The 18th Party Congress and Chinese Cyberpower

China’s leadership is changing. It’s cyber policies – at least in the short term – seem set.

China will announce its new leadership slate this week and the rest of the world will start scrambling, trying to figure out what the lineup means for the prospects of economic and political reform as well as the direction of Chinese foreign policy.

It is hard to know what, if any, impact the political succession will have on Chinese cyberspace policy. Despite the claim in a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks that Politburo members Li Changchun, the propaganda chief, and Zhou Yongkang, China’s top security official, coordinated the hack on Google, we do not have a clear vision of what the top leadership thinks about cybersecurity and cyber power. The incoming leaders do have policy experience, probably more than their predecessors. Li Keqiang, who is expected to be named Premier, chaired the National Network and Information Security Coordination Small Group, and Zhang Dejiang (possibly chairman of the National People’s Congress) and Liu Yunshan (Li’s successor as propaganda head) both served on the group, which drafted and approved major cybersecurity-related policies and national strategies. The group was briefly disbanded and later reconvened, but there have been no public reports of it meeting for several years.

Xi Jinping and the rest of the new leadership are likely to continue and deepen China’s development as a cyber power. Hu’s report to the National Congress is in part about his legacy, but also lays out some hints of how the Party sees the future. And cyber plays a more prominent role than in past reports. Hu Jintao’s 2007 report mentioned the management of the Internet (网络管理), the informatization of the People’s Liberation Army (信息化, greater use of information technology in modernization, support, and war fighting), and “non-traditional” security threats, but did not specifically mention cyber or information security. His 2012 report repeats the discussion of Internet management and informatization, but also admonishes China to “attach great importance to maritime, space, and cyberspace security.” This focus is reinforced by the promotion of Ma Xiaotian, who has cybersecurity expertise and experience, to head of the PLA Air Force. In a section on adjusting the economy, the report calls for setting up a trustworthy “information security system” (信息安全保障体系). And the report’s section on world trends notes network security along with food, resource, and energy security as important global issues.

We will have to wait and see if the new leadership has a different view of cyberspace and cyber power. As in all policy arenas, short-term change is highly unlikely as the new leaders consolidate their positions. I think it is unlikely in the mid-term as well. I suspect the top leadership is united in its view of cyberspace as an area of increasing global competition and belief that China must continue to develop its defensive and offensive capabilities.

Adam Segal is the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @adschina.