Argument

China’s Much-Heralded NSC Has Disappeared

Is it a sign of Beijing’s secrecy or Xi Jinping’s weakness?

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China.
ISP pool Dennis Brack Black Star
President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China. ISP pool Dennis Brack Black Star

China’s National Security Commission (NSC), which President Xi Jinping established in late 2013 to steer the country’s national security affairs, has gone dark. Its full membership has never been announced, it has held no publicly reported meetings since April 2014, and it has played no apparent role in China’s response to any foreign or domestic crisis. Whether the NSC is even operational is unknown. Over the last two years, Chinese scholars, who once held high expectations for the NSC, have been notably reluctant to provide details on — or even entertain questions about — the secretive body.

In light of the commission’s background and stated purpose, this is puzzling. Plans for a Chinese NSC have floated around in China’s security studies community for more than two decades. The impetus was the sense that the nation’s responses to crises in the 1990s and 2000s — such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 by NATO forces and the collision of a U.S. surveillance plane with a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 — were poorly coordinated and ineffective. Proponents argued that a strong and well-staffed NSC would produce better responses to crises by increasing the flow of information to policymakers and integrating the activities of the military, foreign ministry, intelligence services, and others. This would replace the pre-existing system, in which supervision of national security affairs was managed on an ad-hoc basis, and in which there was no central institution capable of ensuring bureaucratic coordination and timely information flows to senior leaders.

In developing their plans, Chinese reformers referred explicitly to the U.S. National Security Council, which serves as a key forum through which the president receives advice on national security matters and oversees interbureaucratic coordination. Chinese analysts observed that not only the United States, but most other major powers, including Russia, India, and the United Kingdom, have similar organizations. Establishing its own NSC was thus not only meant to solve coordination problems, but was arguably a symbol signifying China’s status as a major power with increasingly complex and global national security interests and challenges.

Yet Xi’s most recent predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were unable to implement these plans. They could not overcome the elite’s fear that such an organization would have upset the prevailing consensus-based decision-making system — in which authority is shared among members of the top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee — by excessively concentrating power in the hands of a single leader. The system in the 1990s and the 2000s preserved a balance of power among the elite. And it ensured there would be no resurgence of a Mao Zedong-like figure, who might single-handedly move China away from the road of wealth and prosperity.

By contrast, many observers regarded Xi’s creation of the NSC, a year after he took office in late 2012, as a sign of his ability to consolidate power. This went hand-in-hand with Xi’s efforts to counter key opponents, most notably via an anti-corruption campaign he launched shortly after assuming office. Through the anti-corruption campaign, Xi was able to purge several threatening elites, including two former vice chairmen of the country’s top military body, the Central Military Commission (CMC), as well as the powerful former security czar, Zhou Yongkang.

In the six months since the establishment of the NSC, Xi further cemented his authority over the body, and over the national security sphere in general. In January 2014, the Politburo announced that the NSC would be “making overall plans and coordinating major issues and major work concerning national security” and named Xi as its chairman. In April 2014, the NSC held its first (and only) publicly reported meeting, in which Xi outlined an expansive vision for a new “national security system” with the NSC at its core. According to Xi, the system would be designed to respond to a wide variety of internal and external security challenges, ranging from foreign military threats to domestic unrest. The organization was poised to take on a role as a key fixture on China’s national security landscape, with Xi at the helm.

And then a curious thing happened: nothing. Whereas other new organizations developed during Xi’s tenure — such as the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, responsible for steering the country’s economic reforms — have garnered significant Chinese media attention, there has been virtually no new information released on the NSC since 2014. The lack of information on meetings, membership, and operations is significant because it cuts against the perception that Xi is consolidating power over national security affairs.

So what happened? The reason is not simply a lack of opportunity for the NSC to get involved. Indeed, China has faced a variety of situations since April 2014 that might have warranted NSC involvement, including the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Yemen in March 2015, the major explosions that rocked the Chinese city of Tianjin in April 2015, and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Yet the NSC was not credited with organizing China’s response to any of these incidents. There have also been ample opportunities for Chinese media to announce progress by the NSC in making long-term national security plans, which it pursues in addition to crisis response. But they haven’t.

Perhaps the ruling Chinese Communist Party has chosen to be extremely secretive about the NSC’s activities. Maybe the NSC has actually played an operational role, just one that hasn’t been publicized. Possible, but unlikely. Even the highly opaque CMC regularly publishes news about meetings and decisions, and its basic membership and staffing are in the public record. Moreover, if a purpose of creating the NSC was to consolidate Xi’s power, why wouldn’t they release some news demonstrating its progress and success under his leadership?

Perhaps the NSC is still in a developmental phase, with such issues as internal decision-making, lines of authority, and staffing being determined. Progress might also be stunted because neither the NSC’s reported staff director, Li Zhanshu, nor his alleged key deputy, Cai Qi, are career national security officials. Rather, both are Xi’s political allies who previously served in provincial posts. They might need more time to assemble the right staff and test procedures. But this does not explain Chinese authorities’ decision to not release basic details, such as the NSC’s key officers or meeting dates. This explanation also weakens over time — Xi and his associates should eventually be able to work out mechanical problems.

The most likely explanation is that elite or bureaucratic resistance has stymied the NSC’s development. Some within the party elite might oppose the transfer of power to an organization headed by the president and staffed by his loyalists — a continuation of the argument that the country’s national security affairs should be collectively managed and not vested in the hands of one leader. It also fits with recent evidence of broader opposition to Xi’s rule from within the party, including an anonymous letter purportedly written by “loyal Communist Party members” calling for Xi’s resignation, and a social media tirade by party member and real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang opposing Xi’s control of the media. Xi himself has warned of unnamed “cabals” and “cliques” seeking to undermine the party under his leadership. (However, it is unclear who his remaining primary opponents would be, given that Xi has already removed several of his most powerful would-be rivals, such as Zhou.)

At the bureaucratic level, there might be debates about who should be represented on the NSC, and what powers it should have to coordinate across China’s vast and complex bureaucracy. The military especially has been a particularly notorious stovepiper, tightly holding onto intelligence about its capabilities and operations as a key source of institutional power. The military also has little incentive to cooperate with civilian ministries, whose leaders occupy relatively low-level positions in the party hierarchy. For instance, the military’s top two uniformed officers sit on the Politburo, whereas the minister of foreign affairs is only one of the more than 200 members who make up the lower-level Central Committee. Another issue is the potential duplication of effort among the NSC, the CMC, and China’s cabinet — the State Council — regarding crisis response. Advocates for the latter two entities might have successfully argued that the locus of operations should remain there.

None of the reasons for the NSC’s silence bodes well for Xi. Extreme secrecy suggests a lack of confidence in the organization and contravenes efforts to promote transparency in other areas. A lengthy start-up phase would indicate the failure of Xi and his advisers to build the NSC into a functional organization. The most troublesome explanation concerns elite and bureaucratic resistance. If this is correct, then one of Xi’s signature achievements, and his ability to exercise decisive leadership over the country’s national security affairs, could be thrown into doubt. Regardless, the longer Chinese officials keep silent about the NSC, the more questions will be raised about its relevance and the extent to which Xi has actually consolidated power. At the moment, the NSC is a sign of Xi’s weakness — not his strength.

Image Credit: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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