In Turbulent Times, Xi Builds a Security Fortress for China, and Himself

Over informal, private meals with American leaders, China’s Xi Jinping let his guard down a little. It was a decade ago, relations were less strained, and Mr. Xi, still cementing his power, hinted he worried about the Chinese Communist Party’s grip.

Speaking privately with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Mr. Xi suggested that China was a target of “color revolutions,” a phrase the party adopted from Russia for popular unrest in the name of democracy and blamed on the West. The recent “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East had reinforced his concerns that China was vulnerable to public anger over corruption and inequality, both of which the country had in abundance.

“Xi couldn’t have been more forthright that China is beset by malevolent forces and internally prey to centrifugal forces,” said Daniel R. Russel, a former senior American diplomat who accompanied Mr. Biden to China in 2011.

“He would talk all the time about color revolutions. That’s clearly a sort of front-of-mind issue for him,” said Ryan Hass, the National Security Council director for China when Mr. Xi later visited the White House.

Such fears have come to define the era of Mr. Xi. Over the past decade, he has pursued an all-encompassing drive to expand the very meaning of “national security” in China, bolstering the party’s control on all fronts against any perceived threats abroad that could pounce on weakness at home.

He has strengthened, centralized and emboldened an already pervasive security apparatus, turning it into a hulking fortress that protects him and positions him as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Xi has built what he calls a “comprehensive” system designed for a world he sees as determined to thwart China — politically, economically, socially, militarily and technologically.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to support Taiwan against Beijing is likely to reconfirm his worldview that the United States and its allies are ready to exploit any potential weakness — and that China must always show steely vigilance. Since her visit, he has mobilized the military off the coast of Taiwan, sending the warning that China wants to curtail America’s backing for what Beijing considers a breakaway region.

To Mr. Xi, national security is a “people’s war,” enlisting not just military officers, but also elementary schoolteachers and neighborhood workers.

On National Security Education Day, children have lessons about dangers that include food poisoning and fires, spies and terrorists. Neighborhoods have founded “National Security People’s Line-of-Defense” groups to ferret out potential dissidents and “suspicious” foreigners. The Ministry of State Security recently offered rewards of up to $15,000 for citizens who report information on security crimes.

“This evil wind of ‘color revolution’ has never ceased,” Wang Linggui, a party official in China’s office for Hong Kong affairs, wrote recently in a new Chinese journal on national security. “Like the Covid virus, it constantly mutates.”

Under these pressures, China is becoming a country where — as in grim eras in its past — vigilance can easily spiral into paranoia, where officials treat even local problems as the work of ideological subversives and foreign enemies.

When residents in Shanghai, confined in their homes for weeks in a pandemic lockdown this spring, banged pots and pans in protest, local authorities used loudspeakers to warn that their display of public anger was being fanned by shadowy “foreign forces.”

“It was a spontaneous local action,” said Jia Xiaolong, who was twice taken from his home in Shanghai and questioned by the police over the kitchenware protests. “But internally that’s how officials think now — that behind every problem, every protest, is also a plot.”

As Mr. Xi prepares to claim a breakthrough third term as leader at a Communist Party congress this fall, he has signaled that national security will be even more of a focus. Strains over Covid and pandemic restrictions, superpower divisions deepened by Russia’s war in Ukraine, as well as rising food and energy prices, are part of a constant onslaught of challenges.

“What is so important and worrisome is that Xi Jinping isn’t making a distinction anymore between internal security and external security,” said Mr. Russel, now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Xi Jinping is determined to take more forceful action — preventive action, but also pre-emptive action — and use the various tools at his disposal to meet those threats and to break through what he sees as a kind of stranglehold of the West.”

Since rising as Communist Party leader in 2012, Mr. Xi has wielded security powers in ways that seemed unlikely when he took office. He authorized mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang. In Hong Kong, he abolished freedoms that China had promised to leave in place for 50 years when it regained the territory from Britain in 1997.

In the run-up to the congress, officials have been gathering in meetings to reverently study a new textbook that explains Mr. Xi’s vision. Defending China against the myriad threats, the book says, depends on “political security,” with the party and ultimately Mr. Xi as the guardians of national unity and survival.

“Unless political security is assured, the country will inevitably fall apart, scattering like a box of sand, and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be out of the question,” the book says.

Opponents of China’s claims over Taiwan, it warns, are “the biggest obstacle to unification of the motherland, and the gravest hidden peril to national reunification.”

When he came to power, Mr. Xi moved quickly, worried that his predecessors had let corruption and cronyism rot away China’s defenses against domestic and foreign threats.

Jiang Zemin, the party leader from 1989 to 2002, had dabbled in creating a Chinese equivalent of the United States’ National Security Council, but political inertia stood in the way. His successor, Hu Jintao, increased spending on the military and domestic security, but let their chiefs turn them into fiefs where they promoted cronies and collected kickbacks, including company shares and hoards of cash and gems.

“Xi Jinping’s argument was, look, internally, we have been too weak. The power decentralization is getting out of hand,” said Yun Sun, the co-director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

One year after Mr. Xi took office, he announced before hundreds of senior officials that China would establish a National Security Commission. “Strengthening centralized, unified leadership of national security matters is a pressing need,” he declared.

Some political insiders initially assumed that the commission would mimic the White House’s National Security Council and focus on foreign policy. But at the commission’s first meeting in 2014, Mr. Xi told officials that the threats demanded a “comprehensive view of national security.” Under this approach, domestic and foreign dangers were often seen through a prism of ideological rivalry with the West.

“It legitimizes from their point of view a stronger coercive dimension in nearly every area of government,” said Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University who has studied Mr. Xi’s security policies.

Li Ming-che, a community college worker from Taiwan, felt the brunt of this heightened vigilance. For years, he had stayed in contact with human rights activists in China, supporting them and their families after growing numbers were detained under Mr. Xi.

When Mr. Li made a visit to China in 2017, security police seized him as soon as he crossed the border, and interrogators accused him of plotting “color revolution.”

In previous times when Chinese leaders were less alarmed, Mr. Li might have been expelled or briefly imprisoned. In 2017, he was sentenced to five years for subverting state power. In prison, he said, he and other inmates worked nearly every day, making gloves, shoes and backpacks. He was barred from talking to all but a few approved prisoners.

Mr. Li, who was released in April and returned to Taiwan, was among a handful of human rights activists who met with Ms. Pelosi during her visit.

“Xi Jinping has written this system into law, and it’s really emblematic of the constant expansion of the state security system,” he said. “It’s fully entered people’s lives.”

Four years passed between the founding of the National Security Commission and the next time it surfaced in major state media, in 2018.

The commission is one of the most secretive bodies of a secretive state. Its size, staffing and powers remain unclear. Its officials rarely meet foreigners. The full membership gathers roughly once a year, like other top bodies of Chinese leaders. But mentions of the security meetings usually emerge only on local party websites summarizing its orders for officials.

Behind the scenes, it has become increasingly active and organized, such websites indicate. The commission had “solved many problems that we had long wanted to but couldn’t,” Mr. Xi said when it met in 2018.

The national commission established local security committees across provinces, cities and counties. These local committees focus on domestic threats like protests and dissent. They often remind cadres that crisis or insurrection are not remote threats; they could break out on their doorstep.

Chinese universities were pressed to observe and report on “ideological” problems among teachers and students, which included keeping track of their online comments. Security officials ordered cadres to closely monitor persistent protesters, people with histories of mental illness, former prisoners and others deemed risks to safety and stability.

“Don’t simplistically equate ‘nothing has gone wrong’ with ‘nothing will go wrong,’” the local security committee of Yongchuan District in southwest China said last year. “At every moment always act as if we’re walking on thin ice, as if on the edge of an abyss.”

Through new rules and personnel appointments, Mr. Xi has made sure that this expanding system stays firmly in his hands.

Mr. Xi is the chairman of the National Security Commission, and a senior aide of his, Ding Xuexiang, is widely believed to be head of the Commission’s administrative office, steering its operations, though Mr. Ding’s role has not been officially confirmed. The chief deputy in the office is Chen Wenqing, the minister of state security.

“The world is confronting great changes of the kind not seen in a century, and in particular China-U.S. relations are undergoing a new test,” Mr. Chen wrote in a party journal in 2019, one of his rare public statements.

By then, China’s economic and military reach, and Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies, were stirring anxiety in Washington and other capitals — which in turn was raising concern in Beijing about Western intentions.

Mr. Xi’s alarm intensified in 2019 when demonstrations filled streets in Hong Kong for months. As protesters clashed with the police, Beijing warned that Hong Kong risked succumbing to a “color revolution” backed by Western governments.

“Points of turbulence and danger across the globe are growing,” Mr. Xi told officials in that same year, according to a lecture by a professor from the People’s Public Security University of China. “The new trends and features of color revolution are increasing the political and ideological risks bearing down on China.”

In April of this year, Ukraine was at war with Russian invaders. Shanghai was under an exhausting pandemic lockdown. Tensions with the Biden administration were festering.

Yet when officials across China gathered to hear about the latest secretive meeting of the National Security Commission, its paramount demand was “political security” — that is, defending the Communist Party and Mr. Xi in the lead-up to the party congress.

Across China, a flow of similar announcements points to how the party’s focus on security — especially political security — is likely to deepen, reshaping the country.

The National Security Commission has claimed a role in making government rules, including data security legislation. It has ordered financial security assessments of banks. When Chinese regulators fined the ride-hailing giant, Didi Global, $1.2 billion in July for breaches, they cited unspecified “serious” national security violations.

China’s first full National Security Strategy, an internal document laying out broad goals through 2025, has filtered through the bureaucracy since its approval last year. It calls for ensuring that China can provide more of its own food and core technology and for developing ways to defuse social unrest before it erupts, according to a summary issued when party leaders approved it late last year.

The new, 150-page textbook on Mr. Xi’s “comprehensive outlook on national security” offers clues about that strategy. China must deepen its partnership with Russia to withstand international threats, says the book, whose authors include officials from the National Security Commission.

“Hostile forces at home and abroad have never let up for one moment in their strategy to Westernize and split apart our country,” a section on political security says.

Only a few prominent voices in China openly question the security expansion, warning that it risks locking the country into intransigent policies.

“Pursuing absolute security is, first, unrealistic; second, too costly; and third, will harm the country in pursuing other values,” Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University who is a senior member of a Chinese government consultative council, wrote in a Chinese journal this year. “A necessary balance must be struck between national security and carrying forward democracy.”

On the same day that Ms. Pelosi left Taiwan, state security officers in eastern China detained a Taiwanese man, Yang Chih-yuan, whom Chinese media described as a supporter of independence for the island. Chinese television news showed him being held on each arm by officers as another officer laid out the accusations.

“Now and for some time to come, the situation of national security struggle across the Taiwan Strait will be more complex and grim,” a Chinese policy journal for Taiwan said last year. “The United States is always playing the ‘Taiwan card’ more.”

Officials cite national security to restrict lawyers and their clients, or to silence public complaints about financial or land disputes. Academics face tighter monitoring of their teaching and research. Beijing’s combative worldview, other Chinese critics have said, has pushed China too close to Russia and deterred debate over its invasion of Ukraine.

Children also absorb Mr. Xi’s precepts each National Security Education Day on April 15, which commemorates the first meeting of the National Security Commission in 2014.

In one school in Beijing, children this year drew pictures of vigilant citizens beating up masked villains. “In defending national security, nobody is an outsider or a bystander,” said a presentation at an elementary school in northwest China.

It reminded the pupils of the Ministry of State Security’s phone number for reporting anything suspicious: 12339.

Additional reporting by Amy Chang Chien.

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By Jon Doe