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3 Questions: Carol Lee Hamrin

Regarding China’s National Security Commission

From the series 3 Questions

Today we begin a new feature, “3 Questions.” Our goal with this feature is to bring more voices to the mix, and to hear what is on the hearts and minds of various China watchers and specialists. "3 Questions" will be published on an occasional basis. Watch for the next one—an interview with Dr. Fenggang Yang of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

The formation of China’s National Security Commission (NSC) was first announced in November 2013 and the NSC was established in January 2014.

Dr. David M. (Mike) Lampton, Director of China Studies at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) has published an excellent preliminary analysis of the formation and functioning of the NSC. (See “Xi Jinping and the National Security Commission: policy coordination and political power,” Journal of Contemporary China 24:95, 759–777.)

We recently asked Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin[1] of Global China Center about the NSC. Drawing upon Lampton’s observations, she discusses the significance of the NSC and implications for those serving in China.

3 Questions

1. Why is the formation of the NSC significant?

The NSC (literally, Central [Committee] State Security Commission zhongyang guojia anquan weiyuanhui) reflects organizationally the growing accumulation of authority by Xi Jinping over the key mechanisms of political power. Headed by Xi and placed in the Central Committee General Office, it seems intended to replace or supervise several Leading Small Groups (lingdao xiaozu) and Commissions normally headed by different Politburo Standing Committee members. Already, Xi heads up nearly all of them, including the Foreign Affairs Leading Group, Reform Leading Group, State Security Leading Group, Taiwan Leading Group, Political-Legal Commission, and Military Commission.

So far, the NSC’s immediate focus has been tightening control over the vast domestic security apparatus—formerly run by the now discredited Zhou Yongkang, as well as over the military, which had been dominated by appointees of former leader Jiang Zemin.

2. What does the NSC do?

Based on conversations with policy insiders during travel to China in the Spring of 2015, Lampton concludes that the impetus for creating the NSC is two-fold: (1) to better coordinate the fragmented bureaucracies responsible for domestic stability and peripheral defense; and (2) to consolidate Xi’s personal power over the coercive and diplomatic arms of governance. In the meantime, there is considerable confusion about lines of authority and ultimate objectives.

Xi appears to distrust information and advice from professional government officials and academic experts, whom his two predecessors cultivated, and to rely more on the Central Committee organs under the General Office, run by his personal associates and inexperienced young staffers. To them, “national security” means the “political security” of the regime. More than before, foreign relations and foreign investment will be viewed with suspicion of intended subversion, judging from the November 2014 Counterespionage Law and the sweeping July 2015 National Security Law.

These changes are the culmination of a 25-year trend in reaction to the challenge to communist states in 1989–91, a trend line documented in a ground-breaking analysis of a Chinese Legal Leaders Database, created by Yuhua Wang and Carol Minzner. (See “The Rise of the Chinese Security State,” China Quarterly (June 2015), 339–359.)

The Chinese domestic security apparatus expanded dramatically and “stability maintenance” (weiwen) operations gradually took precedence over economic growth as the performance criteria for local officials. The authors describe in detail the “securitization” of governance in China to the point of blurring any distinction between security and non-security functions. Responsibility for security issues has been vested in progressively more senior Party authorities, and local party Political and Legal Committees once headed by court or procuratorate leaders have come under public security leaders. Meanwhile, the security portfolio was greatly expanded to include such matters as tourism, banking, food and work safety, and environmental accidents, as well as space, cyberspace and maritime matters.

3. What are the implications for Christians in China?

Immediate circumstances have potentially positive implications. There is evidence that some in Xi’s inner circle are skeptical about the (mis)management of religion by those currently in charge, and they have been investigating facts and exploring ways to improve the situation in the context of his September state visit to the U.S. In particular, they hope to counter bad press due to the toppling of crosses in Zhejiang. This may offer a rare opportunity for new policy ideas based on a positive view of the role of the church in society to trickle up to the top.

For the long term, however, the overall political trend represented by the NSC and new legislation is toward highly politicized decision-making, rather than toward Constitutional rule of law. This trend has been reflected in the evolving oversight of religious affairs, as the “patriotic” religious associations have become impotent and the police oversight of religion increasingly involves state security, not just public security.  It likely will take a sustained effort for the church as it continues to gain favor at each level of society, eventually reaching the policy level.


  1. ^ Carol Lee Hamrin is Senior Associate of Global China Center and the editor of Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China, a series in English (Pickwick Publications, on Amazon Books) and in Chinese (ZDL Books, available at Ambassadors for Christ), and of Timothy Richard's Vision in the Studies in Chinese Christianity series (Pickwick Publications, on Amazon Books).
 Image credit: Chinese flag by Philip Jägenstedt via Flickr.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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