By Jacob L. Shapiro

Summary China is attempting to centralize control of the various bureaucracies currently involved in creating and managing the country’s national security policy. A series of laws as well as recent revelations concerning Chinese citizens convicted of espionage are all a part of Beijing’s attempt to rationalize these disparate elements. They also fit with President Xi Jinping’s strategy of consolidating his power over China’s governing structure.

Last week, China Central Television (CCTV) featured two reports on Chinese citizens convicted of espionage. The first report appeared on April 19 and dealt with an allegedly disgruntled computer technician who contacted unidentified foreign intelligence services and sold them over 150,000 classified documents, including Chinese military codes, from 2002 to 2011. The computer technician was sentenced to death. The second report appeared the next day, and described the case of a Chinese man who reportedly had been recruited while working abroad and took pictures of military bases and harbors in Zhejiang province, on the coast of the East China Sea close to islands disputed between China and Japan. This man was detained in December 2013 and has been sentenced to seven years in prison.


These cases are unusual for two reasons: the timing and the publicity. Why the Chinese government would decide to publicize these cases now if the individuals in question were identified and arrested in 2011 and 2013 bears some explanation. But the publicizing of the cases themselves, while not unprecedented, is also atypical, especially given the level of detail that the reports provided about the crimes of each alleged domestic spy. The answer to both of these questions lies in an evolution taking place in Chinese security policy, as Beijing attempts to deal with a staggering number of domestic security challenges.

Creation of a New Security Institution

The revelation of these two espionage cases was carefully planned to coincide with a larger push by Beijing to highlight the issue to the Chinese public. April 15 was China’s first ever National Security Education Day. To mark the occasion, China’s Ministry of Justice distributed informational material to government organizations, schools and businesses, warning Chinese citizens of the potential dangers of outsiders attempting to gain access to information that could be used against China. One of the promotional materials that has received the most attention in the Western media is a poster with the title “Dangerous Love,” which warns of the dangers of fraternizing with foreigners by telling the story of a foreign national named David, who seduces a young Chinese woman and convinces her to provide him with secret documents.

To understand why China is placing such an emphasis on this now, we must return to 1997, when then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid an official visit to Washington and was impressed by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC). Since Jiang’s visit, the Chinese government had considered and debated whether Beijing ought to have its own equivalent of the NSC, but it took 16 years for those debates to lead to action. Finally, in November 2013, with current President Xi Jinping at the helm, the creation of the Chinese National Security Commission (CNSC) was announced following the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee.

Since the CNSC’s creation, its actual responsibilities and the identities of its members have not been revealed. John Hopkins University Professor David Lampton noted in his 2015 article in the Journal of Contemporary China that it is not clear even in China who exactly is in charge of the CNSC. Lampton also noted that the CNSC would likely be much more involved in matters of internal security than external security or international relations. There are at least 10 commissions and bureaucratic groups that have an interest in the development of the CNSC, including the Public Security Bureaus and the Ministry for State Security, China’s primary foreign intelligence organization. The competing interests concerned with defining the scope of the CNSC’s responsibilities illustrate just how diffused responsibilities for national security currently are in China.

Legal Framework

Despite the esoteric nature of the CNSC, since its establishment in November 2013, a series of laws has been promulgated by the National People’s Congress that are, bit by bit, laying the legal groundwork for the commission’s work. These laws are an attempt to better control the sprawling national security bureaucracy by creating an institution that sits above these bureaucratic groups and makes communication between them more efficient.

In November 2014, Xi signed a new Counterespionage Law, which supersedes the National Security Law passed in February 1992. The change in title is indicative of the focus of the new law. The CNSC is not mentioned by name – in fact, the CNSC is not mentioned in any of the three important laws we will discuss here. The purpose of the Counterespionage Law, however, is to lay out a framework for counterespionage within China. It describes both the abilities and limitations incumbent upon the “state security organs” involved in counterespionage – indicating a desire for a degree of centralized control and organization that had not existed previously.

Last year, the National People’s Congress passed two more notable laws: the National Security Law on July 1 and the Counterterrorism Law on Dec. 27. The seven-chapter, 84-article National Security Law is as vague as it is long. Even so, it is notable for two key reasons. First, while the CNSC is not explicitly mentioned, numerous articles of the law refer to an unnamed “central national security leading institution,” and Article 5 makes this nameless institution “responsible for deciding and coordinating national security efforts.” (All translations are taken from the China Law Translate project.) The law also ties this institution directly to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), which is to be the leader of China’s national security efforts.

Second, the National Security Law furthered Xi’s general push to reboot the ideological legitimacy of the CPC. Article 15 emphasizes the importance of the state’s leadership in maintaining “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Article 23 takes this a step further and equates national security with not only cultivating socialist values and the culture of the Chinese people, but also resisting “negative cultural influences,” an ominous turn of phrase for foreigners living or working in China. National security has an ideological and cultural component, as the National Security Education Day exemplifies, and the CNSC will be at the heart of that project.

The Counterterrorism Law gets down to brass tacks. The law itself is comprehensive and wide-ranging, encompassing everything from safety inspections at train stations and airports to restrictions on media reporting during terrorist incidents. Some of the contents of the law have worried Western observers because of its strictures. There is no globally agreed upon definition of terrorism, but in this law, China’s definition is extremely broad: any activity that “seriously harms society” by creating “havoc in public order” can be viewed as terrorism. An initial draft of the law contained a provision that would have required foreign companies to keep servers and customer data in China. While this provision was ultimately removed, the Counterterrorism Law still requires companies to cooperate with Chinese authorities and telecommunications operators and internet providers to provide state security with decryption and technical assistance.

A fourth law centered on the operations of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has not yet been passed, despite being raised two years ago and a comments phase having failed to take place in June. At the most recent National People’s Congress, a Chinese official said that passing the NGO law was one of the goals of congress’ Standing Committee for 2016, but government spokesmen have been vague about the timeline, stating only that further revision and deliberation was needed. Foreign governments and various NGO representatives have decried the draft’s proposal to put management of foreign NGOs under the jurisdiction of the national police ministry. While China considers regulating NGOs a matter of national security, Beijing also seems, at least on the surface, to be sensitive to some of the international backlash the draft law received.

Strategic Challenges

As to why China has chosen to publicize these espionage cases and place great emphasis on counterespionage in general, one must turn to Chinese strategic interests. One of China’s core strategic imperatives is that Beijing must maintain social cohesion between the rich coastal provinces and the poorer provinces of the Chinese interior. Throughout its history, China has been unified when closed off from the rest of the world, but internally fragmented when integrated into the global economy. The state is employing various strategies to make sure that this fragmentation does not reappear in the 21st century, and publicizing these cases is one small way of accomplishing that. In the same way that China exaggerates every action it undertakes in the islands of the South China Sea, it is choosing to highlight cases of foreigners attempting to intervene in Chinese affairs. Fear and national pride can serve as a strong adhesive to hold disparate socioeconomic groups together.


China, because of its sheer population size and diversity, as well as the radical differences in wealth between the coast and the interior, must be able to exert control over the foreign entities operating within its borders. The Chinese government is attempting to create an institution – the CNSC – that can harmonize the vast bureaucracy of state organs, think tanks, intelligence services and military departments all working to maintain domestic national security but without any effective means of coordination. Destabilization is as much the enemy as whatever state secrets or photographs of Chinese harbors have been passed into a foreign government’s hands. Foreign companies do not want to be subject to far-reaching Chinese authority, but the effectiveness of that authority is also what helps China maintain internal cohesion.

It also should be noted that these issues are not confined to China. On April 11, news broke in the United States that a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy was arrested in September and faces espionage charges for allegedly passing state secrets to China. In a separate case, on April 14, an indictment against a Chinese-born naturalized U.S. citizen was unsealed, revealing charges of a multi-person espionage ring intended to steal U.S. nuclear secrets and send them to China. Clearly, countries spy on each other, invest in counterespionage capabilities and prosecute espionage cases. They also control how and when these issues are publicly revealed, often for political effect. Some of the atmospherics around China can obscure the fact that Beijing’s moves in this regard are directly related to internal and external security, which are intimately linked in China.

These laws are a part of Xi’s attempt to centralize decision-making and control. But they are also a warning to foreign companies and individuals operating in China. Warnings do not necessarily guarantee the presence of hostility. A clear delineation of the rules is as much an attempt to make the security system more efficient as it is a way of laying out very clearly what China expects from those choosing to do business within its borders.


This is the backdrop for the two espionage cases that were highlighted on CCTV last week. China is in the midst of completely reorganizing its national security structure, and it is also refocusing its efforts on counterespionage and national security. The CNSC’s role is still being defined, but the contours of a more unified approach are slowly taking shape. Hand-picking two cases that reveal the dangers China is facing and presenting them to the public at this specific juncture is a deliberate attempt to both inform and shape public opinion.