China’s Communist Party announced this week it is creating a new high-level security organ amid growing signs that the collective dictatorship under President Xi Jinping is preparing for conflict abroad while stepping up crackdowns on dissent at home.
The announcement of the new committee appeared in a single sentence of a lengthy closing statement issued at the end of a four-day Party conference of top Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
On economics, the outcome of party meeting that many observers had hoped would signal a move in the direction of greater political and market reforms instead lacked clear specifics. The bland final communiqué appeared to bolster the status quo in economics while calling for tighter political controls over the country.
The political and economic future of the world’s second largest economy remains a focus of intense international scrutiny.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commented briefly when asked about the new Communist Party National Security Committee during a press conference in Beijing Wednesday.
"China's decision to establish a National Security Committee is for the purpose of improving its national security system and strategy in order to ensure national security," Qin Gang said.
No other details were provided. But observers in China and outside the country said the new security body could be an attempt by Beijing to streamline its divided and overly bureaucratic decision-making and crisis management structure.
Analysis of the reference to the committee in the final communiqué shows that it is linked to the party’s "social management structure" and not part of national defense and military reform. That has fueled worries that the committee is part of China’s Soviet-style internal security control network.
Comments posted on Chinese websites bolstered that view, with postings on Wednesday stating that the new party organ will be used to stifle dissent.
For example, Zhang Kai, a lawyer in Beijing, said the committee is "very dangerous." Another blogger on QQ Weibo compared the name given the new National Security Committee to the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police.
The commission also comes amid a growing crackdown on freedom of expression on the Internet, as several high-profile unofficial bloggers have been detained or blocked.
Other human rights violations have been carried out against China’s perceived political enemies. Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist Liu Xiao remains in prison on trumped subversion charges. Unofficial churches also are facing a new crackdown, according to dissidents in China.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China expert, said reports of coming market reforms prior to the party meeting now appear to have been intended as a distraction to the final outcome of the meeting: "deepened repression and tighter internal security."
"The most significant news is the creation of a new state security infrastructure and the obvious power that [Party] General Secretary Xi Jinping has already consolidated in his own office," Tkacik said.
"Economic issues are secondary distractions for the foreign press to mull, while Chinese know that the core issue is political power within the party."
Human rights activist Harry Wu said the creation of the National Security Committee is part of an effort by Xi "to turn China into more of a totalitarian country.
"This totalitarianism is cloaked in the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ but it is still the same dictatorship," Wu said in an email.
Wu said despite large-scale protests throughout China on a regular basis, current leaders lack the political will to implement substantial political reform.
"There might, however, be a Chinese Gorbachev or Yeltsin at the highest levels of the Party leadership," he said. "Xi Jinping does not seem like he is that type of reformer. He is also not a strongman like Mao or Deng. It seems like his decision to create the new security council might be an attempt to strengthen his control over the domestic security apparatus, the military, and foreign policy decision making."
Xi’s creation of the new committee indicates he is struggling to maintain legitimacy in the face of perceived threats to the ruling regime, he added.
U.S. officials said prior to this week’s party meeting that divisions appeared among communist leaders over whether to initiate greater pro-market economic reforms, or to maintain the cautious, government controls on the state-run system.
Tkacik said the two messages on the economy from the meeting were, "the market has a decisive function in resource allocation" but "we must … persist in the dominant role of the public ownership system, give rein to the leading role of the state-owned economy."
Those who predicted the Party would rein-in state controls on the economy were wrong, he added.
"The subliminal propaganda message is unmistakable to savvy party members: ‘Persisting in the leadership of the party’ is the overriding mission,’" he said.
The new security commission also is being created as tensions between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands escalate.
Recent incursions by Chinese naval vessels and aircraft near the Senkakus and sharper rhetoric have prompted Japan’s government to strengthen its defenses.
Japan, according to diplomatic sources, will later this month launch its first high-level government security policy-coordinating unit, modeled after the White House National Security Council.
Earlier this month, Japan deployed anti-ship missiles on the southern tip of Okinawa, within range of the Miyako Strait where Chinese warships recently passed in a show of force. Japan’s leaders also have discussed shooting down unarmed Chinese surveillance drones that fly near the Senkakus.
Chinese government spokesmen have warned that China will defend its sovereignty.
China’s poor national security policymaking is increasing the risk of a conflict, according to a forthcoming report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
In 2012, China set up a high-level commission on maritime security that seeks to align its maritime claims with national policies—set by seven-member collective dictatorship headed by Xi and known as the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
The commission report said apparent divisions among various bureaucracies within the Chinese communist system were increasing the risk of a future conflict in Asia involving the Chinese.
"While Beijing’s efforts to streamline its decision making on maritime disputes may reduce the risk of unintended escalation or accidents stemming from poor policy coordination, this risk is unlikely to be completely eliminated for several reasons," a late draft of the report stated.
An incident in January highlighted the danger. A Chinese warship illuminated a Japanese navy vessel and helicopter with targeting radar, a hostile action that could have triggered Japan to carry out a defensive use of force—such as shooting naval guns or firing a missile—in response.
Chinese spokesmen offered differing accounts of the radar targeting, and the commission report quoted a retired Navy officer as saying the confusion suggests, "that perhaps [the] ability [of Chinese leadership] to control the situation was not absolute."
The commission report concluded that China’s large-scale military buildup, "coupled with the potential decline in U.S. power caused by sequestration, is altering the balance of power in the region and reducing the deterrent effect of the rebalance policy."
"The risk is therefore increasing that China’s coercive approach to its sovereignty claims will lead to greater conflict in the region."
According to a Bloomberg News report from Beijing, the new National Security Committee likely will be headed by Xi, currently party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the military.
Party statements following the meeting indicated a consensus might have been reached on continuing the current policy of gradual economic reforms, based on wording that was very similar to language used last year at a similar meeting.
The lack of references to far-reaching, market-oriented reforms in the final communiqué also reveals that advocates among the communist leadership who favor more market reforms did not prevail during the debate of over economic reforms prior to the plenum.
The communiqué announced that a new "leading group for comprehensively deepening reforms" would be established. That group could indicate that leaders remain divided over whether to expand market reforms or continue current levels of state controls.
Chi Fulin, president of the China Institute for Reform and Development, was quoted in state-run press reports as calling for clarification of relations between government and the market, warning that "any delay could worsen current economic and social risks."