Thirty years after student protests flooded Tiananmen Square in 1989, political contestation ramified into three interconnected threats identified by the country’s political leadership as “three evils” – that is, terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Despite assuming different forms, the three evils are eradicated in the common element of defiance of the Communist ruling over the country.
The legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to govern the country is rooted in the concept of stability (维稳weiwen). As China is a one-party system, the state and the ruling élite are closely connected, strikingly more so than in the case of multiparty political systems. It is this connection that draws a parallel between the stability of the party and the stability of the state: a special feature that has been jeopardizing the extent of the personal freedoms of the citizens in a country that nowadays is the second world economy.
The first mention of weiwen was developed as early as under Mao’s leadership (1949-1963). China’s 1949 Constitution indeed identifies in “the disruption of the socialist system” (破坏社会主义制度pohuai shehuizhuyi zhidu) the key challenge to the survival and thriving of Communist China.
Weiwen is a pillar in the modern conceptualization of security in China, along with the term guojia anquan (国家安全) which roughly translates as national security. According to article 2 of China’s 2015 National Security Law (中华人民共和国国家安全法Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo Guojia Anquan Fa):
“National security refers to the relative absence of international or domestic threats to the state’s power to govern, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, the welfare of the people, sustainable economic and social development, and other major national interests, and the ability to ensure a continued state of security.”
China’s conceptualization of state security places under the spotlight the ability of the CPC to govern the country, whilst the goal of “ensuring a continued state of security” occupies an inferior position.
When this legitimacy-security nexus is compared with the framework of security adopted by the United Nations (UN), it transpires a striking dissimilarity. As the UN sets the standards of security worldwide, it represents a firm basis of comparison to apply to the country. Within the UN framework, state security is “the ability of a state to cater for the protection and defence of its citizenry”. The UN conceptualization connects state security to the protection of individual rights, downscaling the extent of state security from that of the state to the protection of individuals and failing to include the legitimacy of political institutions as part of the equation.
After the protests in Tiananmen Square, the weiwen system (as well as other forms of stabilization as planned economic growth and regional and provincial development) assigned a new meaning to guojia anquan. The international dimension that had characterized guojia anquan throughout the first generations of Communism in China lost its primacy as the Communist leadership assumed that, after two world wars, challenges to state security coming from the international system were unlikely to arise in the short term. Conversely, at the domestic level, state security challenges heightened.
While under former communist leader Jiang Zemin guojia anquan was an inward-looking strategy which laid the ground for the development of an institutional framework of economic and security cooperation, under his successor Hu Jintao, the concept changed. At the international level, China rediscovered traditional forms of security challenges (sea and land security), while it was forced to address long-standing territorial disputes with neighboring states, such as the Russia-China border, the India-China border and the Malacca Straits. At the domestic level, it was in this period that China had to engage with non-traditional forms of threats, the handling of which the country had no prior experience.
According to data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), political claims substantiated by means of violent attacks on civilians hit China from different fronts between 1996 onwards. They were mainly tied to three regions hosting a high density of minority populations (少数民族shaoshu minzu), the separatist claims of which destabilized the country – i.e., Tibet, Xinjiang and, to a lesser extent, Inner Mongolia.
President Xi Jinping re-conceptualized state security in line with the non-traditional security threats that are currently acting as the main domestic challenges to the country’s security and stability. Xi comprehensively standardized the concept by proposing a revision of laws and regulations, establishing ad hoc political and bureaucratic agencies (such as the 2013 National Security Commission of the PRC) and appointing military and paramilitary armed forces as responsible for handling these types of challenges.
Modern security challenges to Communist leadership in China are unpredictable and multi-faceted and comprise of a hybrid conceptualization of stability and security. Starting from Tiananmen in 1989 and the terrorist attacks that shook the country during Deng Xiaoping’s memorial service in 1997, non-traditional security threats in China have called for a new party line. The legitimacy of the CPC have blended in a new chapter for Mao’s own conceptualization of security, one that solves the “contradictions among the people” by means of a “People’s War under contemporary conditions”.
New concepts and new technologies in the country fuse with old traditions, thus developing a modern form of national security for China that is branded with the distinctive expression of the country’s political élite – that is, a national security strategy with socialist characteristics.
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