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Xi Jinping’s High-Risk Policy Needs a National Security Commission

Governments tend to rely on national security apparatuses to protect those in power as much as the country at large. President Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, and since then, indicated an expectation for increasing the nation’s global influence. Such influence “requires a broadly conceived central foreign and security policy coordination mechanism of increasing sophistication, a mechanism that can provide top leaders with options, help establish priorities, evaluate costs and gains, and enforce implementation on a fractious bureaucracy and society,” explains David Lampton, director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. This YaleGlobal article is based on a longer academic article in the Journal of Contemporary China. In January 2014, China took a step in coordinating national security policy with the establishment of China’s National Security Commission, developed after officials studied models from other nations. The commission is naturally shrouded in secrecy. The chain of command for advisers is unknown, and Lampton cautions that foreign-policy responsibilities that are too segmented could pose challenges in meeting security threats. – YaleGlobal

Xi Jinping’s High-Risk Policy Needs a National Security Commission

China’s president has dominant role in foreign policy, but coordination on decision-making could be lacking
David M. Lampton
YaleGlobal, 5 May 2015
Securing power: Top three of China's National Security apparatus, Xi Jinping, from the left; Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang (top); Xinjiang militants crash a car in front of Tiananmen Square gate in October 2013

BEIJING:  When Xi Jinping came to power, he sought considerable adjustment in foreign and internal security policy, as suggested in interviews. He wanted to be the prime mover toward a vision of a rejuvenated China more active on the world stage, and he was less comfortable with the professional foreign policy bureaucracy that previously defined, shaped and conducted policy. Xi is less at ease than predecessors with the relatively independent internal security apparatus that now-disgraced minister Zhou Yongkang had consolidated and with the free-wheeling corruption and untethered military Hu Jintao had tolerated. Xi seeks to make the Chinese Communist Party the key instrument in developing, and perhaps implementing, policy.

China established the National Security Commission, or Zhongyang guojia anquan weiyuanhui, in January 2014 and announced its pending formation in connection with the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of November 2013. The NSC is a work in progress.  

The commission aims at alleviating Beijing’s longstanding coordination problem. Coordinating Chinese foreign and security policy has become progressively more difficult because the number of countries having established formal diplomatic relations with China has about tripled since 1971; globalization has extended the nation’s interests and reach; the spatial domains of PRC operations have expanded from being a land power to increasingly present on and under all oceans, and in the air, space and cyberspace; the number of domestic security, diplomatic and international security policy-relevant bureaucracies has expanded; and transnational issues such as climate change have increasing salience. China has moved from being an irrelevance in global trade and finance to center stage.

All this requires a broadly conceived central foreign and security policy coordination mechanism of increasing sophistication, a mechanism that can provide top leaders with options, help establish priorities, evaluate costs and gains, and enforce implementation on a fractious bureaucracy and society.

China has moved from being an irrelevance in global trade and finance to center stage and now has a National Security Commission.

Another central aspect of the coordination problem is the tight linkage between external and internal security in Chinese thinking. The maintenance of internal cohesion and stability is the indispensable core of Chinese national security. Key to this is effectively dealing with periodic attempts of the outside world to subvert China, to weaken it from within, through “stability maintenance,” or wei wen.

Both foreign and domestic observers have noted that sometimes China’s bureaucratic left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. One ministry or organization does not know about another’s activities, or one province competes with others. Senior Chinese leaders do not always receive accurate or timely information, and faithful implementation does not always occur.

The idea of an NSC, inspired in part by President Jiang Zemin after his 1997 exposure to the US National Security Council while in Washington, DC, was debated in his administration and thereafter in the era of Hu and Wen Jiabao. Chinese analysts have studied various countries’ models for NSCs.

In the year after the Commission’s January 2014 establishment, the domestic and foreign security, military and diplomatic bureaucracies have sought to hammer out a National Security Law to give statutory definition to the NSC, its mission and scope of action, its composition, and its relationship to other organs – a draft of this law was submitted to the National People’s Congress in December. Given the divergent interests there’s been protracted debate over this legislation.

For China, national security has, in considerable measure, become regime security.

At the NSC’s first meeting on 15 April 2014, Xi articulated the concept of “holistic” or “overall national security,” or Zongti guojia anquanguan, mentioning 11 broad areas of concern. On 6 May 2014, the first National Security Blue Book was published, reportedly explaining the issues “Beijing sees itself facing in internal security – including Western nations’ cultural hegemony threatening China’s socialist values, terrorism, and the ‘export’ of Western democracy threatening Chinese ideology . . .” (1) National security has in considerable measure become regime security.

Beyond this, four NSC functions were identified in a People’s Daily article and summarized by Yiqin Fu, cited above: First and arguably most important is developing a national security strategy that is bigger than simply military strategy; promulgating a legal framework for national security that embraces military, economic, foreign policy, technology, intelligence and other considerations; defining and adopting national security policies, focusing on terrorism, sovereignty, maritime, space and cyber concerns; and addressing specific national security threats and incidents, the most worrisome of which involve Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Hong Kong. According to Beijing, incidents in these places have “profound connections to international actors, so relying on only a few powerful domestic organs is not enough. Intelligence and foreign affairs organs should cooperate closely.”

National security and foreign policy falling into different bureaucratic bailiwicks raise issues of coordination.

As to the membership and organization of the NSC, little is known outside a small circle in the PRC – no comprehensive list of NSC officials has been formally released, except to acknowledge that Xi chairs the body and that Premier Li Keqiang and Standing Committee of the Politburo Member Zhang Dejiang play leading roles. 

In a recent set of discussions with Chinese military personnel and national security scholars in late 2014, a visiting American group and this author did get a sense of some details. The bottom line: This policymaking system is in considerable flux, with one interlocutor saying: “In our case, we raise the same question: ‘Who’s in charge?”’ One well-informed interlocutor in Beijing said that while “political diplomacy” was under the purview of the NSC, other issues germane to external affairs, such as international economic issues and “military diplomacy,” are separately handled, leaving again the issue of coordination.

With Xi playing a dominant role, this places a premium on knowing from whom and from which organizations he takes advice and gets information. Interlocutors in the PRC were uncertain who, with what authority, constituted the next level down helping to advise, inform and act on behalf of Xi in policymaking and coordination. Some informants think that he surrounds himself with advisers he accumulated earlier in his career, such as Li Zhanshu, director of the Party General Office in Zhongnanhai, a position similar to the chief of staff of the US president. Preliminary signs point to the importance of the General Office of the Party, within which are relatively young individuals – some say numbering about 300, with an unknown portion on temporary assignment from other agencies – who apparently serve as NSC staff. 

Comprehensive national security and foreign policy falling into different bureaucratic bailiwicks below Xi raise the issue of adequate coordination. Xi is the chair of all relevant cross-system integrators – the Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform and the Central Military Commission, the NSC, the Taiwan Leading Small Group and others. The implication of Xi holding the reins of almost all cross-system integrator organizations is that his leadership is less collective than in the past, particularly under Hu. As one senior foreign diplomat said of Xi, “[There are] not a lot of people to moderate him.”

While recent moves in Chinese foreign policy have been significant and broad, it’s too soon to say whether this new coordination body will be a partial solution to the longstanding coordination problem or simply compound that challenge. Under the new arrangement, China still has a military with a separate chain of influence straight to the top. There may still be separate domains for the foreign economic, diplomatic and military aspects of policy.

From the vantage point of spring 2015, it appears that Xi is already more dominant in Chinese foreign policy than his two predecessors, that he has domestic incentives to speak tough and be assertive on sovereignty issues, but not drive issues externally toward conflict. His is a higher-risk policy style than that of his predecessors, and he needs an effective national security decision-making process to help navigate the treacherous waters ahead. That body does not yet exist.

(1) Yiqin Fu, “What will China’s National Security Commission actually do?: the four functions of China’s top national security body,” Foreign Policy (8 May 2014), available at:


David M. Lampton is the George and Sadie Hyman Professor and director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins – SAIS. His most recent book is Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping (University of California Press, 2014). This article is a highly condensed version of a fully documented research paper published in Journal of Contemporary China. David M. Lampton (2015): Xi Jinping and the National Security Commission: policy coordination and political power, Journal of Contemporary China, DOI: 10.1080/10670564.2015.1013366.   

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