The Communist Party of China, particularly under Xi Jinping, has increasingly been blurring the lines between domestic and foreign security threats. This seems to be a deliberate undertaking by the highest levels of leadership to serve its most important objectives. However, it also may be a reflection of how CPC leaders perceive the challenges they face, and the capabilities they have to address them.
The CPC’s efforts to blur the lines between domestic and foreign security threats is not entirely new. As Zheng Wang noted yesterday on China Power, from the earliest days of the PRC Mao viewed intellectuals’ attraction to Western ideas as a serious threat to the CPC’s power.
What is more novel is that under Xi Jinping the CPC is re-organizing the Party and government to more seamlessly integrate decision-making (and perhaps implementation) on domestic and foreign security threats.
The clearest manifestation of this was the State Security Committee that was first announced following the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress last November. Initially most observers interpreted this new body as analogous to the National Security Councils in the United States and more recently Japan. Some of us were more skeptical. As I wrote at the time: “Much of the talk outside of China has been about how it [the state security committee] may affect China’s foreign and military policy. Based on what’s been said about it in the communiqué and in state media, it seems to me that this body will be at least primarily tasked with upholding domestic stability.” As more information emerged about the state security committee, it was generally accepted that it would indeed have a domestic component that was at least as important as the foreign one, if not more so.
The same appears to be true about the Internet security and informatization leading group announced this week, which Shannon reported on yesterday. As she explained: “Xi called for a dual focus on developing technology and ensuring cybersecurity. These two aspects, Xi said in his speech [Chinese], are ‘two wings of a bird’ and require an overall plan to advance both simultaneously.” Thus one aspect of this body will be encouraging IT innovation and expanding internet coverage in China. Shannon also noted that press reports suggested that the new leading group would also focus on streamlining CPC efforts to censor the internet in China. Indeed, proof enough of that is China’s hardline propaganda czar, Liu Yunshan, was named as a co-chair along with Premier Li Keqiang.
A second aspect of the new cyber leading group, Shannon also noted, will be protecting China’s networks from cyber-attacks, presumably with foreign ones perpetuated by other nation-states being at the top of the list. Along with cybersecurity, it was made fairly clear that China’s offensive cyber capabilities, and most likely its cyber espionage efforts will also fall under the purview of this new leading group. As Xi explained of the new cyber leading group: “Efforts should be made to build our country into a cyber power.”
Efforts to conflate domestic security challenges with foreign threats are most likely a tactic Xi and the senior leadership are using to better address the former. As I’ve noted before, many of the domestic security challenges the CPC is likely to face during the economic rebalance will come from within the Party itself. Xi will need all the political capital he can get in combating these challenges, and blurring the lines between these threats and more traditional external security challenges will empower him to take on Party members.