the NSC enjoys and how it operates, will not be answered until the agency is inaugurated and put into operation. “Generally speaking, the body is not likely to be granted with more executive power, especially not playing a role of the line agency of the government system,” wrote Gong in the International Herald Leader on 3 January 2014.

“It should be noted that since the existent line agencies are well managed and powerful, it is unlikely that they would turn over power to the NSC. Meanwhile, these powerful organs have the capability of reaching the top decision-maker, who essentially relies on them to carry out the policy,” said Gong. “…so, it is expected to see a longer transition period before the NSC will be able to fully perform its role.”

Also, Chinese experts pointed out the deficiencies of co-ordination between sometimes competing sectors, especially the military and foreign affairs agency. Retired PLA Colonel Yue Gang wrote in his microblog that for a good while, the national security team, mainly led by diplomats, has been responsible for making decisions on external security. In the face of complicated security threats, it is hard to provide a comprehensive solution without the participation of the PLA, economic and public security agencies. [3]

In the Beijing Times on 13 November 2013, anti-terrorism expert Li Wei, conceded that the current power of national security has been split up among a variety of agencies, and there is a lack of a top level body to deal with an unexpected crisis. On the same day, the Beijing Youth Daily quoted Li as saying that the National Anti-Terror Leading Group, for example, was enlarged last August to co-ordinate anti-terror matters in specified regions. In fact, it is very hard to rely on one agency to tackle terrorism at its root.

Echoing his peers’ views, Jin Canrong, deputy dean at the School of International Relations at Renmin University, noted in the Beijing Morning Post on 13 November 2013 that co-ordination is required in dealing with complicated external challenges including economic concerns. For instance, Jin said, being the largest purchaser of iron minerals in the world and accounting for 87% of total export, China has no chance to participate in fixing the price due to over one hundred Chinese firms rushing to join in the bidding war.

Dissenting Voices Express Concerns

Liberal commentators nevertheless voiced their concerns. They feared the new body will be used as a tool to stifle dissent. In the eyes of Hu Jia, the NSC is an upgraded version of the party’s domestic security body. The famed human rights activist expressed his fears that the agency will make China a police state. Hu was placed under house arrest during the period of the plenum last November.

According to the Telegraph on 12 November 2013, Beijing-based liberal minded historian Zhang Lifan implied that Xi is trying to consolidate his power. Zhang was quoted in the paper as saying that “the establishment of this NSC grabs power from the Central Committee and from the Politics and Law Commission.” Zhang is also a prolific blogger, whose several microblogs, among other outspoken bloggers’ accounts, were removed from a number of large Chinese portals on the day the NSC was unveiled. [4]

When interviewed by an Indian daily newspaper The Hindu on 31 December 2013, Zhang noted that “What is happening is that power is being moved out of the politburo to other institutions, such as the reform leading group or the newly established national security commission, to give Xi greater authority.” [5]

Chen Ziming, an independent political theorist, looked at the body from the angle of the form of government, noting that the establishment of the NSC, in essence, is to concentrate power in the hands the president. “The president-chaired NSC marks a significant change from the current cabinet to the presidency with regard to the political system,” Chen wrote in the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily on 15 November 2013. “Given the transformation of the political structure, an amendment to the constitution is a necessity.”

Interestingly, online commentators looked at the NSC with historical imagination, digging up its antique counterpart in history—the Office of Military Secrets (OMS) during the Qing Dynasty. The office, an advisory organ set up by Emperor Yongzheng in 1733, consisted of a small team of elite officials who also held positions in court civil service. Many commentators noted the secret and efficient side of the body, describing the new NSC as Xi’s version of OMS.

External Security Challenges

Theoretically, the NSC is intended to tackle external security threats as its name signifies its core business. The PLA, with its strong security and intelligence portfolios, will continue exerting its role and have more say on the national security platform, especially in the face of territorial disputes with China’s neighbours. The Defence Minister and other generals will sit on the committee on behalf of the PLA.

The Sino-American relationship occupies the foremost position in China’s foreign policy; however its ties with its neighbours have always been one of its priorities. Over the past year, amid territorial disputes with its other neighbours, China’s relations with Japan have been strained due to the disputed islands. On 23 November 2013, China’s unexpected declaration to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea drew protests from Japan, South Korea and the United States.

According to a source familiar with the PLA, it is President Xi who gave the final go-ahead for the ADIZ last summer based on the consideration that the focus of Sino-Japanese contention is bound “to shift to strategic interests from natural resources.” The ADIZ was announced ten days after the NSC had been unveiled, reported the Asia Weekly of Hong Kong last November, adding that in China’s eyes, the creation of the airspace identification zone is a major breakthrough for its air-sea strategy.

The message published by a pro-Beijing overseas Chinese media organ, somehow, catered to patriotic sentiments at home, and, also, sent a signal to the world that China will be taking a tougher stance on the disputed islands. In past years, especially since Xi took the reins of the PLA, there have been repeated calls to make preparations for a military struggle, amid the growing nationalist voices that demand to show muscle and even give up the low-profile strategy of “hiding your strength, biding your time” set by late leader Deng Xiaoping.

Contrary to hawkish remarks popular in China’s left-leaning media, the view expressed by a veteran Chinese diplomat obviously reflects a rational side of China’s foreign policy. According to former Chinese ambassador to France Wu Jianmin, diplomacy will play a greater role in protecting national security as China is intent on settling disputes with its neighbours through peaceful talks. The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post on 19 January 2014 quoted Wu as saying that “disputes between nations should not be settled by showing your fists, but through discussions and consultation.”

In newer media there were more dissenting voices. Some thought the ADIZ merely a symbolic gesture, while others asserted it probably could be a distraction from official corruption and other social problems. The majority did not buy the notion that a large-scale confrontation would be inevitable, though a skirmish might not be avoided. Some comments were forthright, casting doubt on military viability as the PLA has not been involved in a war in over 20 years, especially a high-tech air-sea battle.

North Korea poses another geopolitical challenge the NSC is expected to encounter. The execution of allegedly pro-China leader Jang Song Thaek last December, followed by a massive purge, delivered a surprise to China. The political cleansing orchestrated by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un occurred less than 30 days after the NSC was announced. The incident has once again confirmed the long-circulated opinion that the Chinese have difficulty in influencing and harnessing this autocratic state. [6]

Pyongyang’s capricious nature, especially its flip-flop policy over the nuclear issue, has made it not only an international outcast, but also a trouble-maker in the eyes of its Chinese guardian. The Chinese have expressed discontent against this more than 60-year-old ally. In state media, a retired PLA general recently sent a warning to Pyongyang that it should give up the nuclear program. The views won support from Chinese netizens, who are usually divided over geopolitical issues.

“China is one of the major countries affected by Korean nuclear contamination due to the proximity of the test site. Hence our government should make every effort to persuade Korea into dropping the nuclear plan, at least stopping the scheduled fourth test. We should let Korea know consequences if it continues with the fourth one,”

Wang Hongguang, former Deputy Commander of the Nanjing Military Region, wrote in the Global Times on 16 December 2013, an outspoken nationalist paper affiliated with the People’s Daily.

It is the second time in months that Wang criticized North Korea in the official media. In September 2013, in the National Human History, a subsidiary magazine of the People’s Daily, Wang noted that, in terms of unification and development, China has still felt encumbered with the Korean War that ended 60 years ago. “We cannot underestimate Korea’s commitment to a nuclear program,” he said. “It should be put directly to Korea that wherever it goes with its nuclear plan, its contamination cannot affect our territory.” [7]

The general’s pragmatic views reflect a consensus being built in China that the country will not enter another war for the Kim dynasty. Also, the attitude Wang expressed noticeably keeps a distance from the conventional thinking that sees Chinese participation of Korean War as part of its army’s legendary legacy.

Domestic Security Supervision Sector

The Central Politics and Law Commission (CPLC) will be a fresh component of the NSC. Importantly, President Xi has held the reins of internal security forces through the NSC. The CPLC, responsible for the party’s Central Committee, oversees and co-ordinates domestic security and legal agencies, ranging from police forces, internal intelligence, and security details to the judiciary, law enforcement, and now-abolished labour camps.

Its membership includes the heads of public security, national security, the commander of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF), the PLA generals, the president of the Supreme People’s Court and the procurator-general of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. The CPLC partially commands the PAPF, a quasi-military unit, branch of the PLA.

The CPLC has a sister agency called the Central Comprehensive Social Management Commission (CCSMC). The two agencies share the head office and operate on the pattern of one entity with two different names. Both agencies have branches nationwide. The CCSMC performs the oversight role with a focus on the administration of social safety. The agenda ranges from setting policies to integrating relevant safety jobs. Politburo member Meng Jianzhu chairs both the CPLC and the CCSMC.

Over the years, the CPLC and its local offices have been under fire for abuse of power, corruption, and human rights violations, especially the high-handed treatment of petitioners, migrant workers, evicted dwellers and farmers, and ethnic minorities. The negative impact these agencies have had on the judicial system, has been a hot topic discussed in state and social media. Late last December, most noticeably, the unpopular labour camp system of the last 50 years, was finally abolished under pressure. [8]

During a recent political and legal work conference, party chief Xi vowed to root out graft in this sector, insisting that “officials at all levels are forbidden to overstep the limitations of laws, to abuse power or to bend the law for personal gain.” Xi stressed the point that power abuse, wrongful judgments and sluggish police response to emergencies should not be tolerated.

Xi’s warning came amid a high-profile crusade against corruption in the party and government, including law enforcement agencies. Several higher cadres associated with the CPLC were allegedly involved in graft scandals. Late last year, Li Dongsheng, a head of public security, became the newest target of an inquiry into graft charges laid by the party’s disciplinary watchdog. It is widely rumoured that the probe will point to scandal-embroiled former domestic security Chief Zhou Yongkang, who sat on the politburo standing committee before retirement in late 2012. [9]

Tighten Grip on Cyber and Ideology

The propaganda institution is playing a crucial part in the NSC as Internet management is underlined as part of the security strategy in the plenum communiqué. Both the propaganda chief and the head of the international communication agency keep their seats in the new NSC.

The propaganda agency adheres to the ideological dogma. It is now implementing a new rectification campaign targeting the press, Internet and all ideology-related sectors including higher education. In this digital era, propaganda officials still resort to the old-fashioned rhetoric, describing Western liberal thinking as part of an attempt made by hostile foreign forces to penetrate and subvert China’s socialist system. Despite that, they utilize a variety of public relation tactics like Western style publicity as propaganda moves. [10]

The party document elaborated on Internet control, warning that the Internet poses “a new comprehensive challenge” to China’s security and social stability. As it conceded, Internet management in China has trailed far behind the rapidly growing new media. In particular, social media has a huge influence, extensive coverage and strong ability to mobilize society as well. China’s concern lies in the Internet messaging that could inspire people to move around quickly, given the lessons learned from the “Arab Spring” and “the colour revolution” that led to the downfall of several regimes. [11]

As required, Internet firms in China have to work with the authorities, doing self-censorship and filtering contents. The automation system, integrated with a huge legion of human censors, has created an online surveillance wall. The apparatuses keep netizens away from accessing politically sensitive foreign sites that, for instance, publish astonishing news like the latest revelation of secret offshore bank accounts owned by family members of China’s senior leaders. On the other hand, the censors monitor Internet content and delete posts deemed politically offensive, provocative or malicious, such as China’s grassroots citizens’ rights activities.

The NSC came amid a cyber-clampdown starting last summer. Several high profile bloggers were detained due to postings deemed rumours or dangerous to social stability. Accounts by liberal intellectuals were disabled due to the same reasons. Quite a few famed bloggers in the role of opinion leaders had to take their bows under pressure. Thus, some netizens feared the Internet winter is nearing. State media and left-leaning supporters, however, sang the praises of the crackdown, claiming a victory of taking back the so-called “ideological front line.”

As part of the ideological overhaul, the authorities are tightening control over major journalism schools by sending propaganda cadres to head media programs at top colleges so as to ensure the teaching is consistent with the party’s line. Meanwhile, for the first time ever, a total of 250,000 journalists nationwide are required to pass a “Marxism exam” by this coming spring, to keep their press cards. The test is based on a 700-page manual and a self-taught video on such topics as Marxist news values, Chinese-featured socialism, as well as journalism ethics.

Despite the high-handed measures, even jail-time threats for spreading “rumours” online, the new media landscape seemingly remains unchanged much. Netizens with different political stripes are still blogging and disseminating messages, but more prudently under pressure. Impressively, those who experienced the liberal renaissance in the 1980s, keep tactfully expressing opinions and discussing sensitive topics by various detour approaches.

The netizens are able to stand fast, partially due to the media commercialization that leaves lots of room in the digital sphere. Most important, a diversified society geared to a market-oriented economy has been taking shape because of the open-door policy and substantial changes affecting every sector over the past 30 years. New media have become a virtual destination in the people’s lives, in which they find a way to vent grievances as other forms of political expression are restricted. Hence any attempt to totally curb or control the cyber world is bound to be an uphill battle.

Previous ArticleNext Article
Weixin Lu
Weixin Lu is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a focus on China and East Asia issues.