The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday said it would establish an agency to “manage” growing social unrest, as part of a set of reforms largely focusing on the economy.
The new “state security committee” will tackle social instability and unify other agencies in charge of increasing security challenges, both foreign and domestic, the party’s Central Committee said in a statement after a four-day plenary meeting in the nation’s capital ended Tuesday.
State news agency Xinhua said the committee would “improve the system of national security and the country’s national security strategy” so as to “effectively prevent and end social disputes and improve public security”.
But it gave no further details of how the new plan, which was announced amid a raft of economic reforms, would be implemented.
China’s nationwide “stability maintenance” system, which now costs more to run than its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), tracks the movements and activities of anyone engaged in political or rights activism across the country.
Under this system, activists and outspoken intellectuals are routinely put under house arrest or other forms of surveillance at politically sensitive times.
However, analysts said that the agency was likely a bid by China’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping to curb the powers of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which administers the “stability maintenance” budget and has been slammed for behaving like a law unto itself.
“I think they have suddenly decreed the creation of this state security committee because the political and legal affairs committees have got such a bad name now,” said Chen Ziming, a former student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement who is now based in the United States. “Maybe they want to give it a makeover.”
“Also, they want to boost their overseas contacts,” he said. “It’s not just anti-terrorism; it has to do with many aspects of internal security and diplomatic relations.”
“All of those will be strengthened via this new agency,” he said.
Shenzhen-based independent commentator Zhu Jianguo said the new committee would likely herald further attempts by the government to stamp out activism and curb online freedom of expression.
“This is exactly what everybody was afraid would happen,” Zhu said. “It will set new curbs and limitations on freedom of speech and thought.”
“If these reforms were genuine, they would be encouraging freedom of thought and expanding opportunities for public supervision [of government],” he said.
He said there had been no signal from China’s leadership that any reforms of the political system were in the pipeline.
“This is very far from any reform of the political system,” he said.
Cheng Li, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert on Chinese politics, said Xi’s administration had taken inspiration from the U.S.’ National Security Council, and was aiming to place more power in the hands of president.
“The official line is to better coordinate the very different domains: the intelligence, military, foreign policy, public security and also national defense,” Cheng told Reuters.
“This gives tremendous power to the presidency,” he said.
Authorities in Beijing detained or dispersed hundreds of petitioners who tried to voice grievances against the government during the plenary session of the party’s Central Committee.
Police appeared to be on full alert after detaining or intercepting more than 300 former PLA officers last week.
The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments also triggers thousands of “mass incidents” across China every year.
Many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government’s wishes.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.