China Power

How China’s Ministry of Public Security Controls Cyber Policy

How the Ministry of Public Security drives Beijing’s cyber policy.

How China’s Ministry of Public Security Controls Cyber Policy
Credit: shutterstock

On 13 April, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and State Council issued new guidelines on strengthening internal security in the wake of unprecedented terrorist attacks inside the country, rising public order concerns and increasing online dissent. The guidelines called out the use of new high-technology and cyber-based assets, including data mining, closed circuit TV and satellites, to help restore central government control. This is the second in a series of five brief items (see: Part I: The National Database as a Security Tool”) by Greg Austin, based on his 2014 book, Cyber Policy in China, providing some political context on how the country is using its cyber power in the service of internal security. 

Part II: The Ministry of Public Security as Driver of Cyber Policy

The first post in this series highlighted shortcomings in the national citizens’ database in China’s quest for maximized internal security surveillance. Those shortcomings should not conceal the massive influence of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) on all aspects of cyber policy in China. As a ministry, the MPS is constituted as operating under the State Council. In practice, however, it operates under the direct control of the Communist Party leadership, under Politburo member Meng Jianzhu, the most recent former minister of the MPS, who leads the Central Political and Legal Commission (CPLC) of the Communist Party and who reports directly to Xi Jinping. The CPLC is one of the most powerful institutions in China. Its former head was Zhou Yongkang, who also served simultaneously as a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and who has been under investigation since October 2013 for political crimes and corruption.

In his internal security role, Zhou was a vice chair of the leading group responsible for overseeing the country’s informatization. In 2000, China set itself the goal of becoming an advanced information society, where businesses, scientists, and citizens use the most modern information and communications technologies (ICT) to improve performance and enhance social benefit. The leading group for informatization had since 1996 included representatives of key economic and technical ministries, under the direction of a vice premier and with a focus that was mostly economic and scientific/technical. In 2001, it was upgraded and placed under the direction of the premier. In 2002, it became more fully securitized and Zhou, along with his peers from the armed forces, became more active members. In 2014, the leading group was upgraded yet again, being put under the direct control of the Communist Party general secretary, Xi Jinping. The period since 2002 has seen a massive expansion of the influence of the security apparatus over all aspects of informatization policy in the civil economy.

There is little public source reporting on how the influence of the MPS on the economic and scientific aspects of informatization policy has played out in decision-making inside the leading group but there is enough to make a judgment about key aspects. Several pieces of anecdotal evidence suffice. Most recently, there has been the release in 2015 of new regulations requiring foreign IT companies supplying Chinese banks to reveal the source codes of the IT products provided. The measure was imposed at the instigation of the MPS to bolster both domestic cyber security and localization of the cyber security industry. It had an immediate chilling effect on political and economic relations between the United States and China, leading China to suspend the measures in April 2015 after loud protests from the international community, including a personal protest from President Barack Obama. The measure and, indirectly, the negative influence of the MPS, were the subject of a critique by the CEO of Huawei, Eric Xu, who was quoted by The Christian Science Monitor as saying on April 21, 2015 that China’s cyber security depends on its openness to foreign technology, not control of it.

The conservative hand of the MPS has also been seen through the participation of its 11th Bureau in the Internet Society of China (ISOC) since the latter’s inception in 2001. ISOC is a multi-stakeholder organization intended to promote maximum economic and social exploitation of the internet while providing a channel for direct political control through the MPS. This ministry has been “first among equals” in the ISOC and, we can presume, always played a constraining role on any cyber policy measures that threatened to dilute control. There is some reason to believe that this dead hand (during the period Zhou Yongkang was in high office) led to a certain degree of paralysis in the leading group, resulting in China’s slipping off the pace of private sector informatization.

The bad news for hard-liner or traditional elements in the MPS is that the new generation of recruits to the ministry, evidenced by discussions in its feeder universities (the Public Security University and several Politics and Law universities), are not buying into classic notions of regime control through maximizing technological tracking of citizens. As Li Changan, a professor at the School of Public Administration, University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, observed in response to the April 2015 reports of new efforts to assemble an Orwellian database, “this is a massive project on government computerizing its administration and it demands very high level of security and confidentiality. We should adopt state-of-the-art and rigorous technologies in order to ensure the safety of this database so that the public’s personal information will not be leaked.”

Up next this Friday: Politics of the S&T Base