China tightens its security screws

Author: James Leibold, La Trobe University

The Janus-faced nature of Xi Jinping’s China was again on show in 2015. In September, a dour-looking Xi reviewed soldiers and ballistic missiles at a military parade in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory Day — which marks China’s victory over Japanese aggression in World War II. A month later, a grinning Xi rode beside Queen Elizabeth in the royal carriage as Prime Minister David Cameron talked up Chinese investment in the United Kingdom. These competing views of China as a menacing superpower or as an economic saviour dominated much of the discussion in 2015.

Yet behind the headlines and the official pomp and ceremony, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continue to tighten the screws on a high-tech system of mass surveillance and thought reform aimed at eliminating any critical voices and views. If state controls are like a ‘giant cage’ in China, the bars are closing in under the CCP’s new strongman.

In 2015, the Party locked up not only tens of thousands of ‘corrupt’ officials, but also harassed, detained and imprisoned thousands of ordinary citizens in the name of ‘ideological security’. More than 200 lawyers were detained in May after high profile lawyer and activist Pu Zhiqiang was indicted on trumped-up charges of ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ as well as ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’.

The campaign to eradicate ‘Western values’ continues unabated in Chinese universities. Numerous academics have been punished or pushed out for holding dissenting views.

A new set of disciplinary rules were announced in October. They make it illegal for CCP members to publicly question policy or ‘defame the nation, state leaders or the Party’. Those outside of the CCP are even more vulnerable.

State power is increasingly directed at ‘target populations’: teachers, lawyers, writers, ethnic minorities, NGO activists, artists and others who dare to question Party policy or stand up for the victims of abuse. John Kamm, Director of the Dui Hua Foundation, estimates that one in 1000 Chinese citizens are singled out for close observation by the Chinese police.

In 2015, China drafted three new laws that will provide security officials with unprecedented powers to monitor online and offline activities across the country. The draft Counter-Terrorism Law calls for the introduction of facial recognition software and a national database on criminal suspects (among other methods) to combat a vaguely defined threat of ‘terror’. The National Security Law and Draft Internet Security Law require telecommunication and internet service providers to store and share all data located on their servers with Party authorities.

When fully enacted, these laws will provide the CCP with both the legal authority and technical means to trace any source of information to its point of origin and punish those deemed ‘criminal’.

Another plan issued by the State Council seeks to create a nation-wide ‘social credit system’ by 2020. This massively ambitious project will gather personal data on all Chinese citizens in order to calculate a comprehensive measure of personal merit. It will include data such as internet and shopping habits, popularity among peers and run-ins with the law.

These ‘citizen scores’ will be made public, allowing colleagues, companies and even Party state organs to determine an individual’s worth for a range of services. Chinese officials insist the system will strengthen trustworthiness and sincerity in society. Others rightfully fear a further erosion of privacy and equality before the law, as citizens jostle over their scores and those with low marks are earmarked for closer scrutiny.

In urban centres, Party officials continue to roll out an extensive ‘grid management’ system that divides communities into geometric zones. It assigns CCP members full responsibility for maintaining social order and harmony in their grid. The concept has generated numerous patents and over 8000 academic papers over the last decade, with some boasting the possibility of complete visibility through digital communication technologies.

In more remote regions — like Tibet and Xinjiang — the Party is dispatching tens of thousands of ‘village-based work teams’ to monitor and garrison minority communities as well as to uphold social stability.

Is this sort of ‘stability maintenance’ work compatible with the need to reinvigorate economic reform? China’s economic miracle of the 1980s and 1990s was built on a degree of social chaos and political decentralisation. With economic growth at a 25-year low, the Party must confront the consequences of its excessive control.

Xi Jinping has praised the CCP’s desire to control everything from ecology and resources to culture and thought as ‘total national security’. But this might ultimately prove incompatible — if not detrimental — to the agenda for ‘comprehensively deepening reform’ outlined at the Party’s Third Plenum in 2013.

If the end is really nigh for the CCP — as China expert David Shambaugh and others insist — the cracks will emerge from within. An increasingly intrusive and insecure elite stratum fears its own people more than it does any outside influences.

James Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese politics at La Trobe University and author of over 25 books and articles on China.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.

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peter christopher vertannes
23 December 2015 5:14 pm

What in the Dickens does “The Janus-faced…..” mean? And what on earth does “a dour-looking Xi” exactly mean?

Perhaps you could try writing in a less pompous way the next time around. You are after all an academic I assume?

Lintong Feng
26 December 2015 9:46 pm

It is uncertain whether the tightening of security in China is a short term or temporary measure or a long term trend, because ironically it is possible to tighten security before serious social and political reforms so to create an environment for reform. I hope my conjecture is right.
Should the tightening be designed as a long term measure, then there will be significant and serious long term implications.
While in short the effect may not be clearly evident, the restriction on people’s freedom can have accumulative and long term detrimental effect.
Nations will compete on productivity, creativity and enterprise. If the people of a nation do not have adequate freedom, they will lose out in those crucial and essential areas, resulting to unnecessary disadvantages in international competition.
While it is a challenge for China to avoid the so called middle income trap, the longer challenge will be even greater if and when its people will work in a much more restricted and limited domain than other nations. The lower bound of high income is only a fraction of those of the high income countries at the world income frontier such as the US.

wolfe sharp
28 December 2015 12:12 pm

The language used indicates a bias by the author. Something less emotive and more objective would be appreciated. Additionally, evidence supporting the claims of malfeasance would lend some degree of authenticity to the claims.