With a promise of reforms to come, a significant new centralization of political power was announced at the end of top level, national leadership meetings held by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on Nov. 9–12. Whether this unprecedented concentration of power will yield reform remains to be seen, but commentators say it will weaken the influence of Party leaders other than paramount leader Xi Jinping and may prove dangerous for dissidents of all stripes.
The communiqué issued at the close of the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee announced the formation of a State Security Committee (SSC), which the communiqué describes as having the purpose of “improving social governance and ensuring people’s livelihood and social stability.”
“To comprehensively deepen reform,” the communiqué says, “we must strengthen and improve the Party’s leadership.”
That description doesn’t convey the scope of the new powers the committee will wield. It will integrate the activities of the Party, military, judiciary, domestic security, and intelligence agencies, according to Cheng Xiaonong, a Chinese economist and former adviser to Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang.
“This SSC will become a supreme organization,” Mr. Cheng told Epoch Times over the phone from his home in New Jersey, “Its power is far beyond other bodies, including the CCP Central Committee, the Central Military Commission, the State Council, and the Standing Committee, which have parallel power in China.”
On a New Tang Dynasty Television program, political commentator Heng He described the SSC’s scope this way, “All the party and legal departments except economic organizations will be integrated in the SSC.”
The communiqué did not announce who the head of the SSC will be, but China hands all assume this has to be paramount leader Xi Jinping. Cheng said he is the presumptive choice because of the authority he holds as chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the chairman of the Central Military Commission.
“Xi Jinping now has a high degree of centralization of power that no former leader ever had in the past.” Cheng said, “He is not only reinforcing his power, but also reinforcing the application of the power.”
The centralization of power under Xi Jinping and the SSC means taking power out of the hands of other Party officials and organizations.
For more than a decade before Xi became head of the Party in November 2012, the Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC) had an outsized influence within the Party. The PLAC had control over almost all domestic security agencies and the judiciary and legal systems.
In particular, the head of PLAC had authority over the People’s Armed Police, which at over 1 million strong, is the size of a substantial army.
The PLAC could deploy this army to “maintain stability”—put down protests or riots by force. The ability to marshal the Armed Police was always a threat to other Party leaders.
The size and role of the PLAC changed due to then-Party head Jiang Zemin’s decision to persecute the traditional spiritual practice of Falun Gong. Jiang, fearing Falun Gong’s popularity, ordered a campaign to eradicate the practice in 1999.
“The PLAC used the Party rule to persecute Falun Gong, and meanwhile used the persecution of Falun Gong as a reason to increase its power,” said Heng He.
Jiang put the persecution of Falun Gong under the direct charge of the PLAC, and arranged for PLAC Director Luo Gan to become a member of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. On Luo’s retirement in 2007, Jiang saw that Zhou Yongkang held the twin positions of director of the PLAC and member of the Politburo Standing Committee.
With the PLAC director installed on the Politburo Standing Committee, the PLAC’s conduct was to some degree insulated from control by the Party.
“In the past, the PLAC played a significant role in maintaining stability, and it had very considerable power.” China issue analyst Cheng Xiaonong said. “But now the SSC is on top of the PLAC, which has decreased the power of the PLAC. It’s not very likely in the future to see someone like [former PLAC director] Zhou Yongkang, who had power by himself to direct the armed police in China.”
“The State Security Committee will have power exceeding that of the PLAC: the power to coordinate with departments in charge of propaganda, the Internet, and the military.” Heng He commented, “By doing so, the SSC will erase the influence of former Party leaders, including Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Wen Jiabao.”
Strengthen Communist Rule
By establishing the SSC, “Xi Jinping and [Premier] Li Keqiang are seeking centralized power to facilitate a ‘comprehensively deepening reform’ and consolidate the Party’s rule.” Shi Cangshan, a China expert based in Washington, D.C., remarked to Epoch Times.
The representative of China’s Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, said after the Third Plenum ended, “Without doubt, the establishment of such a body [SSC] will prevent terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists from operating easily.”
Worries have been expressed in China that this new centralization of power may make the authorities more efficient in suppressing those who the CCP targets—rights activists, democracy activists, petitioners, ethnic minorities, Falun Gong practitioners, and others.
According to NTD television, Chinese activist Hu Jia said, “It will be used against rights defenders, those who uphold universal values and support freedom of speech and religion—people whom the Party cannot tolerate and see as a threat to its ruling.”
Heng He pointed out that the new State Security Committee is in fact unconstitutional in its origins.
“The State Security Committee should not be established by the CCP but by the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress, according to the constitution,” Heng He said. “Instead of safeguarding the national security, it will actually safeguard the Party’s reign.”