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Photo: Chinese riot police with helmets stand guard in formation during a protest.

The importance of domestic security apparatus in China’s leadership transition

27 September 2012

Emmanuel Puig

One of the key issues of the next leadership transition will be the control over the domestic security apparatus. Since the end of the 1980s, one of China’s most important political issues – if not the most important issue – has been the management of domestic security and the safeguard of ‘social stability’, or ‘weiwen’. After the dramatic events of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has implemented a janusian system in which economic development coexists with powerful social management. In order to prevent disruptive knock-on effects of shifting global dynamics linked to economic openness, the CCP has devoted a lot of effort to resolving social problems and various ‘contradictions’ within the society. To do so, CCP leaders have placed great emphasis on policing and monitoring civil society. The official narrative behind this move is that CCP rule is essential for maintaining China’s economic growth: order ensures economic stability and, in turn, prosperity. As a result, the institutions in charge of maintaining social stability and managing public security have gained in power. Thus, with the 18th Congress fast approaching, gaining or remaining in control of the apparatus is one of the major issues for the CCP’s leaders.

Today, China’s public security apparatuses are organised as follows: at the top stands the Central Political and Legislative Affairs Committee (known as ‘zhengfa’) headed by Zhou Yongkang, a member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee. The zhengfa operates directly under the supervision of the Standing Committee and oversees the Central Committee for Comprehensive Management of Public Security, which mainly has a consultative purpose. The zhengfa also has a direct influence over the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP). Meng Jianzhu, Minister of Public Security, is also Deputy Secretary of the zhengfa. At the same time, Meng serves as Political Commissar (i.e. number two) of the PAP, which is headed by Commander Wang Jianping. Alongside with the police forces, the PAP is a paramilitary force operating under the dual supervision of both the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the Ministry of Public Security. More specifically, the MPS and the PAP are the two executive bodies in charge of ensuring domestic security in China. The MPS oversees the police forces in charge of public order, traffic administration, prison management, border control, firefighting, customs, criminal investigations, and secret investigations as well as secret detentions. The PAP carries out counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism measures, but it also deals with social unrest, the coast guard, border patrols, and disaster relief. So, in a nutshell, the head of the whole domestic security apparatus remains within the leadership triangle of the zhengfa, the MPS and the PAP. This autumn, Zhou Yongkang will step down as head of the zhengfa and Meng Jianzhu appears to be on track to succeed him.

Within the CCP’s internal system of checks and balances, being in charge of the security system means gaining the political high ground. Preserving political control over society is vital for future of the CCP. As a result, control of the security system enhances the political importance and the symbolic credit of the people in charge. Ten years after Jiang Zemin’s retirement, the members of the so-called ‘Shanghai faction’ seem to remain firmly in charge of the security apparatus. Zhou Yongkang was Minister of Public Security between 2002 and 2007, and his promotion to the post was influenced by Zeng Qinhong, one of Jiang’s closest political allies. Allegedly, Zhou was supposed to have groomed Meng Jianzhu to replace him after the 18th Congress. Meng is also a member of the ‘Shanghai faction’, even though he is not part of its historical core. Meng has apparently replaced Zhou on various occasions since the beginning of 2012, which could be viewed as evidence of an official transition. According to some interpretations, Zhou may have been sidelined because of his ties with Bo Xilai. Yet as Alice Miller underlines, the links between Zhou, Bo and Chongqing ‘must be tempered in light of Zhou’s overarching responsibility for internal security and legal affairs’. When Zhou endorsed Bo’s campaign (‘strike the black’) against corruption and organised crime in Chongqing, he was only doing his official duty. Moreover, there is no evidence of personal ties between the two men which could lead to the fall of Zhou. Nevertheless, even if Zhou is not weakened, it seems that Meng’s path to the Standing Committed has not yet been secured. A few weeks away from the Party Congress, it seems that Zhang Dejiang, another member of the ‘Shanghai faction’, could benefit from broader political support (and also from the Bo Xilai affair) and join the Standing Committee with the public security portfolio.

Whoever the new leader may be, he will face great challenges ahead. The profound changes taking place within Chinese society have spurred the need for greater social control. Chinese leaders are well aware that not all of the sociopolitical issues can be addressed through security measures. Nevertheless, the public security apparatuses are booming. The CCP has established a sprawling and pervasive system to ensure its political dominance and increase its capacity for social management. As a result, today’s leaders of the apparatuses possess more power and authority than any of their predecessors. They play a crucial role in sustaining the regime and monitoring every form of social disturbance. But such political investment has a financial cost. According to a report issued by the Ministry of Finance, the Chinese central government will spend around 85 billion Euros (701.7 billion Yuan) on public security (‘gonggong anquan’) in 2012. With an increase of 11% between 2011 and 2012, the public security budget is officially larger and growing faster than defence spending. It is worth noting that most of this spending goes directly to ongoing operating budgets in various areas such as the safety of public infrastructures, traffic control, or firefighting, which have more to do with safety than security. Thus, the Chinese authorities insist that only 22 billion Euros (182.6 billion Yuan) are currently allocated to the security and judiciary forces (with an increase of 7.7% between 2011 and 2012). Most of this money is spent on subsidies to provincial and local governments in charge of implementing public order at the local level. But the dichotomy between safety and security is highly questionable given that the institutions that are in charge of traffic control, firefighting or disaster relief, are in fact the MPS and the PAP. So, even if it is incorrect to consider that the whole ‘gonggong anquan’ budget is dedicated to police and security purposes, it is true that almost the entire budget flows to the MPS and the PAP through various central and provincial financial channels.

This clearly shows once again the political importance of these two institutions. But it also underlines the risk of building a hypertrophied apparatus that blurs the line between public safety and public security. Building and sustaining such an apparatus could turn out to be very costly – financially and politically speaking – for the central government. Notwithstanding the increase of the cost that the recent figures demonstrated, the fragmentation of interests and internal power struggles within the apparatus could severely undermine Beijing’s effort to maintain stability. For example: the success of local administrations is evaluated mainly based on their ability to maintain social stability. But, in trying to preserve their image of stability and their statistics related to that practice, local authorities spend much more time (and money) trying to conceal the incidents than addressing their root causes[5]. This poisons relations between the local and central governments and the citizens. Another example can be drawn from the provincial disparities between the PAP garrisons. For several years now, the PAP has undertaken a major overhaul in the recruitment, training and management of its forces. The PAP is willing to transform itself into an integrated multitask force. But the definition of the modernisation agenda has caused significant political struggles to break out between the provinces and the central government, the MPS and the PAP, and even within the PAP itself over who will get new equipment first, what the political priorities are and which provinces should receive the most subsidies in order to implement this modernisation.

Moreover, the defence industries are now fully involved in this process of social management. Alongside a myriad of small and medium private enterprises, state-owned enterprises such as China North Industry Corp. (NORINCO) and China Electronics Technology Group Corp. (CETC) are lobbying to develop a homeland security market in China. It seems that they have been successful so far, and further technological improvements within the PAP and the MPS are depending on the growth of this market. But in the meantime, this will only amplify the fact that China’s public security apparatus is a complex web of corporate interests, struggling factions, and difficult relations between regional authorities and central government. This paradoxically shows that for an authoritarian state such as China, the control apparatus could also have a destabilising effect. In the years to come, there is no doubt that the central government will still put emphasis on this issue and will by no means reduce its investments in this area.

As far as Europe is concerned, the development of China’s security apparatus poses various challenges. Three of them appear to be of crucial importance. The first is the extent of the institutional cooperation between the police forces. The MPS seems eager to strengthen its cooperation with some European countries’ police forces, and it is an interesting opportunity for Europe to exchange on procedures and how to manage judicial cases. But one should not forget that the MPS is also in charge of tracking down political dissidents and managing secret detentions, which are in complete violation of EU’s human rights standards. The second issue is the evolution of the judiciary system in China. Recent changes in criminal procedure law show that the system is quickly evolving. These evolutions are crucial for China’s future, and the EU should monitor these changes and cooperate – as much as possible – with the judicial institutions in China. Finally, with the current development of a homeland security market in China, many of European firms could be attracted by the promises of such a lucrative emerging market. Despite the fact that China is still under an EU arms embargo, most public security technologies do not fall under this regulation (but are subject to national export control procedures). Many public security technologies are dual-use and the opening of such a market could lead to consequential technology transfers that could spread into the military (i.e. in communication technology) in violation of EU policy. In a few months, as soon as the political transition will be achieved, the EU should address those issues without delay.

Emmanuel Puig is a Senior Researcher with the Asia Centre (Paris)