How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In April 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech on foreign policy at the Boao Forum for Asia, an annual conference of business executives and world leaders in Hainan Province. In it, he proposed what he called Quanqiu Anquan Changyi, or the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which he framed as “promoting the common security of the world.” Xi offered few details of how the initiative might be put into practice, however, and with Western governments intensely focused on Russia’s unfolding war in Ukraine, the speech did not receive much attention.
But the speech was hardly insignificant. As Chinese diplomats and analysts close to the government have made clear in the months since, the GSI marks a significant shift in Chinese foreign policy. It directly challenges the role of U.S. alliances and partnerships in global security and seeks to revise global security governance to make it more compatible with the regime security interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
During his first two terms, Xi transformed China’s approach to internal security in ways that caught the world off-guard—writing China’s first-ever national security strategy and a host of new security laws, restructuring the country’s domestic security apparatus, purging and jailing many of the security forces’ top leaders, building a massive surveillance state, and intensifying repression at a speed that few outside observers predicted. The guiding framework for those efforts was something that Xi called the “comprehensive national security concept,” which was really a regime security concept codified as grand strategy. Now, Xi is applying that framework to foreign policy, attempting to remake regional and global security order to guard against threats to China’s domestic stability and further consolidate the party’s grip on power.
Xi’s new approach to security began to take shape in 2014, when he rolled out what he called the zongti guojia anquanguan, or comprehensive national security concept, often also referred to as the “overall” or “holistic” state security concept. At the same time, he unveiled a new party body, the Central National Security Commission, tasked with putting the concept into practice. At the time, many U.S. analysts thought the CNSC would resemble the U.S. National Security Council, but the linguistic parallel turned out to be misleading. The Chinese conception of national security places a much greater emphasis on internal security than the American one (a better translation might be “state security”). Much of the CNSC’s work is conducted in secret, but most of its known meetings have focused on domestic matters, such as the potential for COVID-19 to fuel instability in China or the party-state’s counterterrorism policy in Xinjiang.
As its name suggests, the comprehensive national security concept is comprehensive. According to the CCP Central Committee, it covers “political, military, homeland security, economic, cultural, social, technological, cyberspace, ecological, resource, nuclear, overseas interests, outer space, deep sea, polar, and biological security issues, among others.” Defined this widely, the concept can frame almost any topic or area of life as a security threat and empower Chinese officials to respond accordingly.
In an increasingly dangerous world, the party’s chief aim is political security.
The concept also reveals the CCP’s underlying sense of insecurity: it portrays threats to China as growing and the country’s capabilities as inadequate. Even the phrase “major changes in the world unseen in a century,” used often by Chinese officials and commonly portrayed by Western analysts and officials as a triumphal assessment of China’s rise, has a darker side. In the context of official discourse, it often implies that rising opportunity is accompanied by rising peril. In November 2021, the CCP Central Committee argued that China was faced with “unprecedented external risks and challenges” and that “China’s ability to safeguard national security falls short of what is required of us by the current circumstances.”
In an increasingly dangerous world, the party’s chief aim is political security, which Chinese officials and state media have defined as “safeguarding party leadership, China’s socialist system, and the authority of the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core.” Xi and other CCP leaders believe that both political unrest and ideological contamination could threaten this order. In their view, communism in the Soviet Union was doomed by corruption from within, lack of ideological commitment, and insufficient party control over the organs of coercion. One can draw a direct line from these threats to each of Xi’s signature initiatives: his anticorruption campaign; his efforts to strengthen patriotic education, ideological indoctrination, and the party’s penetration of society; and his push to assert party control over the military and domestic security apparatus. Comprehensive national security is the strategic concept that ties these seemingly disparate efforts together.
Not all the ideas in Xi’s comprehensive national security concept were new. Aspects of the concept drew on long-standing themes in Chinese history and party discourse—for example, the tendency to see internal and external threats as interconnected. But the comprehensive national security concept made clear that the Chinese political system needed to take internal, nontraditional security threats such as terrorism and unrest much more seriously. The concept’s function was also novel: it served as a systematic framework for officials to assess and address threats and gave them new tools with which to do so. Moreover, the concept called on officials to become more proactive about heading off such threats, replacing the language of “stability maintenance” that characterized previous eras of Chinese leadership with a discourse centered on fangkong, or “prevention and control.”
The concept transformed how China handled internal security. In January 2015, eight months after Xi announced the concept, the Politburo approved China’s first-ever national security strategy; the Politburo approved a second five-year strategy in 2021. Unlike the U.S. National Security Strategy, China’s strategy is not publicly available, but based on official media coverage, it appears to closely parallel the content in Xi’s speeches and other official commentaries. The inauguration of a formal national security strategy was significant not just because of its content but also because it indicated a significant change in China’s national security policymaking process.
Other reforms followed. Since the comprehensive national security concept was announced, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, has passed a raft of national security legislation on topics ranging from criminal procedure to border security, regulation of nongovernmental organizations, data security, counterterrorism, intelligence, cybersecurity, and other threats. Xi has also reorganized the military and domestic security forces, including the command structure of the People’s Armed Police, to strengthen party control over these organs. Meanwhile, his anticorruption campaign—which has targeted officials in the military, police, state security, and judicial system, in particular—aims to ensure that corruption does not erode the CCP’s control over coercive agents from below or make them susceptible to bribery or other forms of compromise by foreign intelligence agencies. The CCP has even replicated the CNSC subnationally, embedding subordinate national security commissions in the party structure down to the county level to ensure that national security concerns inform local decision-making.
China has ramped up spending on its surveillance state.
China has also ramped up spending on its surveillance state. Under an official 2015 directive to construct what the party-state calls a “multi-dimensional information-based prevention and control system for public and social security,” local and provincial governments have substantially increased spending on domestic security, collectively exceeding what China spends on national defense. Much of the investment has been in technology for surveilling the public and in back-end analytical platforms that use the resulting data to improve governance and maintain social order.
Application of the comprehensive national security concept has yielded the harshest repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, two places where Beijing is especially fearful that foreign powers could foment internal instability. In Hong Kong, a new national security law has steadily eroded civil liberties and civil society, and many pro-democracy activists have been jailed or forced to flee into exile abroad. Repression has been even more severe in Xinjiang, which the CCP identified in 2014 as a test case for applying the comprehensive national security concept. (The region presents precisely the combination of internal and external security concerns that the party-state is worried about.) A visit by Xi to Xinjiang in April 2014, immediately after he launched the concept, only raised the bureaucratic stakes. The result has been a sharp escalation in collective repression of the region’s Uyghur Muslim population, not only through the rapid expansion of surveillance and police power but also by confining citizens in a network of internment and “re-education” camps that showcase the extremes to which China now goes to prevent the emergence of threats.
As Xi concludes his second term as party leader and approaches the start of a likely third, there are signs that the CCP is thinking seriously about how to project the comprehensive national security concept abroad. This effort appears to center on the Global Security Initiative that Xi announced in Hainan in April. Like the comprehensive national security concept (also announced in April, eight years earlier), the GSI includes a fair bit of rhetoric used previously by party leaders and Chinese diplomats—just repackaged in a more systematic and strategic fashion. And like the comprehensive national security concept when it was first proposed, the GSI is currently vague, more of a slogan than a well-developed policy. (Even the Chinese word for “initiative,” changyi, implies a proposal or suggestion more than a concrete action plan.) Given the GSI’s nebulous and somewhat repetitive framing, it is not surprising that the initiative received little attention when it was announced.
But observers should not assume that because the GSI is vague it will be insignificant. To the contrary, Chinese-language commentary suggests that the initiative will serve as a bridge between Beijing’s domestic security agenda and its foreign policy. Analysts at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank associated with China’s Ministry of State Security, describe the GSI as a “vivid practice for guiding China’s diplomatic work based on the comprehensive national security concept.” Other Chinese analysts refer to it as the “vertical continuation” of the comprehensive national security concept and a mechanism by which to “coordinate between China’s domestic security and the common security of the world.” That phrase also appears in an important resolution on party history adopted by the CCP Central Committee in November 2021, which describes the protection of national security as a “fundamental task” for the CCP and the party’s “top priority.” If these descriptions are accurate, then Chinese officials will be under substantial pressure to operationalize the GSI over the next five years. Their goal will be to revise the international system in ways that protect not just China’s national interests as they are traditionally understood but also the security of the regime and the CCP’s hold on power, as the comprehensive national security concept directs.
From the CCP’s point of view, externalizing the comprehensive national security concept through the GSI makes sense. Xi has always seen external security threats largely through the prism of how they could undermine party rule at home. For much of the past ten years, official statements have urged Chinese bureaucrats to address potential threats early and preventively, often using medical metaphors such as calls to “immunize” the Chinese body politic against foreign pathogens that could infect it. By the same preventive logic, ensuring the regime’s security at home requires a more proactive and interventionist approach abroad to defend against intruding threats of “encirclement, suppression, disruption, and subversion,” as the Central Committee phrased it last fall. Indeed, one of the most puzzling things about the comprehensive national security concept has always been that it lacked a robust foreign policy dimension, despite attributing many of China’s internal security issues to external meddling. In that sense, the GSI is actually overdue.
Xi sees external security threats largely through the prism of how they could undermine party rule at home.
What the GSI will look like in practice is still an open question. It took several years for the full import and impact of the comprehensive national security concept to become clear. The same will likely be true of the GSI. But China’s dissatisfaction with the current international security order is not a secret, and in its calls for reform are some clues about what themes the GSI may emphasize.
The first is the need to reform the global and regional security architecture. Chinese officials argue that the U.S. system of alliances and partnerships in particular is destabilizing because it pursues security for members of that network at the expense of those outside it. Ukraine is a key example used to bolster these arguments. Since the war began, Chinese officials have consistently assigned primary blame for the conflict to NATO and the United States rather than to Russia. (The joint Russian and Chinese statement issued on February 4, 2022, suggested that both powers share a fear that U.S. influence on their peripheries will destabilize their regimes at home, one of the core threats that the comprehensive national security concept seeks to guard against.) Chinese officials present the GSI’s emphasis on “indivisible security” as a superior alternative to the bloc system created by U.S. alliances and, under the initiative, have called directly for changes to Asia’s security architecture.
A second theme is that the world must consider new forms of security cooperation to address nontraditional security threats. In practice, this has meant an expansion of Chinese police activity worldwide and offers of police training and law enforcement assistance as a growing element of Chinese foreign policy. In a speech at the 2017 Interpol General Assembly in Beijing, Xi argued that the international security environment had changed: threats had diversified, traditional and nontraditional security threats were more entwined than before, and transnational threats were increasing. These “new problems,” all identified in the comprehensive national security concept, meant that “global security governance had many inadequacies” and therefore required reform—an assessment repeated in statements on the GSI by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this year. Similarly, at an internal work conference in 2019, China’s senior domestic security officials called on police and internal security personnel to strengthen and develop “a new system of international public security cooperation” and “promote the establishment of an international law enforcement cooperation and coordination system under the unified leadership of the Ministry of Public Security Party Committee.”
The GSI, therefore, is likely to amplify an already growing trend: international outreach by Chinese police and domestic security officials. China has already begun to expand the deployment of police liaison officers abroad and has held high-level discussions on “foreign police training with Chinese characteristics,” with the aim of “enhancing the international influence” of China’s police work and “telling the story of a ‘Safe China.’” This has meant not only active engagement with existing global agencies such as Interpol but also building new forums such as the Lianyungang Forum, where Chinese officials share best practices and Chinese surveillance and policing companies market their wares to foreign law enforcement agencies and officials. The GSI is also increasingly a feature of China’s regional diplomacy. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last month, Xi invited member states to participate in the initiative, offering to train thousands of their law enforcement officers and otherwise help them build security and counterterrorism capacity. A similar proposal to a group of ten nations in the Pacific Islands also included offers of substantial police and law enforcement assistance (although it was ultimately rejected), and police cooperation has been a notable feature of China’s growing relationship with the Solomon Islands.
U.S. officials are not always effective in pairing critiques of China’s behavior with constructive alternatives.
These offers of police and domestic security assistance seem designed to make China the security partner of choice for countries that might not want such assistance to come with the human rights conditions or democratic accountability mechanisms that Western nations often demand. And they follow on the heels of a global expansion in Chinese exports of surveillance technology, such as Huawei’s Safe City platforms, which appear in dozens of countries worldwide. Chinese companies market these products as tools for ensuring public safety and managing nontraditional security, in keeping with Xi’s focus on nontraditional and domestic threats to social stability. But given the primacy of political security in China’s own police and law enforcement system, the expansion of these activities abroad is likely to result in a marked increase in transnational repression—something that the United States is already monitoring closely.
Washington needs to tread carefully here. Countries often seek out Chinese technology or assistance in an effort to solve genuine governance challenges, and U.S. officials have not always been effective in pairing their critiques of China’s behavior with constructive alternatives. But Chinese exports and activities already pose serious threats for data security, citizen privacy, human rights, and liberal democracy, and under the GSI, these concerns are likely to grow. Thus far, Washington’s focus on military competition in the Indo-Pacific risks overlooking and missing the nonmilitary—but equally serious—challenges that the GSI poses to global and regional security order and to American interests.
Whether or not China resorts to military might to achieve these goals, the approach outlined under the GSI thus far should give the United States pause. The fact that the initiative is founded on the comprehensive national security concept and seeks to project that concept’s focus on regime security abroad should be a warning. The CCP aims to revise global and regional security governance to more closely align with its regime security interests and to use Chinese foreign policy as a tool to secure its hold on power at home. The United States should not underestimate the risks of this new Chinese approach to foreign policy.