Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.11.26

China's New NSC or KGB?

JBPress on November 22, 2013

Those who understand both the Chinese and English languages must be puzzled, when some Chinese scholars translate the name of China's newly established state safety committee "国家安全委员会" as the "National Security Council" of China, a counterpart of the NSC in the United States. All things considered, this is hardly the case.

The 3rd plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided last week to establish a committee for state safety, improving systems and strategies to ensure state safety "设立国家安全委员会,完善国家安全体制和国家安全战略,确保国家安全".

However, the concept of state safety "国家安全" in the Chinese language is not "national security" as commonly used in Japan, the United States or other western nations where the term "national security" usually refers to a nation's external security interests as well as threats to its security.

In contrast, state safety "国家安全" in Chinese literally means "safety of the state" which implies both domestic/internal safety and stability as well as foreign/external security and threats. Thus, "国家安全委员会", the new committee's name should be translated as a "Committee for State Safety (CSS)", rather than as an NSC.

The reason for this confusion is simple. The ruling political elites in China have been discussing this issue for decades without reaching consensus. Each ministry or agency has its own interpretation and understanding of the state safety "国家安全" concept.

For example, in the 1990s, some in the People's Liberation Army reportedly advocated a new state safety committee "国家安全委员会", while in the 2000s, foreign affairs experts quietly proposed the establishment of a "national security council". One might imagine that the recent CCP decision to set up a state safety committee "国家安全委员会" will put an end to this decades-long internal debate.

However, this time, the debate seems much more domestically driven rather than foreign and defense policy oriented. There is no reference to foreign policy or external security issues even in the full text of the decisions made by the 3rd plenum of the CCP Central Committee.

In that text, the paragraphs preceding the decision to establish the State Safety Committee "国家安全委员会" describe only improvements and safeguards for China's social governance, the nation's safety, and people's livelihoods and social stability, as well as organizational changes to effectively prevent social disputes.

Currently, China has two entities for policy-coordination on state safety. They are the National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG) and the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG, reportedly the same organization as the NSLSG) both of which are ad-hoc and reactive in nature.

Both Western and Chinese scholars point out that China's national security decision-making process has not been functioning well. This is because the process requires centralization of power to make quick decisions, while it needs diffusion of power as part of the collective CCP leadership.

Reaching consensus on important political issues in China is extremely time-consuming so decision making tends to be slow and sometimes too little and too late. This is particularly troublesome in the age of the global internet where timely information sharing and quick response are absolute prerequisites.

In a nutshell, the current Chinese system is not appropriate, to say the least. Inside the State Council alone, the Ministries of State Security, Public Security, Foreign Affairs and National Defense are supposed to be involved but they only compete with each other before making decisions.

The NSLSG and FALSG are too small and ad hoc so that they can't function as a permanent headquarters for handling day-to-day national security affairs. However, these problems are nothing new in Japan, either. Japan as a state can be as bureaucratic as China is.

Tokyo does not have an appropriate coordination mechanism among the relevant ministries and agencies for the making and implementation of national security policies. That is why Japan is now enacting a law to establish a National Security Council in the Prime Minister's Office.

However, unlike China's "Committee for State Safety" which is more focused on domestic/internal safety, Japan's NSC is designed to coordinate and implement important foreign and defense policies in a timely manner. Japan is getting an NSC, while China seems to be creating another KGB.