China’s Adaptive Approach to the Information Counter-Revolution

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 10

PBSC member Zhou Yongkang

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS) on May 12th announced a series of new measures that would enable the government to better track the migrant population, including stepping up efforts to collect personal information, synthesize, and share information across the ministry and its provincial units (Ministry of Public Security, May 13). These efforts closely follow the central government’s draconian response to stamp out jasmine-related events in 13 different cities after the Arab spring. Writing in Qiu Shi Journal, which is the magazine of the party’s Central Committee, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang also called for the establishment of a “social management system” to monitor the level of happiness, encourage cooperation with authorities, and shape the citizenry’s decisions relating to stability (Qiushi, May 1). Zhou’s article elaborated that police efforts to control large-scale incidents in recent years demonstrated the utility of a nation-wide prevention and control system. These euphemisms hide Beijing’s thinly-veiled effort to extend surveillance across Chinese society as the MPS moves toward intelligence-led policing. Indeed, Chinese retrenchment since the Tibetan riots and Beijing Olympics in 2008 has surprised observers, yet the systemic crackdown may have its roots in the application of steadily developing police capabilities rather than a direct political decision to suppress growing dissent among the ethnic Chinese citizenry. This trend suggests a more permanent phenomenon in Chinese control tactics than a reactionary and more reversible policy shift.

Since the early 2000s, the MPS has made continuous efforts to harness the advances of the Information Age for security operations—a process called “public security informatization” (gong’an xinxihua). Mirroring the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization in war fighting beginning in the 1990s, the MPS invested in information management and strengthening the domestic intelligence apparatus. With incidents of unrest rising steadily, the leadership provided the MPS with more resources to make informatization possible. According to official sources, the internal security budget—roughly 625 billion renminbi ($96 billion)—this year once again outstripped the official military budget (Financial Times, May 10). Reportedly, this investment and the use of informatized investigation have improved law enforcement’s successful investigation and prosecution of crimes—whether criminal or political (Renmin Gong’an Bao, May 9; February 10; November 18, 2009). The aim of this article to examine what the MPS has accomplished in its informatization process and the internal security challenge it is designed to confront.

Creating the Information Counter-Revolution

China’s adaptive approach to the challenges and opportunities of the Information Revolution has started to change minds about the state’s ability to maintain censorship, set propaganda lines and keep up with technologically-savvy political activists. The conventional view holds that the Chinese citizenry’s increasing access to information and information technology will challenge the state’s ability to maintain control, ultimately leading to systemic and possibly democratic reforms. If email, smart phones, Twitter-like microblogging and social media are the means of revolutionary change, MPS informatization may be seen as part of the counter-revolution outlined more fully in the 12th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development (See “Beijing’s Blueprint for Tackling Mass Incidents and Social Management,” China Brief, March 25).

The informatization of public security broadly covers the modernization of Chinese law enforcement, not just for suppressing dissent (and stamping out “separatist” activties) but also countering increasingly sophisticated organized criminal activity such as narcotics trafficking. At its core, public security informatization relates to shifting the police posture from reactive to preemptive through the use of intelligence collection and synthesis. MPS leaders firmly established the primary importance of public security informatization at the Nanjing Conference in 2008, naming it one of three main objectives in developing public security and calling it “revolutionary” for police work (MPS, September 25, 2008; Dongtai Gong’an Xinxi Wang, September 28, 2008) [1].

A core part of MPS informatization is the reinstatement of the ministry’s intelligence capabilities, which Beijing transferred to the Ministry of State Security in 1983 (Central News Agency [Taiwan], June 10, 1983).  Roughly a decade ago, the MPS created a new department focusing on domestic intelligence to identify and neutralize threats to stability. Ostensibly leaked documents from local MPS units outline the parameters of the intelligence collection in terms strikingly similar to Chinese (and Western) writings on national-level intelligence [2]. The domestic intelligence department (guonei anquan baohu zhidui) directs its officers to collect “early warning, insider, and actionable” information. Other directives contain references to “early subduing” (yufu), “manage by striking early” (zao daji chuli), and “persist in putting detection and warning first; defend and control early” (China Digital Times, April 11, 2010; April 20–21, 2010).

The nascent “Great Intelligence System” (da qingbao xitong), as it is called by MPS Vice Minister Zhang Xinfeng, focuses on two elements: building a domestic informant network and creating a comprehensive information-sharing network for MPS units to tap during investigations. On the former, the few windows available into the informant network suggests it is widespread, but its quality may be suspect. According to a now-unavailable interview with a county-level MPS chief, his bureau maintained a 12,000 person informant network out of a total local population of 400,000. These informants received small stipends depending on their role within the informant network, varying from general informants, to “eyes and ears,” to special intelligence collectors. The general informant level can even include pensioners assigned to watch for “unstable elements” (Xinhua News Agency, August 28, 2009; Financial Times, May 10). Other reports suggest domestic intelligence units also operate within universities, promising assistance in finding work after graduation, joining the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and other such low-cost perquisites (at least for the MPS) to induce the cooperation of informants (China Digital Times, April 11, 2010).

The informant networks supplement the wider integration of MPS databases on individuals’ movement and personal history, including entry and exit information, bank records, cell phone activity, and more. Zhou’s recently announced goals of unifying many forms of identification and registration into a single national card is just one such initiative (Qiushi, May 1).

The most well-known example of public security informatization is the Golden Shield project, now going into its third phase. The Golden Shield network is often confused with internet monitoring and other aspects of the Great Firewall, but instead relates to MPS management. Beginning in August 2003 as one of the national e-government projects, the Golden Shield network serves as the connective tissue between the MPS and sub-national elements, which allows those units to tap into the MPS Information Center (Renmin Gong’an Bao, July 19, 2007). Although the implementation of Golden Shield has been uneven, the MPS has made substantial progress in the last four years, reportedly raising the network coverage from roughly 40 to 90 percent of local public security units (Renmin Gong’an Bao, February 17).

The Challenge for Preserving Stability

Much of the MPS’s informatization process relates to the acquisition and use of intelligence for preserving stability, even if not always called “intelligence.” Intelligence, according to Chinese writers, arises out of competition and the corresponding need for information to provide a decision-making advantage over an adversary [3]. In this case, MPS intelligence reflects a competition over information and the capability to organize beyond the government’s control or observation. Viewing the political aspects (rather than the criminal aspects) of preserving stability as a competition suggests a shift in how analysts should evaluate the prospects for instability in China.

The question is not the number of mass incidents each year, but rather the density of linkages between demonstrations across China. According to official statistics, the number of public order disturbances has steadily grown over the last ten years from 58,000 in 2003 to an estimated 90–100,000 incidents in recent years (Nanfang Zhoumo, February 3, 2010). The vagueness surrounding what constitutes a “mass incident” (quntixing shijian) or “public disturbance” (saoluan) makes these statistics misleading as a sign for anything other than the existence of unrest. The increasing number of reported incidents could also signify more effective public security coverage that prevented other outlets for dissent from being used, such as the official channel for citizens’ complaints that police sometimes try to intercept. Preventing the other outlets from being used may be pushing the aggrieved to more drastic actions. So long as these incidents remain local and confined to local grievances, local security, as the numbers suggest, can handle them.

The danger of Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, and the other lawyers and activists now confined is their ability to draw attention to the universal character of citizens’ problems relating to the government across China. Ai Weiwei was not so much of a danger when he simply blogged or tweeted his opinions, but once he started pulling people together to draw attention to the victims of the Sichuan Earthquake and the corrupt practices that led to so many dead, Ai became a real danger to the Chinese government. The danger of Liu has the same character. The famed Charter ’08 involved signatories from every province of China and from all walks of life. Both challenged the central government’s effort to keep dissent and disgruntlement localized (“Thinking National, Blame Local,” China Leadership Monitor, January 30, 2006). Despite the rising unrest, it is striking that the biggest nation-wide demonstrations involved Japan rather than the government.

Communications technology aids both sides of the competition. For activists, technology lowers the cost of linking people together and facilitates organization building across longer distances. For the security services, the increasing use of the Internet for all sorts of communication—especially phones and letters—makes monitoring a large population easier than having to physically tap phones or read correspondence. Newer social media is the perfect example of technology’s double-edged sword. While social networks make it easier for users to identify important targets to follow, security services also find it easier to identify the key nodes of transmission for undesirable ideas and exhortations. This was something Iranian demonstrators discovered after the election protests in 2009 and Chinese observers saw in the police crackdown amid overseas calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China (Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2009; Apple Daily [Hong Kong] February 21).


The MPS discussion and newspaper coverage of public security informatization suggest increasing proficiency using information technologies to collect, communicate and use information across its police and domestic intelligence elements. Speaking to local-level officials, MPS Vice-Minister Zhang Xinfeng stated that public security informatization has reached a critical time and that the next steps are to create a cadre of intelligence specialists and enhance the informatization performance across the ministry (Shangrao Xinwen, April 29).

The public security informatization process is far from complete and, as the articles cited above show, the process includes at least some of the national-local bargaining that has long bedeviled Chinese politics and implementation of central directives. The vertical-horizontal relationships problem (tiao-kuai guanxi) raises many issues, but one of the most important questions to consider relates to the compatibility of information technology across jurisdictional boundaries. Local control over at least some informatization spending suggests the MPS may have problems with software compatibility and vendor support across local elements. One potential solution to this problem hinted at in Chinese press coverage, and that the MPS could be using it to maintain the databases within the Ministry headquarters. Even if local MPS elements could not easily transmit data among each other, at the very least, they could relay information via the MPS at the national level. (For example, Renmin Gong’an Bao, November 18, 2009; Jilin Ribao, November 14, 2006)

While reaching a judgment about how effectively internal security officials can keep dissident activities isolated is premature, the MPS informatization efforts clearly indicate the competition between activists and security officials is not already over and the MPS may be capable of adapting to new challenges to state authority. At the Nanjing Conference in 2008, MPS chief Meng Jianzhu explicitly noted this competition, stating the rapid informatization of society requires the MPS to keep pace and “firmly establish intelligence [-led] and information-led policing” (Ministry of Public Security, December 20, 2008). Evaluating this competition probably will be one of the central questions for understanding the political future of China. The dynamism inherent in this competition—technological change and competing efforts to exploit those developments—challenge the static assumptions usually held about the capabilities of the Chinese security services. If political change driven from below comes to China, one of the important factors will be the success or failure of public security informatization to keep Beijing aware of the movements and communications of its citizenry.


1. The other two main objectives of MPS modernization are, first, standardization of law enforcement and, second, promotion of harmonious relations between the MPS and society.
2. For example, Li Naiguo, Junshi qingbao yanjiu [military intelligence research] (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 2001), esp 8–59.
3. For a typical Chinese example of the relationship between competition and intelligence, see Qingbao yu guojia anquan: jinru 21 shiji de geguo qingbao jigou (Beijing: shishi chubanshe, 2002), 6.