Written by Samantha Hoffman and Peter Mattis.

The communiqué following the Third Plenum on 12 November stated that a “State Security Committee” would be established to “perfect the national security system and national security strategy, and ensure national security.” No specific information on the plan was provided, leaving to question what form the future committee might have. Much Western media attention has been paid to the State Security Committee, but the social governance framework in which the plan was presented has been mostly overlooked.

A State Security Committee’s scope, though domestic in focus, could include foreign security policy, given the foreign implications of ‘state security’ in Chinese policymaking. The announcement, however, placed more emphasis on the domestic security aspect, due to its placement under the heading on ‘social governance’ (shehui zhili). ‘Social governance’, while not a new phrase, has been used almost exclusively under Xi Jinping instead of ‘social management’ (shehui guanli), which was more frequently applied under Hu Jintao. This is representative of a slight change in social management policy that has been taking place over the course of the past year, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s transition from Central Party School President to Party General Secretary.

Social management is a concept that was elevated as a key target of the 12th Five Year Plan for National and Social Development in March 2011. The plan defines social management in two parts:

(1) To improve the social management structure. This includes strengthening coordination between people’s, grassroots, and other social organisations and enterprises, as well as improving the standardisation, specialisation, socialisation and legalisation of social management;

(2) To innovate the social management system by: strengthening the management of the origin of “social problems”, focusing on “dynamic management” of “social conflicts” and developing a crisis response system to handle “unexpected public incidents”.

A Study Times article published in October 2012 claimed there are four distinctions between the terms “social management” and “social governance,” characterizing these as follows:

(1) Social management, although inclusive of both government and social organisations, is a government-centred management of society. Social governance is diversified and no single body can monopolise its practice;

(2) Social management makes the government superior to society, but social governance incorporates the role of social organisations and the private sector in governance;

(3) Instead of the top-down approach of social management, social governance aims to encourage consultation among participants;

(4) Social management mainly relied on government authority and dictation of orders, but social governance should employ new methods and techniques based on innovation to better guide public affairs.

Social management implies similar goals as social governance, but in practice it heavily involves the state security apparatus, despite the definitional inclusion of social organisations and the private sector. The problem, at least in part, was that, during the Hu Jintao era (2002–2012), preserving stability operations were managed in the Political-Legal Affairs Committee led by Politburo Standing Committee member with relative autonomy from his colleagues. In mid-2012, the Central Party School published several articles in publications such as the Study Times, Red Flag and Seeking Truth, that strongly criticised “social management” and suggested that the coercive police aspects of social management had overshadowed the less coercive aspects, such as cadre performance and propaganda.  This included critiques in September 2012 suggesting that the current security-focused state of social management is a threat to the Communist Party’s long-term legitimacy.

The social governance concept of diversified participation in governance would require the formation of civil society structures that are not currently in place. While Xi Jinping has advocated reform, this has focused on introducing more market-oriented economic policy. Concerning social policy, on the other hand, it can be argued that there has been a tightening of control. Reforms should be understood not as opening up in the sense that western observers might hope for. Instead, this should be understood in context of the Communist Party’s primary interest, which is to stay in power. In doing so, the CCP’s strategy involves instituting governance reforms aimed at pre-empting public demands for political reform.[1]

As the nature and means of unrest continues to evolve in China, the state is required to adapt to the changes. One notable shift in unrest has been the violence and large-scale nature of protests over the past several years. In particular, this includes large-scale environmental protests and smaller-scale but highly frequent and often violent land grab and housing demolition protests.[2] Over the past two years, most of the largest-scale protests have been against planned projects that have worrying environmental or health consequences for locals. After a few days of unrest, local officials in several cases have announced that the relevant project has been suspended.

This could be taken as a positive sign of the CCP gradually adapting to protest, but when examined in closer detail this would be difficult to argue. For example, the July 2012 protests against a molybdenum copper project in Shifang, Sichuan, resulted in the project’s cancellation. However, on 22 October 2013, a media report indicated that the Shifang project would be restarted.  More recently, this July in Jiangmen, Guangdong, large-scale protests took place against a proposed uranium processing plant due to the public’s safety concerns, made worse by the lack of information available to the public on the project. The local government quickly cancelled the project, however this reaction is something that was strongly critiqued in state media. For example, one article argued that the plant posed no public health consequences and blamed the local government for lack of transparency about the project. In many of these cases, protesters were also arrested and criminally charged.

The Communist Party certainly feels the pressure caused by these social problems, which explains from a domestic security standpoint why a State Security Committee is important.  The committee itself is not expected drastically impact the implementation of social governance policy; however, the plan plays into discussion over the past year about the need for the Party to improve its relationship with society.

The mass line campaign initiated by Xi Jinping is much more than just a Maoist throwback thought to symbolise a return to conservative politics. Xi’s mass line campaign is designed to put pressure on the party bureaucracy to act in accord with the centre’s dictates by creating a basis of support outside the Party (but not its control). As John Wilson Lewis observed in his opening to Leadership in Communist China, “The basic leadership theory and operational procedures of the Chinese Communist Party are the principal parts of these dynamics, which at first sight appear to be simply systems of command, but in fact are designed to produce affirmative responses by the Chinese people and cadres to the goals of Chinese communist policy.” Although the 18th Party Congress Work Report and speeches by the senior-most leaders in the last two years indicate the Party is concerned about losing the masses, Hu Jintao’s steadily degrading power over his term as Party General Secretary is a cautionary lesson. Hu found himself in a position where he could speak ineffectually but loudly from the president’s soapbox, but unable to wield power except with targeted coercion. Xi’s mass line campaign—especially in light of the purported innovations of social governance—is yet another means to shape social demands of party cadre to ensure legitimacy and effective administration.

The proposed State Security Committee probably will add to the growing concentration of power in Xi Jinping’s hands. The committee appears to take on the policymaking authority of the Political-Legal Affairs Committee (and possibly the related leading small groups), giving authority over security operations to someone with broader concerns than security. As a Chinese government analyst noted in an interview with the China Daily, the Ministry of Public Security can disrupt terrorist plots, but it cannot deal with root causes of terrorism. Seen in this light, the State Security Committee is a natural progression from Xi’s reported effort to ensure the Political-Legal Affairs Committee reported to him rather than functioning autonomously in the hands of a rough equal in the Standing Committee.

Samantha Hoffman is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary China Studies and an independent contractor providing research and analysis on China and the Asia Pacific. Peter Mattis is a Fellow in The Jamestown Foundation’s China Program and a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

[1] Steve Tsang, “Consultative Leninism: China’s New Political Framework?”  Journal of Contemporary China (2009), 18 (62), November 885-880.

[2]  Based on data the authors have collected over the past two years on unrest in China, primarily from Chinese social media.


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