Beijing’s security imperative is producing diminishing returns

Security was in the past more critical for the PRC than for other major powers. Objective or not, Beijing’s perception of threat cast a huge shadow, making and breaking leaders and forcing the policy pace domestically. In 2022 this perception and its policy implications impact the whole world.

Now crystallising as a ‘holistic approach to national security’, this favoured rubric is applied willy-nilly to a swathe of domestic issues. Defined in terms of 16 security domains (political, homeland, military, economic, cultural, social, technological, cyber, ecological, resource, nuclear, overseas interests, biological, space, polar), it finds its way into every corner of PRC society, not least the economy.

At home, the core of this approach is stability maintenance. Beijing mainly associates development with stability. This is the glue spread liberally between Party, State and popular interests. Consistent with the Party-State’s mission as defined by Xi—the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation—it underscores his claim that disturbing stability threatens not merely the regime but Chinese civilisation.

‘Holistic’, a modern-sounding qualifier, emphasises the ‘indivisibility’ of

  • conventional security factors: counter-intelligence, territorial security, military, energy, etc
  • non-conventional security factors: social stability, food safety and security, environmental protection, ideology, and cyberspace

challenges of the digital revolution

Security in the digital realm is the real joker in the pack. ‘If the Party cannot deal with the internet, the Party will not rule in the long run’, warned Xi Jinping. He marks for occupation the public spaces made possible by the internet, where society might depart from the Party’s idea of order.

Tech firms pose another challenge. In the digital age, data itself is a factor of production. Tech firms, not the state, in many areas hold most of the data. Constantly interacting with authorities and investors from other countries, abuse or leakage of their data is potentially devastating to national security. A cycle of cracking down, ramping up supervision, and eventually easing the pressure is now set in place.

the sense of losing control

Be supremely mindful of security risks, Xi Jinping constantly reminds Party and State agencies, whether ‘black swan’ events (unpredictable or unforeseen with dire consequences) or ‘grey rhinos’ (highly probable, impactful yet neglected). The CPC, he laments, previously prioritised development at the expense of security. Balancing (or ‘dialectically uniting’) development and security may, in other words, very well come at a cost to economic development.

This sensitivity reflects the Party’s insecurity in the digital era: an existential concern that some administrative glitch will crash the whole state system. Meanwhile, conventional governance is spinning down for now. Self-organising groups apart, the general public is no longer as reflexively subservient as under the post-Mao system of work-units and SOEs.

unavoidable tension

A bureaucratic response remains the default. Fan Peng 樊鹏 (see profile), however, deems it intrinsically counter-effective; officialdom over-relies on it: to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Fan rejects as ‘formalism’ and ‘one size fits all’ the tendency to sweep all agency problems into a single bucket of moral turpitude, ‘shilly-shallying’, cadre indolence, and the like. Bureaucracy itself, he argues, is not designed to resolve issues that ‘overflow’ or lack definite bounds. Thus, faced with blame, formalism and buck-passing become the go-to for officials.

China solutions

Holism applied to policy results in superministries; applied to security in the National Security Commission; applied to Hong Kong in the National Security Law. Beijing’s NSC is equipped with more powers than its US or other counterparts. Beyond intelligence, military, domestic policy, energy, and economic agencies, it commands those running propaganda, technology R&D, culture, cyberspace, etc.

Coordination across disparate sectors is its remit, ideally short-circuiting any overflow of threats. Party agencies are proliferating to cover everything. An important aim is to respond to the needs of social groups and thus absorb them. Beijing urges state and Party agencies to dissolve conflicts at the grassroots, disabling potential ‘overflows’.

Constantly promoted in Xi’s second term (2017-22), ‘China solutions’ (Zhōngguó fāng’àn 中国方案) consolidate the image of superior PRC institutions, modernised and well-resourced, solving all kinds of governance shortfalls around the world.

This image, and the soft power it was meant to generate, have struck heavy weather, first with domestic mismanagement of COVID, and next with support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most damaging, however, has been the Shanghai lockdown under Xi’s ‘zero COVID’. China solutions abroad have gathered a reputation for misfit with local conditions; The Shanghai debacle raises doubts as to whether they even work at home.

Beijing meanwhile, doubling down on soft rather than wolf warrior diplomacy, is upgrading its win-win offers to the South Pacific. Foreign Minister Wang Yi 王毅 struck a deal with the Solomon Islands, then visited the majority of the other Pacific Island states.

A meeting of ten of them saw a PRC draft agreement on, inter alia, elaborate security cooperation, sent off for further work, tantamount to a vote of no-confidence. Published comments by the Island states’ leaders suggest that Wang’s offer carries a subtext of joint grievance against ‘the West’ and looks a little too like the ‘Cold War mentality’ he criticises.

What to make of the Party’s ‘holistic approach to security’ in the Pacific? Xi Jinping announced the launch of a ‘Global Security Initiative’ at the Boao Forum on 21 April 2022. It unmistakably places Western geopolitical theory in the crosshairs; for all its appeal to moral high ground, it frames the West as essentially hostile. But at this point, Pacific Islands possibly have less of a stake in China’s worldview than Beijing seems to imagine.


Fan Peng 樊鹏 | Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Contemporary Chinese Politics research institute director

Addressing challenges of ‘digital era 2.0’, Fan points to traditional bureaucracy’s embattled grip on the emerging state of play. If the Party is to respond to social needs and avert systemic risk, it had better return to diverse identities and norms. Fan explicitly decries the taboo on research into political security, which he deems an inevitable issue in modern states, the core of which is security of the regime and its institutional order. Instead of being limited to legitimising the state’s ideology and/or actions, political science must engage with the complexities and risks accompanying social change.

Born in 1980, Fan is a young scholar of growing repute in political and public security, state governance, and Party leadership. He graduated with a PhD in political science from Hong Kong Chinese University. He is Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Contemporary Chinese Politics research institute director, signalling taking the leading position of the official thinktank.

Ma Xiangdong 马相东 | Beijing Party School Journal vice editor in chief

To stabilise faltering foreign investment, urges Ma, we must in the first place avoid generalising (泛化 fanhua) economic security. We should proceed on the basis that we are economically secure and should carry out a more proactive opening strategy. Economic development and security, he argues, must be balanced: exaggerating one or the other can only do harm. ‘Opening’ provides the material base for economic security. Generalising (i.e. one-size-fits-all responses) stymies openness and business facilitation. On the other hand, economic security entails real measures taken, e.g. levelling supervision, improving relevant laws, particularly anti-monopoly for tech platforms, and relaxing FDI controls for certain sectors while maintaining control in others.

Ma is vice editor in chief of Beijing Party School’s journal and vice researcher of Beijing Xi Jinping thoughts research centre at the Party School. Ma published an article addressing economic security and foreign investment stabilisation in Guangming Daily on 23 May 2022.

Jia Qingguo 贾庆国 | Peking University School of International Studies dean

‘Many folks’ grasp of national security tends to run off course’, wrote Jia in the last days of 2021, ‘mainly seen in discussing it in indiscriminate, abstract terms, or paying attention only to a certain aspect’. His wide-ranging text, ‘Hallmarks of national security and the principles of governance’, belongs to a series of nuanced critiques of Xi-era security policy, alarmed at its overreach and harking back to Deng Xiaoping’s preference for ‘development’ over ‘security’ domestically, and ‘hiding and biding’ geopolitically.

Both the development and the security strategy must be adjusted in response to changes, argues Jia, for ‘if they are not adjusted in time, not only will the security strategy be unachievable, but will bring unpredictable damage to national security itself’. Jia’s minimum program is to

  • limit national security to the national development strategic goal
  • clarify basic principles and paths to achieve it
  • systematically grasp and coordinate the issues
  • seek relative rather than absolute security
  • balance security with other values
  • rationally evaluate changes in the world situation
  • adjust security strategies in timely fashion
  • respond to security challenges through cooperation between countries

Professor and former Dean of Peking University’s School of International Relations, Jia studied in Australia and the US, taking a PhD from Cornell University. A leading IR public intellectual, he is renowned for sharply rebuking ‘official’ Global Times editor Hu Xijin 胡锡进 over North Korea policy, and COVID-19, warning against controlling COVID-19 via lockdown rather than mass immunisation. Jia sits on the Standing Committee of the China Democratic League, one of the PRC’s eight legally recognised ‘satellite’ parties.


19 Apr 2022: People’s Daily published an article highlighting non-traditional national security work in Jiangsu

18 Nov 2021: all-encompassing national security strategy (2021-25) outlined

28 Jul 2020: Zhao Kezhi stresses political security should be prioritised

30 Jun 2020: NPC passes Hong Kong’s National Security Law

14 Feb 2020: Xi proposes to incorporate biological security into the scope of ‘the holistic approach to national security’

1 Jul 2015: NPC passes The National Security Law and set 15 April every year as National Security Education day

15 Apr 2015: Xi proposes the holistic approach to national security

Nov 2012: Xi repeatedly stresses ‘baseline thinking’

in case you missed it…

5-year plans—live updates
5-year plans: 150-odd and counting…

cp.signals—domestic policy movement
PRC CBEC moves offshore
making green finance sustainable

policy shifts—spots and zooms in on critical shifts
toughest year for jobs
quitting on squid: reining in distant-water fishing—monthly roundup
may: COVID continues to test Party governance
april: COVID woes