In the wake of China’s leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress in November, rumors floating around in Chinese cyberspace suggested ministerial restructuring could be in the works. Now, administrative restructuring to improve government efficiency always seem to be floating around as an idea. Even if Western-style political reforms are not in cards, the Chinese Communist Party is painfully aware of the need to improve governance. What is remarkable about the recent rumors is that they include changing the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s civilian internal and external intelligence service that is more akin to the KGB than the CIA.
The MSS supposedly would become the State Security Administration (guojia anquan zongju), reporting directly to the State Council and presumably not to the Political-Legal Committee, now officially headed by Meng Jianzhu. If true, these rumors present a significant change to China’s domestic intelligence and preserving stability apparatus. Not only would this reform dilute the power of the Central Political-Legal Committee by cutting out the MSS, but it also would give the senior-most leaders an alternate source of domestic intelligence.
The idea of Chinese intelligence reform or depoliticizing intelligence sounds almost absurd given the kind of relational politics practiced in the Chinese system. But observers probably should not be so cynical. Based on the late Zhao Ziyang’s definition of political reform as separating the party from the government, the creation of the MSS in 1983 certainly counted as Chinese intelligence reform.
The MSS brought together the party-based intelligence and counterespionage elements and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) counterespionage departments. Invoking Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “seeking truth from facts” (shishi qiushi), the first MSS Chief Ling Yun indicated that the move would ensure that counterespionage charges would no longer be used to settle ideological differences among the leadership. By moving those clandestine capabilities out from under the party, no individual party baron would be able to use the service for factional political advantage.
Under Mao Zedong, the party intelligence chief Kang Sheng had politicized the Central Social Affairs Department by using it against Mao’s ideological opponents. Deng himself had suffered at Kang’s hands. Although Kang had done important work in professionalizing Communist intelligence in the dark days of 1930s, the party attacked his legacy, called him “China’s Beria” (a reference to Stalin’s excesses), exhumed his remains from the party’s cemetery, and published a critical biography that was leaked to Westerners. Intelligence reform, then, was less about performance than political accountability—or, at least, political neutralization.
Although there is no way to know for certain, the relatively few rumors of MSS involvement in factional fights over its thirty-year history suggest party leaders successfully isolated intelligence and counterespionage from elite politics. Such rumors only surfaced during exceptional circumstances, such as the ousters of Beijing Party Secretary Chen Xitong in 1995 and Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006. The MSS’s perceived neutrality and loyalty to the party-state writ large (rather than any particular faction) may have been the reason why an MSS vice minister was chosen to escort Wang Lijun from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu to Beijing in February.
The four MSS chiefs also seem to have been chosen for their political reliability and lack of strong factional connections. Indeed, when then-President Jiang Zemin tried to install his trusted military intelligence leader, Xiong Guangkai, as the head of the ministry in 1997–98, other party leaders resisted and forced Jiang to appoint Xu Yongyue instead. Xu had been an unremarkable provincial deputy party secretary in charge of political-legal affairs, but, most notably, was the late Chen Yun’s personal secretary (mishu). He had no real prospects for advancement, so Xu was a safe pick for all parties concerned.
Given this history, further efforts to divide the power over domestic intelligence and police authorities should not be unexpected. If the Chinese political elite thought Zhou Yongkang accumulated too much power in a way that endangered the leadership, then the MSS is the starting place to limit that position’s influence. The police, prisons, and procuratorate naturally fit together to make a comprehensive law enforcement apparatus. However, even with its domestic orientation, the MSS with its foreign intelligence and counterespionage responsibilities does not fit neatly with those other ministries. Intelligence is often an odd man out.
Although the rumors fit with the narrative of reform of the preserving stability apparatus (weihu wending, abbreviated as weiwen) and demotion of the Central Political-Legal Committee’s chairmanship from the Standing Committee to the Politburo, they are still only rumors on a subject that perennially disappoints. As Carl Minzner recently pointed out, reform of the political-apparatus is a real possibility but observers probably will have to wait for personnel changes at the National People’s Congress in March and the bureaucratic profile of other players outside of the public security apparatus to see if reform is in the offing.
Specifically for a “State Security Administration,” analysts should look for a change in the lines of authority associated with the MSS. Although political-legal affairs at the center are difficult to observe, one national-level change would be the shift of the state councilor overseeing state security, currently Meng Jianzhu. At lower levels, local newspapers and government websites would provide changes to whether local state security officials continued participating in normal political-legal committee processes as well as the joint work of the 610 Office (anti-Falungong work) and the Preserving Stability Office.
Peter Mattis is Editor of China Brief at the Jamestown Foundation.