Commentary: Maintaining the Harmony between the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security in an Apparent Totalitarian China

People’s Republic of China President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Xi Jinping (center right) in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. On August 26, 2020, Xi presented Minister of Public Security (MPS) Zhao Kezhi and Minister of State Security (MSS) Chen Wenqing with the “Police Flag” at a ceremony in which over 300 police officers were present. Xi ordered the security forces to be loyal to the Party, serve the people, be impartial in law enforcement, and maintain strict in discipline. Xi also called on the security forces to uphold the Party’s absolute leadership. Historical evidence shows maintaining two main intelligence and security services with overlapping responsibilities is an odd choice as it usually creates difficulties for senior executives and managers of the respective organizations in sorting out issues over cases, turf, and budgets. At least publicly, MPS and MSS have managed to coexist peaceably.

Among some Western intelligence and counterintelligence services, distracting bureaucratic and operational rivalries have been observed.  However, the two main civilian intelligence and counterintelligence services in China, Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Gōng’ānbù (Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China) or MPS and Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security of the People’s Republic of China) or the MSS, have publicly avoided such problems despite inherent parallels in their domestic responsibilities. Except for experienced hands on China policy and the Chinese intelligence services and national security via diplomatic, intelligence, defense, military, or law enforcement work, most in the West have likely never heard of either organization. MPS is an intelligence service under the State Council in charge of the country’s internal and political security and domestic intelligence. MSS, also under the State Council, is an intelligence service responsible for foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security as well. Their impact stems mainly from providing consumers in Beijing to include the Communist Party of China leadership, the Party’s key organs responsible for foreign and national security policy, and ministers and senior executives of appropriate ministries and organizations of the State Council, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with data that may shape their decisions. This commentary briefly focuses on the apparent management of a smooth working relationship between MPS and MSS as they share overlapping intelligence responsibilities in the service of Communist Party of China, all powerful in the People’s Republic of China. Concordia res parvae crescent. (Work together to accomplish more.)

These two national intelligence organs are the embodiment of the logic that created the Chinese system’s intimidating, authoritarian–perhaps it could even be called totalitarian–order and for years has choreographed events to accomplish the Communist Party of China’s purposes. To that extent, the Communist Party of China has entrusted the defense of the modern Communist Chinese state to these two complex government organizations. On August 26, 2020, at the ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping conferred the “Police Flag” to Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi and Minister of State Security Chen Wenqing. Xi ordered China’s security forces to be be loyal to the Party, serve the people and be impartial in law enforcement. Xi also demanded the police force forge iron-like discipline and conduct. In his address at the ceremony, Xi lauded the major contributions made by the Chinese police to safeguarding national security, social stability and people’s interests, He called them a mighty force that can be fully trusted by the Party and the people, and spoke highly of the major contributions made by the Chinese security forces to safeguarding national security, social stability and people’s interests. Xi also called upon the security forces to uphold the Party’s absolute leadership.

Xi has placed considerable focus on police, judges, prosecutors, public security,, and state security officers as part of a new Communist Party of China drive against graft, abuses and disloyalty in their ranks. The campaign is also said to be part of an effort by Xi to bolster domestic discipline as he prepares for a leadership shake-up at the Communist Party Congress in 2022. Reportedly, Xi has been spurred on to push for iron authority down to local police stations as a result of the reaction among Communist Party of China leaders toward near-endless protests in Hong Kong, and their need to be assured of the Party’s total control of the population after that became an issue during China’s coronavirus outbreak. The ministers of the MPS and MSS understand their marching orders. Zhao, the Minister of MPS, was quoted as saying, “Resolutely put absolute loyalty, absolute purity and absolute dependability into action.”

Ubi concordia ibi victoria. (Where there is unity, there is victory.) As already alluded to briefly, historical evidence shows that maintaining two main intelligence and security services with many overlapping responsibilities is an odd choice gor it normally creates difficulties for senior executives and managers of the respective organizations in sorting out issues over over cases, turf, and budgets. However, MPS and MSS have managed to coexist peaceably, at least publicly. The most apparent reason that such high profile parochial struggles over turf and budgets do not exist at least publicly between MPS and MSS, interestingly enough is that they are actually prohibited under the People’s Republic of China National Security Law. Hypothesizing on the matter, purely out of academic interest, if a competitive relationship between MPS and MSS had ever taken flight, it very likely would have been the result of happenstance in the 1980s. During the after its inception in 1983 and the larger part of the 1990s, MSS took on an assignment from the Communist Party of China concerning a burgeoning student movement that was redundant given the matter was covered by MPS.

As that situation stood, the Communist Party of China’s leadership became concerned about the student movement as a threat to social order and its power. In response, there was a call for all hands to mitigate those fears. MSS, newly minted, had the officers and was available. The Communist Party of China insisted that it place its focus on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests. Tiananmen Square, in addition to being embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them to remain greatly concerned over a possible follow-on move by students. That concern was somewhat supported when Chinese authorities announced that some 200 Chinese had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union. One might conclude that due to the counterintelligence aspect of the assignment, it made some sense to pass it the MSS. The MSS as an organization, threw itself into the immediate domestic task set for it by the Communist Party of China.

Inter cetera mala, hoc quoque habet stultitia proprium, semper incipit vivere. (Among other evils, folly has also this special characteristic, it is always beginning to live.) Perchance to further satisfy and impress the Communist Party of China or perhaps in an attempt to redesignate the intelligence service’s purpose wholly, MSS leaders at the time, arguably taking a turn down the wrong path, exploited the situation by deciding to expand and invigorate their organization’s presence in the provinces and municipalities. That expansion occurred in four waves. In the first wave during MSS’ inaugural year, the municipal bureaus or provincial departments of state security for Beijing, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Shanghai were created. A second wave appeared shortly thereafter between 1985 and 1988, including Chongqing, Gansu, Hainan, Henan, Shaanxi, Tianjin, and Zhejiang. The third wave from 1990 to 1995 completed the expansion of the Ministry across at the provincial levels, bringing in Anguilla, Hunan, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces. The fourth wave the provincial-level departments expanded vertically, taking over local public security bureaus or established subordinate municipal or County bureaus. The MSS policy of expanding representative offices in most major towns and cities was reversed in 1997. Nevertheless, by then, the MSS was a nationwide security organization at every level. Presumably, having reached that status, it may have been called upon to perform some special tasks for the Communist Party of China’s leadership on occasion.

To add to that situation, in its first two decades, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed with PLA and government retirees. The new MSS was funded in part by the MPS.To help MSS take on its mission, MPS also passed some networks to the new organization. With some uncertainty that existed as to the political nature of MSS, MPS was reportedly reluctant to make such transfers. MSS was declared to be a foreign intelligence organization, but as things stood then, it was doing more of what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was to perform as police.

In the end, though, MPS has remained the dominant service concerning the domestic counterintelligence mission. Moreover, with regard to MPS’s organizational identity, as aforementioned, from its beginnings, has embodied the will of the Communist Party of China, and its leaders insisted upon retaining that grand status. Even today,, MPS leaders are regularly striving to garner praise and the further favor of the Communist Party of China from the flash and bang, bells and whistles, of high profile cases. MSS leaders returned to shaping their organization into a truly effective foreign intelligence organization. The MSS foreign intelligence capability was built up most effectively when intelligence cadres from the Communist Party of China were brought into its ranks. An uptick in both competency and necessity favored a rise MSS influence in foreign policymaking. When direct political power is absent, influence usually relates to merit and necessity. Senior leaders of the Communist Party of China involved in foreign policymaking  would eventually want the MSS in the room, contributing to deliberations. Yet, MSS still maintains a very significant domestic operation via provincial and municipal offices throughout China. Presently, the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. (Use what is yours without harming others.)

Placing MPS and MSS alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a search for parallels, the record indicates their situation was the contrary as considerable conflicts over cases, turf, and budgets once existed between the two US organizations. A growing schism resulted in cooperation between them on intelligence and counterintelligence being mandated by authorities to the chagrin even to date of some case officers and special agents. Notably, the CIA does not independently determine its intelligence collection priorities. The CIA’s intelligence activities are instead conducted in response to intelligence requirements established by the President and the CIA’s other intelligence consumers. Specifically, the Director of National Intelligence approves the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which establishes national intelligence priorities that reflect the guidance of the President and the National Security Advisor with input from Cabinet-level and other senior government officials. The CIA’s duly authorized intelligence activities are conducted in response to the NIPF priorities or other intelligence requirements imposed by the President and other intelligence consumers. Under the framework established by Executive Order 12333, the CIA’s intelligence activities are primarily focused outside the US. The FBI is responsible for coordination of clandestine collection of foreign intelligence through human sources or human-enabled means and counterintelligence activities inside the US. Generally though, the CIA can cooperate with the FBI to collect foreign intelligence within the US, subject to the restrictions imposed by statute, Executive Order 12333, the Attorney General Guidelines, and other legal and policy requirements. Specifically, the National Security Act prohibits the CIA from exercising police or subpoena powers or otherwise engaging in law enforcement or internal security functions, with the exception of the security protective officers who protect CIA facilities within a limited jurisdiction pursuant to the CIA Act. If, for example, the FBI has a cooperative relationship with an individual inside the US who provides foreign intelligence information, the FBI may appropriately consult with the CIA regarding the relationship, and the CIA may continue the relationship for intelligence purposes should the individual travel overseas.

Of course, the situation between the MPS and MSS is also made quite different from that of FBI and CIA particularly due to the nature of the government in which the two intelligence services respectively function. In a country such as China, there is a need among leaders to create some acceptable degree of certainty about their world that is existential. As an expression of need, they tend to find it preferable to have as many ears to the ground as possible, know what comes next, be sure of who can be trusted, understand how to protect their personal interests, be made aware of where the next likely challenge from the inside, and be forewarned of the next threat to the country from the outside, will come from. The role of the security services in satisfying that need is not an ancillary role. Thereby, protecting the interests of the political leadership is really their raison d’être.

The 20th century US philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt, in her seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism (Schocken, 1951) provides an excellent discussion of why multiple security services exist in totalitarian countries. The history of Chinese intelligence validates what she presents. The most relevant passage, too precious to condense, is presented here in its entirety. Using the situation in the Soviet Union as a yardstick, Arendt explains: 

In Russia, the ostensible power of the party bureaucracy as against the real power of the secret police corresponds to the original duplication of the party and State known as Nazi Germany, and the multiplication becomes evident only in the secret police itself, with its extremelycomolicate, widely ramified network of agent, in which one Department is always assigned in the supervising and spying on another. Every enterprise in the Soviet Union has its special Department of the secret police, which spies on party members and ordinary personnel alike. Coexistence with this department is another police division of the party itself, which again watches everybody, including the agents of the NKVD [Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs)], and whose members are not known to the rival body. Added to these two espionage organizations must be the unions in the factories, which must see to it that the workers fulfill their prescribed quotas. Far more important than these apparatuses, however, is “the special department” of the NKVD which represents “an NKVD within the NKVD,” i.e., a secret police within a secret police. All reports of these competing police agencies ultimately end up in the Moscow Central Committee and the Politburo. Here it is decided which of the reports is decisive and which of the police divisions shall be entitled to carry out the respective police measures. Neither the average inhabitant of the country nor any one of the police departments knows, of course, what decision will be made; today it may be the special division of the NKVD, tomorrow the Party’s network of agents; the day after, it may be the local committees or one of the regional bodies. Among all of the departments there exists no legally rooted hierarchy of power or authority; the only certainty is that eventually one of them will be chosen to embody “the will of the leadership.”

The only rule of which everybody in a totalitarian state may be sure of is that the more visible the government agencies are, the less power they carry, and the less is known of the existence of an institution, the more powerful it will ultimately turn out to be. According to this rule, the Soviets, recognized by a written constitution as the highest authority in the state, have less power than the Bolshevik party; the Bolshevik party, which recruits it members openly and is recognized as the ruling class, has less power than the secret police. Real power begins where secrecy begins. In this respect, the Nazi and Bolshevik states were very much alike; their diffetence lay chiefly in the monopolization and centralization of secret police services in [SS-Reichsführer Heinrich] Himmler on the one hand, and the maze of apparently unrelated and unconnected police activities in Russia on the other.

It must be noted that there remains some debate in a few scholarly circles as to whether China would qualify as a totalitarian state, such as that deliberated on by Arendt. China certainly ticks off most of the boxes that would qualify it as such. Totalitarian countries are those in which the government does not permit its people to partake in political decision making. Instead of giving the people a voice, a totalitarian country is typically ruled either by a single dictator or a group that has not been collectively elected by the people. The ruling leaders, in China’s case, a ruling party, of totalitarian countries do not merely enact laws. Rather, the people or person in charge controls all aspects of both public and private life. There is no limit to what a totalitarian government can control because there are not any checks or balances placed on the leaders of the country. Essentially, totalitarian leaders can do whatever suits their agenda and say anything that comes to mind.

Citizens are stripped of all freedoms in totalitarian countries. Denial of the right of free speech will usually include a ban on freedom of the press. Ideologies, beliefs, and religions may even be highly curtailed or absolutely forbidden in a totalitarian country. The national government has full and total control. Totalitarian leaders often rule through fear because they take advantage of citizens’ emotions in order to keep them from revolting and protesting. When you live in fear, you do not know how to speak out against injustices because you are scared. It becomes a matter of staying silent in order to stay alive, and totalitarian rulers know this. In fact, they thrive off of this natural human instinct. To reinforce the idea that citizens must show complete alliegance and compliance with the government, totalitarian leaders typically have security forces, some secret, that ensure citizens do not fall out of step. In some totalitariam countries, certain religious minorities and political groups by the security forces. Expressing dissent toward government decisions and actions is strictly prohibited in these countries. Although liberal democracies pride themselves with regard to the way people can form and express their own reactions to the government, people who live in totalitarian regimes must agree with everything the government does, says, and enforces. Outward expressions of disagreement are forbidden. By these qualifications, China certainly could be viewed as a totalitarian state. Audi vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace. (Use your ears and eyes, but hold your tongue, if you would live in peace.)

Senior executives and managers of the MPS and MSS are mutually responsible for creating tranquillitas ordinis—the tranquility of order. That is indeed a charitable perception of their work, especially MPS, which has a history using brutal methods in the name of establishing law and order. It would seem that between the two intelligence services, there has been the some successful creation of a figurative cross organizational masonry through which fruitful communication, agreements, and interoperability can be shaped and facilitated. One might imagine establishing that order has rested in efforts such as obliging both MPS and MSS to mutually keep each other informed of developments. One could hardly imagine that one organization steps on the figurative toes of the other by suggesting anything as grand as using an alternative strategy in an ongoing investigation of an individual or group of individuals would occur. At this stage, MPS does not desire to share the anxieties of MSS, and visa-versa. There would appear to be enough for both organizations to do. Further, sources of funding and support for both derive from specified sources, leaving little need to struggle for means. Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.)

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