31 January 2014

Take Heed of China’s Security Commission

Andrew S. Erickson and William McCahill, “Take Heed of China’s Security Commission,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 31 January 2014.

China’s complex bureaucracy has presented China-watchers with a new analytical challenge in the form of a National Security Commission, which appears intended to help President Xi Jinping consolidate power and enhance administration but which otherwise remains something of a mystery.

The new commission, first discussed in detail at a major Communist Party policy conclave in November, will be headed by Xi, with Premier Li Keqiang and leading Politburo member Zhang Dejiang as deputy heads, according to recent state media reports. Most of the rest of the commission’s roster has not been revealed.

Indications are the NSC will be a robust, influential organ with the potential to change how China faces a range of challenges. Official pronouncements suggest that one of its important tasks will be to ensure a stable environment for major economic reforms the party laid out in November, which will create temporary winners and losers even if they ultimately yield major gains for society overall in the long run.

“State security and social stability are preconditions for reform and development,” Xi said in an explanation of the commission’s role published shortly after the new agency was unveiled.

How will the NSC operate, and to what end?

The key question hovering over commission has been whether it will focus more on domestic policing or on national security in the foreign policy sense of the term. Most indications suggest that it will concern itself mostly, though not exclusively, with internal security.

Last November’s 18th Central Committee Third Plenum Communiqué and “Decisions” placed the NSC squarely in passages stressing domestic stability as the sine qua non for pursuing the Party’s economic reform agenda. But part of Xi’s agenda in spearheading the commission appears to also stem from internal party politics.

Over the five years preceding Xi’s ascent to Party General Secretary, the complicated machine of police, militia and domestic intelligence was controlled by now retired Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and his loyalists. Although Beijing has said little publicly, scores of Zhou’s former associates now stand accused of gross corruption, and Zhou’s own future looks increasingly in doubt. Zhou’s bureaucratic channel for working his wiles was the Party Central’s “Committee on Politics and Law” (zheng fa wei 政法委), which oversees the police, other internal security organs, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, prosecutors and, to some degree, the courts. In part because of this, and the fact that Zhou had strong links to Bo Xilai —a former Communist Party star sentenced to life in prison on charges of corruption and abuse of power in a high-profile trial last year—Xi has devoted great energy to purging Zhou’s acolytes from those domestic security agencies and to asserting his own authority over them.

The Politics and Law Committee’s functions appear to have been placed under the aegis of the new National Security Commission. Significantly, the Politburo member in charge of public security, Meng Jianzhu, is slated to sit on both the National Security Commission and the Deeping Reform Leading Group, reinforcing the link between domestic tranquility and economic reform.

Time will tell whether internal or external threats end up occupying the majority of the NSC’s time. And that time might well be short. At home, China faces a rise in violent unrest in restive ethnic minority regions. Abroad, it faces challenges arising from island and maritime claims disputes in the Yellow, East and South China Seas. But as the new NSC organizes itself and—assuming it follows standard Chinese bureaucratic practices—sets up provincial and local counterparts, the following areas may offer signs that the commission is working:

More efficient Chinese crisis management. No bureaucracy excels at crisis management. China’s stovepiped bureaucracy—with multiple competing interests, a congenital reluctance to share information across agency lines, rigid hierarchies and consensus-based political leadership—has been particularly sluggish. If the new commission compels inter-agency response under a strong executive, presumably Xi Jinping himself, management of both domestic and foreign security crises could become more efficient and more effective.

Better integration of foreign and domestic intelligence. By improving information flow, China could promote improvements here as well. This would be particularly relevant regarding Uighurs carrying out violent attacks in Xinjiang, whom Chinese authorities have tied to jihadis and fundamentalist schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as to Uighur exile financiers and publicists in Europe and the U.S. But many other areas of concern to Beijing would also be served by tighter integration of foreign and domestic intelligence: Hong Kong, Taiwan, the proliferation of strategic and industrial espionage across developed economies, and the security of Chinese state-owned enterprise operations abroad (viz. Sudan) to name but a few.

Tougher crackdowns on ethnic minorities, domestic free thinkers and social media. The NSC might well lead to even swifter stifling of perceived sources of instability than we have seen thus far during Xi’s reign. Like government security agencies in other countries, once given fresh resources, China’s security officials find ways to use them. The hardline might first appear in resource-rich Xinjiang. Uighur unrest has become Beijing’s domestic security priority No. 1, particularly now that Uighurs are mounting terrorist strikes in the Chinese heartland, including a lethal suicide car bomb last fall in Tian’anmen square, the nation’s holiest shrine. That attack deeply shook China’s most senior leaders, many of whom were meeting not 200 meters from where the bomb exploded.

To get a further sense of what role the NSC might play, it helps to consider where Xi Jinping is coming from. An outgoing, effective leader with a strong revolutionary pedigree, Xi draws some parallels to Deng Xiaoping and appears to have adopted Deng’s program: savvy, capable consolidation of political power to facilitate economic reform. He is politically cautious, having seen his father purged by Mao before reemerging as a leader under Deng and having himself been sent down to the Shaanxi countryside during the Cultural Revolution. All Communist Party leaders must protect their “left” political flank to some extent, but Xi’s determination never to face the trials that befell his father likely impels him to do this more than most. Hence his Maoist rhetoric, his vow to never become a “Chinese Gorbachev” and his tightening of domestic security to a degree even greater than under his predecessor.

From the perspective of external security, Xi’s capabilities and predilections bring both strengths and risks. Certainly, the party has always commanded the gun, but Xi has cultivated a closer relationship with the People’s Liberation Army than those who came before him. In peacetime, he may see the military as more of a power base and be more comfortable cultivating modest tensions for domestic political purposes (vis-à-vis Japan, for example) than Hu Jintao. In the event of a crisis, however, he likely has greater ability to act rapidly and decisively, even if it required making politically difficult demands of the PLA.

These are all reasons the NSC should not be dismissed as just another agency in China’s sprawling government. From within a bureaucracy that has had few dramatic changes in recent years, it should command the attention of China watchers everywhere.