Ensuring Comprehensive State Security in the “Ideological Battleground” Online

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Chinese Cyberspace Administration head Lu Wei called for Chinese netizens to observe "Four Haves": strong security habits, a civilized online presence, observe the law, and be able to protect themselves.

Mao Zedong once warned: “Whenever you want to overthrow a regime, you must first create public opinion… If the military defense line is not stable, it will break down after one blow, if the ideological defense line is not stable, it will fall of its own accord, without a blow,” (PLA Daily, May 12). The warning remains central to the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) thinking, where the primary perceived security threats do not come from abroad, but from domestic sources of political instability.

A key battleground for the Party’s ideological war is in cyberspace, and so far under Xi Jinping there have been numerous legal and institutional developments that lay out a clearer picture of how the Party works to prevent a destructive loss of its stability and legitimacy in cyberspace. The Party is attempting to achieve this goal largely through the process of social management innovation, where (in part) the Party is constantly adapting its methods of not simply censoring thought but also its attempts to actively shape it.

Parsing the Rhetoric

Details of the CCP’s thirteenth five-year plan for economic and social development released at the end of the Fifth Plenary Session reiterated an objective, “to strengthen the online battleground for ideology and culture,” (Xinhua, November 3). The idea that the internet is an ideological battleground well pre-dates Xi Jinping, even though the description has been used to an even greater extent under Xi (For example, see: Chinese Cadres Tribune, November 17, 2008; China Digital Times, November 4, 2013). It might be easy to dismiss such statements as mere rhetoric, but in reality analysis of these texts over an extended period provides insight into the CCP’s cyber governance policy, which is an extension of a social governance process aimed at protecting the party-state’s security. [1]

The key to understanding this policy is China’s concept of guojia anquan (国家安全), which is often, and misleadingly, translated as “national security.” This translation connotes the western “national security” concept. In reality, the Chinese concept—while inclusive of traditional national security aims—heavily emphasizes a political stability dimension whereby the primary goal of the CCP is to protect itself as the head of the Chinese Communist Party-led political system. With this in mind, a more accurate translation is “state security.”

Since early 2014, the Communist Party has regularly emphasized that “without cyber security there is no state security” (Xinhua, February 27, 2014). [2] In fact, the Party has on numerous occasions said that its “comprehensive” state security concept is quite different than the western “national security” concept, which includes, among other things: political security, homeland security, military security, economic security, cultural security (implying CCP sanctioned “culture”), social security (implying state stability management) and information security (Xinhua, April 15).

The tactic for ensuring “comprehensive” state security includes effective implementation of the Party’s “social governance” (社会治理), which broadly defined is the process by which the government manages its relationship with society to ensure that it remains in power. The linkage between social management and state security has been increasingly prominent since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012. Notably, the plan to establish the new State Security Commission, which was announced in the Party’s communiqué from third plenum the 18th congress, was done in a paragraph on social governance. In a clarification issued shortly after the announcement, Xi Jinping said that state security and social stability were preconditions for China’s continued reform and development. [3]

Several state media editorials have expanded on this concept as it relates to network security, essentially arguing the internet/information age have greatly influenced the state’s ability to ensure state security and social stability, and therefore the state must actively implement public safety and social order strategies in cyberspace (Examples: Guangming Daily, October 14; China Youth Daily, April 30; Red Flag Manuscript, December 2013).

Furthermore, the state alone cannot only rely on policing—it requires the continued management of and participation by both the Party and non-Party masses. This explains why director of the Central Politics and Law Commission Meng Jianzhu emphasized in a September speech this year that the government must establish innovative public safety mechanisms. Meng included the warning that individuals (not only government) have a duty to participate in and uphold the social governance process, particularly in cyberspace (Seeking Truth, November 1). The implication is evident in the actions taken under Xi to ensure state security.

Legal Developments

Even though the membership and role of the aforementioned State Security Commission remains uncertain at time of writing, the state security law enacted in July 2015 is a clear indication of what ensuring China’s “comprehensive state security” entails. One element of the legislation, which has been broadly overlooked in western analysis, is the personal responsibility the legislation places on both Party and non-Party masses for ensuring state stability (Xinhua, July 1). This is particularly evident in articles 9, 11 and 23:

· Article 9: “Preservation of state security shall treat both symptoms and root causes, putting prevention first, combining special efforts and the mass line, fully bringing into play special organs’ and other relevant departments’ functions in maintaining state security, widely mobilizing citizens and organizations to guard against and punish conduct endangering state security.”

· Article 11: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, every state organ and the armed forces, each political party, the militia, enterprises, public institutions and social organizations, all have the responsibility and obligation to maintain state security.”

· Article 23: “The State perseveres in the orientation of the advanced socialist culture, carrying forward the excellent traditional culture of the Chinese people, cultivating and practicing the a core socialist values, defending and resisting against negative cultural influences, grasp leadership power in ideological work and reinforcing education and publicity on the core socialist values, and increasing the strength and competitiveness of the entire culture.”

Effectively, the law states that individuals are obliged to actively ensure state security, which includes the key component of protecting the Party and its values.

Another important piece of legislation is the draft cyber security law, which was also released in early July (NPC.gov, July 6). Similar to the language of the state security law, it contains passages on individual responsibility for maintaining social order in cyberspace:

· Article 9: “…Any person and organization shall, when using the network, abide by the constitution and laws, observe public order and respect social morality, they must not endanger network security, and must not use the network to engage in activities harming state security.”

· Article 10: “All individuals and organizations have the right to report conduct endangering network security to departments, such as for network information, industry and information technology and public security…”

More important than this legislation, the CCP under Xi Jinping’s leadership has consolidated network security governance. The Central Leading Group for Cyber Security and Informatization was formed in 2014. President Xi Jinping chairs the group, and the powerful head the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) Lu Wei serves as its director. The SIIO’s authority was vastly expanded in late August 2014 when it was given the authority to supervise and regulate all online content in China.

Beyond Censorship

If the Party’s strategy online is to implement the social governance process aimed at pre-empting social demands for political reform, then it must go beyond tight censorship of content to more actively shaping social demands. [4] Importantly, the CCP aims not only to implement an online code-of-conduct, but also to put systems into place that can effectively manage the many incidents of potentially destabilizing political and social conflict that emerge, or at least thrive, in cyberspace.

The individual responsibilities emphasized in the aforementioned laws have been prominent in the actions taken to ensure network security under Xi Jinping. “Content management” is one key theme. The concept is not limited to censorship aimed at preventing the spread of “infiltrative” ideas from the west or anti-CCP protest from within, but is about actively pushing the Party’s social governance efforts inside the cyber domain.

“Content management” then requires controlling ideology online, which is increasingly referred to as enforcing “ethical” behavior online. “Ethics” might include near-universal issues such as preventing cyber bullying, illicit content (such as pornography and graphic violence), and other behaviors deemed “immoral.” Like many things in China, it also includes a political stability element, which is carrying forward Chinese socialist values with the aim of ensuring “public safety.”

This campaign to clean up the internet has been prominent early under Xi’s leadership, starting with an anti-rumors campaign that began in late summer 2013, and the silencing of the so-called “Big Vs,” who are high-profile users of Sina’s Weibo micro-blogging tool (MPS.gov, August 21, 2013; China Digital Times, August 21, 2013). The Big V users’ special status on Weibo gave them a platform to influence millions with their thoughts, which were often critical of the government. One such user, Chinese-American entrepreneur Charles Xue (also known as Xue Manzi) was detained for eight months on charges of seeking prostitutes, and later released on bail (BBC, October 1, 2013). Another prominent micro-blogger Qin Zhihui was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for “seriously harming social order” and “provoking troubles” by circulating “false” reports on Weibo (China Daily, April 18, 2014). The campaign is at least partially responsible for a massive decrease in Weibo use and increased self-censorship since 2013 (BBC, February 24).

More than imposing content management through censorship, the Party initiated a more prominent push to move into cyberspace its social governance effort to shape and control social demands. This year, attention has focused on the cultivation of youth. The Second Annual Network Security Awareness Week in June was focused on “protecting” youth online. During the awareness week, Lu Wei made a speech in which he outlined the so-called “Four Haves” for Chinese netizens (CAC.gov, June 1). These include: (1) “They must have a high sense of security,” which emphasized that individuals are responsible for internalizing cyber security practices; (2) “They must have civilized online cultivation,” stressing that individuals are expected to become involved in the elimination of “filth and mire” such as the spread of online rumors; (3) “They must have behavioral habits of observing the law,” meaning that the same rules off-line apply online; and (4) “They must have the skills to protect themselves,” meaning that individuals must be able to “see pitfalls” and “ward off underhanded attacks” from “unlawful elements.”

This has been seemingly coupled with a drive led by the Communist Youth League to recruit up to 18 million so-called “network civilization volunteers” (网络文明志愿者) tasked with spreading a “positive energy” and “purifying” cyberspace (Global Voices, May 25; People’s Daily, April 16). Different than the paid pro-government commentators Chinese netizens have sarcastically named the “50-cent Party” (五毛党), the “civilization volunteers” are responsible for more actively promoting Party policy and ideology aimed at shaping thought among the masses.


In practice, the implementation of this social governance process online is not a straightforward task. Many Chinese are critical of a civilization-army type of patriotism. Perhaps the most telling story is an incident in Wending, Beihai, in Shandong province this summer. [5] The incident began after an online quarrel turned into a street fight between teens, of which one was a network civilization volunteer. The volunteer’s peers promised revenge. Meanwhile many other netizens derided their bullying tactics as being disguised as patriotism. Even the Communist Youth League joined the fray, criticizing local police and suggesting foreign hostile forces could have been involved in taunting of the civilization volunteer.

Although the incident faded, it demonstrated how quickly the Party’s efforts to shape online debate could spiral out of its control. The CCP’s task is to identify how to effectively respond to a society that has unprecedented access to information, and more importantly, unprecedented ways to discuss it. This means the state must adopt a flexible and proactive approach to control, particularly in cyberspace, because it is not fully in control of the spread of information.

Samantha Hoffman is an independent China analyst and PhD candidate at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. She tweets @he_shumei


1. For example, read: “Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Decision Concerning Deepening Cultural Structural Reform,” translation by Rogier Creemers, October 2011.

2. In fact, “cyber” security is another concept that is often mistranslated, and the phrase “network security” is a more appropriate translation. See: “Warring State: China’s Cybersecurity Strategy,” by Amy Chang, December 2014.

3. Samantha Hoffman and Peter Mattis, “Inside China’s New Security Council,” The National Interest, November 21, 2013.

4. Also See: Samantha Hoffman and Peter Mattis, “China’s Proposed ‘State Security Council’: Social Governance under Xi Jinping,” China Policy Institute Blog, November 21, 2013.

5. See Global Voices, July 30 for a detailed summary and Qiushi, August 3.