Written by Tai Ming Cheung.
China has flourished since it opened its doors to the outside world and embarked on economic development from the late 1970s. But under the tenure of Xi Jinping, domestic and external security concerns have risen to the top of his administration’s thinking and in its policy priorities. This has led to the re-emergence of a national security state in which the leadership is more concerned with the protection of national borders, physical assets, the and core values, especially the rule of the Communist Party, and is also intensely nationalistic.
The Chinese authorities have been busy in building this national security state over the past few years. This includes the establishment of new institutional and regulatory mechanisms such as a national security commission and new expansionist national security-related laws to the implementation of more assertive domestic and external security postures such as island building in the South China Sea. This paper examines the underlying drivers and strategy behind the rise of Xi’s national security state and the policy consequences.
From Deng Xiaoping’s Developmental State to Xi’s National Security State
Between the late 1970s and the early 2010s, economic development was China’s foremost priority, while national security issues were of secondary importance. This contrasted with the fortress-like military-national security state that Mao Zedong had ruled over before then. Deng Xiaoping pressed ahead during the 1980s with economic reforms and opening up the country. But national security challenges regularly intervened and threatened to undermine the economic reform process, most notably in 1989 with the Tiananmen Square protests and again in the mid-1990s as tensions across the Taiwan Strait threatened to escalate into military conflict.
Under the tenures of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao between 1990 and 2012, there was an effort to find a more balanced relationship between economic development and national security, although economic issues remained the dominant priority. For Xi, the balance appears to have tipped decisively in favour of national security considerations. Economic development still remains a top concern for Xi, but it is increasingly defined in terms of ensuring social stability.
Defining the National Security State
There are several types of national security state. In predatory security states, the security apparatus uses its power and influence to gain control of lucrative elements of the economy. Russia under Putin is a classic predatory national security state in which the intelligence bureaucracy has extended its tentacles across the economy. A second model is the garrison state in which the country finds itself under severe external threat and the military is the dominant actor. A contemporary example is Pakistan.
A third type of national security state is the control state, in which the leadership oversees a sprawling system of interlocking bureaucracies dealing with internal and external security issues in an integrated approach that emphasizes seizing control not only of traditional security concerns such as military and public security, but also of legal security (the judicial system) and information diffusion (propaganda system). Xi is actively establishing a comprehensive control state in China.
The Drivers Behind the Emergence of a National Security State Under Xi
A key driver behind Xi’s intensive efforts to establish a potent national security state is the grave threats that he and the leadership believe that China is facing. In 2014, a newly established National Security Commission met for the first time and Xi was quoted as saying that ‘China now faces the most complicated internal and external factors in [its] history.’ This is an extraordinary claim as the PRC has faced especially severe threats to its very survival between the 1950s and 1970s from the United States and the Soviet Union.
The rationale behind Xi’s pessimistic threat assessment was spelt out in the outline of the country’s first ever national security strategy outline that was drafted in 2015. Admiral Sun Jianguo, a deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, explained that China today faced three major dangers:
- Invasion, subversion, and “splittism:” This refers to the threats to the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, both externally and internally. The external dangers primarily concern maritime sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas. China has been engaged in heated confrontations with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and with a number of Southeast Asian countries as well as the U.S. over islands, atolls, and rocks that make up the Spratlys in the South China Sea. On territorial integrity, this is related to ensuring that Taiwan remains a part of China. Subversion and splittism is tied to the ethnic unrest that China faces with its autonomous regions in the far west, namely Tibet and Xinjiang. There have been major upheavals in these two regions over the past decade and Uyghur separatists have been engaged in terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, other parts of China, and against Chinese targets overseas.
- Undermining of reforms, economic development, and stability: Mitigating social instability is a first order priority for the Chinese authorities in the face of widening social inequality, pervasive corruption, deep-seated structural unemployment, and numerous other social problems. Admiral Sun points out that there are ‘frequent occurrences of social contradictions and accumulating social contradictions.’ The identification that ‘undermining of reforms’ poses a national security danger is highly unusual as this would equate opposition to Xi’s reform agenda as a threat. Admiral Sun noted that ‘reforms are entering a critical period,’ which is a reference to the ambitious set of economic, social, and military reforms that were announced at the Third Plenum of the CCP Central Committee in November 2013 but have been very slow in being implemented. There have been occasional reports in the official Chinese media indicating that reforms have run into difficulties. A widely published commentary in the Chinese state media in August 2015 said the ‘scale of resistance’ against Xi’s reforms ’is beyond what could have been imagined.’ This resistance appears to be coming from entrenched political and bureaucratic interests that stand to lose from reforms, such as state agencies and state-owned corporations.
- Socialist development of China being interrupted: The biggest concern for the CCP leadership is the threat to its hold on power, which it views as coming from numerous quarters domestically and externally. This includes a deeply-held view among CCP leaders that the West is seeking regime change in China, which has only been reinforced in recent years by the spectacle of ‘coloured revolutions’ in Europe and the ‘Arab Spring’ political upheavals that swept the Middle East. Closer to home, the CCP authorities were unnerved by the student-led political unrest in Hong Kong known as the ‘Occupy Central’ in 2014, which Admiral Sun likened as the ’Hong Kong version of the colour revolution” stage-managed meticulously by a small number of radical groups in Hong Kong incited and supported by external forces.’
Xi’s National Security Strategy
In the making of the national security state, Xi has put forward a new strategy that he terms as a ‘national security path with Chinese characteristics’ that is a mixture of assertive principles coupled with deep concerns of vulnerabilities. A number of key concepts are behind the shaping this doctrine:
- National security is comprehensive: Xi sees the domestic and external components of national security as overlapping and tightly connected, which is very different from the compartmentalized approach that his predecessors pursued. This is an important reason why Xi decided to establish a new organization, the National Security Commission, to manage this integrated approach.
- National security is expansive: Closely connected with the perspective that national security is comprehensive is the notion that it is expansive and covers many different domains. In a new national security law that is being finalized, national security is identified as covering 11 categories: political, territorial, military, economic, cultural, social, ecological, science and technology, information, nuclear, and natural resources.
- Being pro-active and thinking strategically: It is important to identify and address national security challenges and opportunities early, strategically, and decisively rather than being reactive and tactical. This requires extensive and high-level leadership engagement, close coordination across the national security apparatus, and the development of a capable and substantial intelligence system to keep abreast of internal and international developments.
- Struggling for recognition: China under Xi is stressing the need to engage in struggle (斗争) in the pursuit of national interests, especially in the military and diplomatic arenas. In describing China’s approach in dealing with the U.S., Admiral Sun pointed out that ‘facts have shown that without struggle it will be impossible for the United States to respect our core interests, without struggle it will be impossible to realize cooperation and win-win on the basis of equality, and without struggle it will be impossible to have an excellent situation today.’ In other words, China, and especially the PLA, needs to take a resilient stance and push hard against the United States in order to win its respect, although the Chinese leadership is also extremely careful not to go too far and spark armed conflict as it remains much weaker.
Although not defined as an explicit threat, the Chinese authorities do believe that the U.S. and other major powers are seeking to thwart China’s rise as a regional as well as a global power. In response, China is required to adopt a pro-active and tough posture to ensure its continuing ascendancy.
This more combative security-oriented posture is reflected in a number of internal and external actions that Beijing has been conducting under Xi’s leadership. First is China’s assertive efforts to fortify its control over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, especially through massive land reclamation since 2014 that has turned half a dozen atolls and semi-submerged land features into fully-fledged islands able to support military facilities.
A second case was been Beijing’s heavy-handed approach to tackling turmoil on the country’s stock markets in the summer of 2015. A sharp and sustained sell-off in the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets led the authorities to intervene and arrest a number of stock market analysts, traders, and even journalists and warn about ‘black hands’ that were causing widespread economic strife.
Xi Jinping as Commander-in-Chief and the Remaking of the PLA
One of the key hats that Xi wears in his leadership of the national security state is as chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), which he assumed at the outset of elevation as the country’s supreme leader in 2012. During his time as commander-in-chief, Xi has engineered one of the most far-reaching restructurings of the PLA in its history.
While many of Xi’s key reforms are still in the early stages of implementation and facing resistance from powerful entrenched interests, what he has done so far is nothing short of revolutionary when compared with the glacial pace of change that normally occurs in the PLA. The overall goal is to make the PLA leaner, meaner, and cleaner so that it is able to fulfill a growing list of missions from safeguarding sovereignty and Chinese interests around the world to being ready to fight and win high-technology wars on land, in the air, at sea, in outer space, and increasingly in the cyber and electro-magnetic domains.
Some of the most critical areas of reform have been in the following areas:
- Civil-military relations: When Xi took power, the Communist Party’s once-tight control over the military had loosened and there was growing areas in which PLA leaders were contesting influence, such as in foreign policy. Xi has firmly reasserted political control through a ruthless campaign of political cleansing carried out through a no-holds barred anti-corruption crackdown and a rigorous political re-indoctrination effort.
- Military service politics: One of the biggest problems standing in the way of the PLA’s aspirations to be a state-of-the-art fighting force was that it was trapped in an early 20th time warp in which the ground forces were in charge and took most of the resources. In an era when the principal security threats facing China were in the maritime, air, and space domains, this made little strategic sense. Xi was finally able to overcome this bottleneck at the end of 2015 by significantly downgrading the ground forces’ grip on power so that it would be at the same level as the air force, navy, and strategic missile forces. At the same time, the new organizational paradigm was joint command between the service arms. This new command structure was given particular prominence in late April when Xi was pictured touring the CMC’s new Joint Battle Command Centre with a new title as its commander-in-chief.
- Command and control: The establishment of this Battle Command Centre is a key component of one of the most far-reaching reorganizations of the PLA’s power structure in its history. Xi reversed a trend dating from Deng Xiaoping’s time in charge in the 1980s of allowing military chiefs to have more authority to manage the PLA’s affairs by reducing the grip of the CMC and increasing the role of the PLA general headquarters departments. At the end of last year, Xi merged the PLA’s general departments back into the CMC and expanded the latter’s role and authority to include being in direct charge of the PLA’s combat operations, which is the main function of this new battle command centre.
- Technological change: Xi has called on the PLA, China’s defence industry, and its legions of scientists and engineers to engage in a revolution in military technological affairs and develop new generations of weapons to close the gap with the likes of the U.S. Over the past decade, the PLA has been able to make major progress with the introduction of increasingly advanced capabilities, especially in areas such as precision strike missiles, warships, and combat aircraft. The research and development pipeline is bulging with plenty of new projects, and the big issue going forward is how will the military be able to afford to purchase all of these expensive systems.
Over the past few decades, the PLA has struggled mightily and without much success to find an effective working balance of being red, expert, and clean. Xi is hoping that he has laid the foundations and provided a detailed roadmap of the path that the PLA should take over the next 5-10 years (he still has at least another 5-6 years as commander-in-chief) to become a politically reliable world-class military power.
Tai Ming Cheung is the director of IGCC and the leader of IGCC’s Minerva project “The Evolving Relationship Between Technology and National Security in China: Innovation, Defense Transformation, and China’s Place in the Global Technology Order.” He is a long-time analyst of Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs. Image credit: CC by Beijing Patrol/Flickr.
 It is interesting though that the activities of the NSC have disappeared from open view since its first and only publicized meeting in 2014. Whether the NSC has been become dormant or the authorities have decided to classify its activities is not clear, although the considerable political capital that was expended to establish this mechanism suggests the latter outcome. See Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Much-Heralded National Security Commission Has Disappeared”, Foreign Policy, 30 June 2016.