President Xi’s Assault on China’s Security Services: Grasping Tightly the Key Levers of Power-Christopher K. Johnson

I am happy to share this essay from Christopher K. Johnson (bio) in the latest installment of Sinocism’s occasional guest expert series.

Chris, the senior advisor and Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is one of the top Western experts on the PRC. He spent nearly two decades serving in the U.S. government’s intelligence and foreign affairs communities, including as a senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, and has extensive experience analyzing and working in Asia on a diverse set of country-specific and transnational issues. Throughout his career, he has chronicled China’s dynamic political and economic transformation, the development of its robust military modernization program, and its resurgence as a regional and global power. He has frequently advised senior White House, cabinet, congressional, military, and foreign officials on the Chinese leadership and on Beijing’s foreign and security policies.

This essay is excerpted from the The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) excellent “MERICS Papers on China No. 1″ (PDF). The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) is an independent and non-partisan think tank, established in 2013 and based in Berlin. It is an initiative of Stiftung Mercator, a major private European foundation. Now employing almost 35 people, MERICS has grown into one of the largest international think tanks for policy-oriented research into contemporary China.

I am also a fan of MERIC’s blog “European Voices on China”.

Please feel free to send me any comments, or post them here.

President Xi’s Assault on China’s Security Services: Grasping Tightly the Key Levers of Power

Key Findings:

  • President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s relentless purge of the regime’s security services is not simply a crass political power play. It likely reflects his deeply held convictions about the nature of power within the CCP and the security services’ status as a tool—and occasionally a weapon—to be wielded by the Party rather than an independent fiefdom with questionable loyalty to its political master.
  • While the exact details remain largely unknowable, the general outlines of the main “tiger” cases revealed thus far through the anticorruption campaign suggest the regime’s security organs were at a minimum suffering from organizational fragmentation of concern to the integrity of a Leninist authoritarian system like China’s.  At worst, they hint at a substantial, if not coordinated, effort to at least constrain Xi’s rapid consolidation of power.
  • Given the potential implications of such challenges, Xi’s response has been decidedly measured and calculating, and not whimsical or tyrannical as is so often suggested by foreign observers.
  • What remains unclear is whether there is more to the purge than simply the conduct of factional politics by other means. Regardless, a troubling side effect of the crackdown is the security services may be so keen to prove their loyalty and effectiveness to President Xi that they may overreach. Extraterritorial renditions of regime critics or corrupt officials now seem par for the course, but overenthusiastic security organs may prove too prone to miscalculation at a time when China is entering a period of sustained political and economic volatility.


In late February 2014 local Beijing media outlets carried a brief article noting the detention of a municipal official, Liang Ke, on graft charges. Against the backdrop of the substantial wave of arrests occurring at that time in conjunction with President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s withering anticorruption effort, Liang’s arrest hardly seemed notable. But it turned out that Liang was much more unique than the thousands of “tigers and flies”—CCP code for high- and low-ranking cadres, respectively, netted in the antigraft crackdown—that were being felled on what seemed like a daily basis. For Liang since 2008 had served as the head of the Beijing State Security Bureau, the crown jewel in the Ministry of State Security’s (MSS) network of local offices in each of China’s 31 provincial and municipal jurisdictions. Judging from public records, at least, Liang’s arrest marked the first time such a senior sitting official in China’s shadowy internal security apparatus had been removed from office since the formal creation of the MSS in 1983.

But, it turned out, President Xi was just getting started. Just short of a year later, Ma Jian, a MSS vice minister and its long-serving head of counterintelligence, was detained on suspicion of graft in January 2015. Speculation concerning the reason for Ma’s arrest ran the gamut from his alleged association with the grandest “tiger” bagged by Xi thus far—former Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member and internal security czar Zhou Yongkang—to his links to a corrupt businessman. Regardless of the motivation, Ma’s fall sent a shockwave through China’s vast security apparatus by putting the guardians of the CCP regime on notice that no one was beyond the reach of Xi’s anticorruption crusade.

Many China-watchers have posited that Xi’s assault on the security services was simply a manifestation of his effort to consolidate power by destroying a key political fiefdom of his senior party baron rivals. While the method, the sweeping anticorruption purge, may have been somewhat novel, the motive was an old one—pure power politics, if carried out by other means. Others have suggested that Xi has taken a substantial political risk, both personally and systemically, by taking on such a powerful regime constituency. They note that this is especially true in light of Xi’s parallel attack on another pillar of the regime’s security establishment, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). If Xi pushes too hard, according to this line of reasoning, he risks a fierce backlash from institutions that, under the “fragmented authoritarianism” that has defined China’s party-state over the last several decades, are too influential, and too entrenched, to sit idly by while Xi neuters their power. Implicit in such analyses, therefore, is the notion that Xi’s actions are those of a potentially reckless leader whose lust for power could cause the CCP to break apart.

By contrast, this paper will argue that Xi’s sweeping assault on the regime’s security services, and its broader control machinery, was entirely logical—and necessary—in light of the existential threat he perceived these institutions—having run amok under the flaccid leadership of his predecessor, former President Hu Jintao—posed to the cohesion of the CCP’s Leninist authoritarian system. Moreover, it will demonstrate that, rather than simple political gamesmanship or impishness, Xi’s behavior was informed by his personal assessment of what it takes to run the CCP effectively and may have been rooted in his perception of a stalking threat to the long-term stability of his succession to the apex of CCP power. As such, it will suggest that, rather than the whimsy of a power-mad megalomaniac, Xi’s actions were methodical and taken in a controlled, stepwise fashion, limiting the likelihood of miscalculation that could spark broader leadership instability. Finally, the paper will discuss the implications of Xi’s crackdown on the security services and what it may mean for how this critical regime xitong may behave and be governed going forward.

Xi’s Traditionalist Approach to Wielding Party Power 

In many ways, Xi’s ascendancy in the leadership marks the return of a more traditional style of Chinese ruler in the mold of CCP strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Several factors have contributed to Xi’s mindset in this regard, but there are a few critical building blocks that merit special attention here. First, Xi’s “princeling” status as the offspring of one of the regime’s founding fathers imbues him with a supremely confident, “born to rule” political style that telegraphs a unique understanding of the nature of power within CCP. Xi’s critical formative experiences—the headiness of a privileged upbringing after the CCP’s successful seizure of power in 1949 combined with the tumult stemming from his family’s fall from grace in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76)—seem to have left him with the view that he is operating in a highly Hobbesian political environment with very few formal rules, and therefore little predictability or safety. Consequently, Xi’s operational style appears to be that of a winner take all approach to the rough-and-tumble world of Chinese Politburo politicking.

Against that backdrop, Xi embraces the notion that, in a Leninist political system like China’s, the top leader must personally control the key levers of power to effectively wield authority. Xi’s aggressive efforts to establish his direct influence over the PLA, the security services, and the party bureaucracy all speak to his appreciation of this central organizing principle of the regime. In Xi’s worldview, then, there is no room for the consensus-driven, institutional bargaining approach that characterized the administrations of Hu Jintao and his predecessor, former President Jiang Zemin. Instead of powerful, highly autonomous fiefdoms—described variously by different China scholars as “the control cartel” or “the iron quadrangle”—Xi views these institutions as instruments to be wielded in an unflinchingly hierarchical world of CCP power and control. In fact, Xi’s approach would seem to suggest that the notion that the CCP was on some sort of pathway toward inexorable institutionalization was a fallacy, and, at least from his vantage, the exception to the rule.

Moreover, if Xi had any doubts with regard to the wisdom of his approach, serving for five years as understudy to Hu Jintao must only have affirmed his convictions. Under Hu, these institutions, while still ultimately subordinate to party control, took advantage of their particular monopolies—mainly on expertise and information control—to establish vast operational gray areas within which they were able to exert substantial autonomy and therefore outsize policy influence. One need only look to the numerous occasions during Hu’s tenure—China’s 2007 ASAT test, its 2011 test flight of the PLA’s prototype J-20 stealth fighter during a visit of then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, etc.—wherein it seemed Hu had little control over, and perhaps even little awareness of, what his military was doing. Similarly, Zhou Yongkang, with his iron grip over the regime’s vast security and intelligence bureaucracy, seemed to wield power and influence far beyond what his bottom-ranked position on the then nine-member PBSC might have suggested. His apparent decision to initially buck a clear PBSC consensus to purge fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai, for example, highlighted his sense of empowerment. To be fair, Hu’s struggles in establishing his authority probably had much more to do with Jiang Zemin’s efforts to hamstring that process rather than with a lack of awareness on Hu’s part of the importance of doing so. Still, Xi’s seeming sense of urgency and expense of no small amount of capital to redress this imbalance immediately upon taking power highlighted his sense that Hu’s timidity had done substantial damage to the authority of the office of the CCP general secretary, and therefore risked undermining the overall stability of the system.

A Legitimate Response to Organizational Fragmentation . . .

In fact, while the ultimate details remain (probably permanently) cloaked behind the veil of official CCP secrecy and opacity, a review of what little the regime has revealed about the activities of the main “tigers” detained under Xi’s antigraft campaign, along with some simple deduction relating to the basic mechanics of a Leninist authoritarian system such as China’s, strongly suggest that Xi’s actions represent an understandable and reasoned response to a pervasive threat rather than a risky political gambit for his own self-aggrandizement. In each case, the actor in question was managing a key element of the CCP’s ecosystem of control, but, through some combination of corruption and personal vainglory, was doing so in ways meant to advance his personal interests at the expense of the authority of the top leader. By way of brief review, Zhou Yongkang, through his seat on the PBSC and his position as secretary of the CCP’s Political Science and Law Commission (PSLC), oversaw the regime’s sprawling coercive apparatus and the putative guardians of the regime—the “sword and shield” of the state in the lexicon of the former Soviet Union’s analog, the KGB. While primarily tasked with tracking and subverting perceived enemies of the state—both within China and from abroad—the security bureaucracy also maintains a domestic monitoring function that, when deemed necessary, can even be turned on members of the top leadership. As such, assuring the loyalties of the officials overseeing the portfolios of the likes of Liang Ke and Ma Jian are critical to the top leader’s hold on power.

Similarly, PLA “tigers” Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong oversaw the military’s personnel system and its operational forces, respectively. Both members of the full Politburo and the top uniformed officers on the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s ultimate military decisionmaking body, they made up two points of the triangle—the apex being the party chief and CMC chairman—that constitutes the linkage between CCP and the PLA. This setup is particularly important in China’s Leninist system, in that the PLA, rather than serving as the national military of China, is instead the armed wing of the CCP. As such, its main function is to serve as the ultimate guarantor of continued Party rule, as demonstrated most dramatically during the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The fact that Guo and Xu—through the selling of office and military rank—were effectively creating a private army loyal to them within the Party’s army must be viewed as an intolerable situation from the viewpoint of the party chief.

Finally, Ling Jihua, the former chief lieutenant of Hu Jintao and the director of the CCP General Office, also was running a seemingly independent kingdom. It is unclear to what degree, if at all, Hu Jintao was aware of Ling’s corrupt activities, which may say more about Hu than it does about Ling. Regardless, what is clear is the sensitivity of the role of the director of the CCP General Office. Best described as the nerve center of the Politburo, the General Office and its director oversee critical responsibilities including setting the calendar and agenda for meetings of the Politburo and the PBSC, managing paperflow within those same bodies, and overseeing the personal security of top leaders and the compounds and facilities they live and work in. In recent years, the position also has taken on responsibilities somewhat analogous to a chief of staff in western systems. As such, there are few more important functional offices in the CCP hierarchy.

. . . and Possibly a More Personal Challenge

There has been some speculation that the threat from these individuals may have gone beyond just institutional fragmentation or laxity, and instead could have represented a danger to Xi’s very succession. Hong Kong and western media accounts have been rife with stories alleging various conspiracies among these actors, perhaps even amounting to a “new Gang of Four” (or five depending on whether and how one counts Bo Xilai) in a reference to Mao’s key henchmen during the Cultural Revolution. While such notions almost certainly are overblown, it is not outside the realm of possibility that these officials, while not coordinating their efforts, may have been working toward the shared goal of disrupting, or at least constraining, Xi’s rise.

The official accounts, of course, largely are silent on such matters, though, in the cases of both Zhou and Ling, there is an intriguing reference to the misuse of state secrets among the list of their various offenses. There is little doubt that Zhou at some point was colluding with Bo Xilai, who, given his fellow princeling pedigree, Xi likely perceived as his only legitimate rival for the top leadership.  Zhou was in a position to order the likes of Ma Jian and Liang Ke to gather damaging information on Xi, as some reports have suggested. It is equally clear that Guo and Xu had served as the instruments for Jiang Zemin to retain a strong hand in military affairs, to the detriment of Hu Jintao’s ability to consolidate power. It is not inconceivable, then, that the substantial networks of supporters in the PLA that would endure beyond their stepping down from formal office could represent a similar handicap for Xi. As to Ling Jihua, as General Office chief he would have had substantial sway in managing key personnel-related processes such as the coordination of the lists of candidates for the CCP central committee and the “straw polls” the leadership reportedly conducted to rank candidates for the Politburo in the runup to the 17th and 18th Party Congresses.

A Measured, Calculating Approach

Looked at in the light of the possible magnitude of such developments, Xi’s approach to managing the challenge seems much more rational than whimsical or tyrannical. The roots of his response can be traced to the decision at the 2012 18th Party Congress—which witnessed his ascension as top leader—to downgrade Zhou Yongkang’s security responsibilities from a PBSC-level portfolio to one managed by a member of the full Politburo. Meng Jianzhu succeeded Zhou as the secretary of the PSLC, but did not rise to the PBSC with the contraction of that body from nine members to seven. Though he may have had little choice in the matter, Xi’s apparent willingness to accept Meng—a well-known acolyte of Jiang Zemin—in the post also would seem to speak to his pragmatism, and perhaps to a well-honed mastery of political stagecraft by not tipping his hand too early. Then, at the November 2013 Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, Xi decided to include in the public “Decision” document the fact that the PLA would undergo a substantial structural reorganization, a prelude to the sweeping changes to the PLA’s command system that have been rolled out over the last six months. These changes serve to enhance Xi’s personal control of the PLA, a subject that is discussed in greater depth elsewhere in this volume. Similarly, Xi did not rush to round up the major tigers in a Night-of-the-Long-Knives-like pogrom, but rather dribbled out the cases at a measured pace over the course of nearly two years.

The purpose of reviewing this chronology is to suggest the possibility that Xi’s actions may reveal him to be a patient, calculating leader rather than the potentially unsteady risk taker his loudest critics warn of. His apparent approach also hints that he is a leader who understands his limits and, while brooking no challenge to his authority, has no taste for all-out factional warfare. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has significant implications for evaluating the risks to leadership cohesion entailed in Xi’s approach. The success with which he appears to have contained the potential challenges outlined above, and particularly across several powerful bureaucracies nearly simultaneously, would seem to suggest that his detractors may have far less ability to engage in potentially destabilizing “pushback” than often is suggested.

Next Steps Unclear, but Unintended Consequences may Spell Trouble

Given the deep veil of secrecy that enshrouds China’s special services, it is difficult to determine what precise impact, if any, Xi’s attack on the security apparatus is having on its behavior. What is abundantly clear is that Xi has used the purge to put his own trusted men in key positions. Perhaps the most notable is Fu Zhenghua, who, after being elevated from Beijing police chief to vice minister of public security in 2013, quickly has risen from that ministry’s fifth-ranking deputy slot to its first. Fu seems to be Xi’s go-to man for sensitive investigations, having played a role in the Zhou Yongkang case as well as the investigation into allegations of market manipulation in conjunction with the August 2015 stock market meltdown. Another newly-minted vice minister of public security, Meng Qingfeng, served as Xi’s deputy police chief when the latter was party secretary (2002-07) in Zhejiang Province. Fu Zhenghua also was succeeded as Beijing police chief by another Xi associate, Wang Xiaohong, who served with the President during the latter’s nearly twenty year run as a provincial official in Fujian. In a parallel development in the MSS, rumored Xi ally Chen Wenqing is now serving as the Ministry’s party secretary and acts as its chief in all but name. A former police officer and member of the CCP’s antigraft watchdog, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, Chen has a background in state security work as well, if a somewhat dated one.  So, at least this aspect of Xi’s purge of the security services would seem to be little more than an effort to sweep out the old and bring in the new.

What remains obscured at this stage is whether there’s anything more than that when it comes to the crackdown. One issue of note is what Xi intends to do structurally with the security services. For example, while the precise functions of the National Security Commission (NSC) established at the Third Plenum remain unclear, most experts agree that it has more of a domestic security focus than a foreign one. Was Xi’s interest in downgrading the oversight of the security services at the 18th Party Congress a prelude to the standup of the NSC? If so, what might that portend for future restructuring of the security apparatus? Is there a parallel between the way in which the corruption dragnet in the PLA has cleared the path for the most sweeping command structural reforms in that institution’s history and what might be in store for the security organs? We likely will have to wait until at least the 19 Party Congress to gain any sense of that.

Another suggestion of a broader agenda by Xi may have come from one of his earliest speeches as CCP general secretary. Touring Shenzhen in Guangdong only a month after taking power, Xi reportedly gave a non-public speech to party cadre where he railed against the fact that “nobody was man enough to stand up and resist” when the Soviet Union collapsed. In that same speech, Xi singled out the corruption and laxity in the Soviet Union’s security services, as well as the nationalization of the Soviet military, which “left the party disarmed,” as critical enablers of the regime’s collapse. It is likely that Xi and his senior civilian colleagues may have had similar concerns when the Egyptian military stood idly by while President Hosni Mubarak was deposed without firing a shot in 2011. If another Tiananmen-like crisis emerged, would the PLA be ready to defend the party once more? One other possibility is that Xi’s purge of the security services—and perhaps even the broader pervasive political tightening across the system—is meant to prepare the control apparatus for a particularly tumultuous period ahead, and not merely a retrograde turn toward greater authoritarianism as is so often suggested. While Xi is keeping his cards very close to the vest, and the regime’s recent behavior certainly is not encouraging, it is still possible that the effort to purify the security services represents a “hardening” of the political system to manage the side effects of moving forward with the reforms hinted at during the Third Plenum.

One deeply troubling aspect of the crackdown is that the security services, after nearly two years of relentless strife, may be unusually keen to demonstrate their loyalty and effectiveness to President Xi. The special services seeming comfort engaging in extraterritorial renditions—whether nabbing booksellers off Thai beaches and in neighboring Hong Kong or through efforts to detain corrupt officials abroad as part of the “Fox Hunt” and “Operations Skynet”—certainly seems a hallmark of the Xi era. What remains unclear, however, is whether President Xi personally sanctioned such actions or whether the security services were just eager to please. Likewise, the series of recent laws passed by the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, granting sweeping powers to the security services on issues of national security, very broadly defined, may, in part, reflect an effort by Xi to offer the guardians of the regime a few carrots to go with the heavy stick. Still, overenthusiastic security organs amid a deepening downturn in China’s economy and the resultant potential for substantial unrest may prove a particularly volatile and worrisome cocktail going forward.