Managing the Power Within: China’s State Security Commission


Marking the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), state-run CCTV News ran a three-part series, “Understanding the [Chinese Communist Party]”, stating that “to understand China, one has to understand the [CCP].” Making sense of the CCP, however, is not just about leaders, policy, and bureaucracy but about power and its use. Since President Xi Jinping announced the creation of the Central State Security Commission (CSSC, 中央国家安全委员会) in November 2013, foreign observers have tried to track its creation, membership, and operations in search of a Chinese equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council staff. This search has led most researchers toward Chinese discussions of international crisis management and away from the issue of power and the social governance framework within which the Chinese government placed the CSSC.

The CSSC can only be understood through the lens of power and the efforts of the party-state to wield that power to meet a growing set of “state security” (国家安全) challenges that, in the words of President Xi at the first publicly-documented CSSC meeting, “are more complex than at any time in history.”  The CCP’s driving objective is to remain in power, but as obstacles to ensuring this objective inevitably become more complex so does the need to self-regulate.  The CCP is constantly engaged in a process of ensuring its own legitimacy, which, having never truly outgrown its revolutionary past, the CCP perhaps fears it never fully possessed. While ensuring legitimacy includes objectives like maintaining economic growth and preserving stability, it also includes wielding the party’s power to administer the country effectively and prevent the emergence of a Chinese future without the CCP at the helm. The need for effective governance explains the objective of efforts such as the anticorruption and party loyalty campaigns, especially in places like the military, propaganda, and security services that would seem self-evidently loyal.

Despite its low visibility, the CSSC shows a marked orientation toward addressing security challenges, largely in the form of political threats, to Beijing’s ability to govern. For example, the CSSC appears to guide the implementation of the State Security Law (July 2015), and State Security Strategy Outline (January 2015). Although many thought the CSSC would resemble an effort to build an interagency policy coordination body roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council staff, the CSSC’s publicly documented activities more clearly support earlier arguments that it would focus on domestic threats with foreign connections. In the work report of the Third Plenum when the party announced that the CSSC would be established, the CSSC’s purpose appeared in the section on reshaping social governance and was described as “improving the state security system and state security strategy.” The challenge, as report’s language hints, was not so much the threats themselves as harnessing the growing capabilities of the security and intelligence services into a coherent policy system that worked with rather than against overarching national policy.

Taming New Power

The largely overlooked legacy of former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, one of the anti-corruption campaign’s biggest casualties, is the creation of new, unregulated power within the domestic security apparatus during the 2000s that threatened the party’s internal equilibrium and ability to govern. The CSSC places the protection of state security directly in the hands of the senior-most CCP officials—general secretary, premier, and chairman of the National People’s Congress—binding the powers accumulated by security services to the leadership and an integrated policy vision.

Even if Xi benefits by gaining direct authority over the security services that he would not have had under the previous arrangements, the commission structurally prevents one individual from having too much power. This was a critical part of Chinese discussion led by the Central Party School, which Xi then directed, in the summer of 2012 ahead of the leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress. A number of articles argued that “social management,” as directed under now-imprisoned Zhou Yongkang, endangered stability by being so focused on domestic security operations at the expense of propaganda, managing cadre performance, and government administration.

From 2002 to 2012, Zhou oversaw the modernization of China’s domestic intelligence and security system through his positions as Minister of Public Security (2002–2007) and chairman of the Central Political-Legal Affairs Commission (2007–2012). This modernization largely centered on the acquisition, development, and deployment of information technology to support police operations and bolster surveillance. This includes nation-wide databases, such as the Golden Shield Project, connecting the ministry from top to bottom and the police with travel bookings, hotels, and true name registration for a variety of telecommunications services.

Additionally, the police control the networked video cameras that decorate many Chinese cities. Networking the cameras and adding features like license plate recognition allows the police to track targets across the city without committing more manpower to surveillance. This process began at the latest between 2001 and 2002, when the first pilot “grid” surveillance projects were introduced whereby police optimized the use of information technology to create a more dynamic and responsive public security apparatus. This coincided with the launch of a data grid technology plan around October 2002, under key science and technology programs that have since been merged under a national key R&D plan announced in February 2016. One of the outcomes is the development of a big data technology-enabled predictive policing platforms. Finally, the ministry has reinvigorated its efforts to cultivate and manage wide-ranging informant networks. In an interview that was subsequently taken offline, a local-level police chief said his unit had more than 12,000 informants for a population of 400,000. In many respects, China’s more repressive atmosphere at present can be explained by the application of these new capabilities within existing policy.

These resources could readily be used against other Chinese leaders, just as they have been against Chinese citizens to track movements and communications. Prior to the CSSC’s establishment and despite the party’s long-standing concerns about the emergence of another Kang Sheng who used the intelligence services to fuel Mao-era purges, the relative autonomy of senior-most officials gave Zhou nearly free-reign to build loyal cliques within the MPS and MSS without interference.  The dismissals and demotions, respectively, of Beijing State Security Bureau director Liang Ke and Vice Minister Qiu Jin highlight Zhou’s willingness to politicize the security apparatus. Zhou now sits in jail for abuse of power, possibly because he used his control of the security services to push the former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai as a challenger to President Xi in 2012 or at least as his own replacement at the CPLC.

It is telling that in August 2012 as Zhou transitioned out of power and Xi eased into position, the People’s Daily reported that the domestically-oriented public security informatization process served the purpose of “protecting state security and preserving stability.” This marked the beginning of the official transition toward a more conceptually-integrated approach to state security. The CCP leadership probably intended this shift to strengthen state security by not allowing MPS operations to become a self-licking ice cream cone that destabilized the Chinese system.

Ensuring Security of the Party-State

To understand the role of the CSSC, it is important to dissect the meaning of “state security” (国家安全), which shares the same characters as the concept we call “national security”. “National security” is similar but not quite the same as “state security”—and the latter is the more common Chinese formulation. “State security” in its simplest form means protecting the Chinese party-state from domestic and foreign threats, not so much a reference to geography, China, or the Chinese people. “State security” is inclusive of political security, homeland security, military security, economic security, cultural security, social security (implying social stability), and information security.

With countering domestic and foreign security threats as an implied part of the definition of state security, it is worth asking what the Party-State actually perceives as “security threats”. China, like all countries, faces tangible security threats. However, there is an added Party-State dimension whereby the protection of “state security” is about the protection of the intangible CCP-constructed concept of China.

For instance, Chinese media often reveals CCP paranoia that Western “hostile forces”, particularly the United States, will ideologically infiltrate China—especially through news media, the Internet and non-governmental organizations. For example, these articles use the Color Revolutions in Central Asia of the early 2000s as a warning that “hostile” forces will attempt to reach groups in China that are seen as posing a challenge to the CCP’s narrative. This is why NGOs, media and other information transmission methods are seen as a security threats. Managing these threats is a long-term game. If the CCP is ever reaches a state security crisis, it may have already lost before any literal battle begins. The process of ensuring state security is aimed at pre-empting crisis. The crux of the matter is actively managing threats so that they do not move beyond the CCP’s control.

The Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s principal civilian intelligence service, provides a concrete demonstration of what protecting state security looks like in practice. The MSS does collect foreign intelligence like its ostensible Western counterparts, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or the U.K. Secret Intelligence Service. The primary MSS missions, however, are counterespionage, countering terrorist groups or dissidents with foreign connections, cyber-security, and other domestic intelligence missions. Moreover, these concerns permeate the MSS’s foreign operations. Case officers posted abroad are more likely to pursue local Uighurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, democracy activists, and Falungong than they are to target the local government or foreign officials also posted there. These groups, known as the “five poisons” (五毒), challenge the CCP in different ways, but, at their heart, these groups all provide an alternative vision of China. Moreover, the reason they pose the threat is that they operate inside and outside China.

Putting the CSSC in Context

While there is both an institutional and strategic need for something like the CSSC, how this translates into practice and works within the existing power structure us another question. The absence of the CSSC and its membership list from public media coverage should not lead to an assumption that it does not exist. This is arguably another sign that its purpose is domestic. The appropriate analog to the CSSC within the Chinese system is not the Central Military Commission, as one analyst suggested, but rather the leading small groups—informal bodies that advise on policy  and supervise policy implementation. These groups have fluctuated in importance for setting the overall direction and guidance for policy, but they possess a degree of informality and few if any official lists exist of present or past membership. In the Third Plenum report, the CSSC’s purpose was described as “improving the state security system and state security strategy” and appeared in the section on reshaping social governance.

Relatedly, anything involving domestic security and intelligence operations rarely appears in the official Chinese media. The Central Political-Legal Committee (CPLC), which controls the domestic security and intelligence agencies, maintains a low public profile. Like the leading small groups, the full CPLC membership list is not officially published and most of its security-related work—as well as that of its provincial and grassroots committees—remains out of the public eye. If the CSSC, whether internally or externally focused, provides guidance to many of the same ministries as CPLC, then there is no reason to start from the assumption that the CSSC would be a public- or foreign-facing institution.

It is also important to stress that while the CSSC has not been discussed much in public, the state security concept has been coherently and openly developed under Xi Jinping. To explain the state security concept, and in general Chinese politics, it is important to keep the Party’s Consultative Leninist approach in mind, where, as Steve Tsang wrote, “The CCP is obsessively focused on staying in power, for which maintaining stability in the country and pre-emptively eliminating threats to its political supremacy are deemed essential.”

Following this logic, the state security concept in practice is largely about pre-emptively managing threats. This involves the Party leadership engaging the masses, which are both the Party membership and society in general, to treat both the symptoms and root causes of state insecurity. With the “masses” being seen as a key determinant of CCP’s legitimacy, state security requires fully mobilizing every member of society to take personal responsibility for ensuring the Party-State’s safety. Ideology, party loyalty, and anti-corruption drives are all key policy initiatives under Xi Jinping; and all are directly related to state security because all are directly related to the driving goal of maintaining the Party’s power.


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. Follow her on Twitter: @he_shumei

Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military (2015). He is currently completing two book manuscripts on Chinese intelligence operations.