Informatization Drives Expanded Scope of Public Security

In a recent interview with the Ministry of Public Security’s (MPS) principle newspaper, a municipal police chief stated more than half of the solved cases were resolved because of the integration of technical surveillance data into his public security bureau’s operations (China Police Daily, March 28). The process of building up these capabilities—known as “public security informatization construction” (gong’an xinxihua jianshe)—has been a pillar of MPS modernization since at least 2008, when then-MPS chief and current Politburo member Meng Jianzhu declared it one of the three main objectives (www.mps.gov.cn, September 25, 2008). This interview is one of a growing number of signs that informatization is improving MPS capabilities and boosting the ministry’s status just as it has done for the Chinese military.

Informatization of the police force has been a continual theme for the last five years as the MPS faces a number of daunting prospects for maintaining stability. Nationwide trends in urbanization, industrialization, informatization, agricultural modernization, internationalization and rural-urban integration—the so-called “five changes and one integration” (wuhua yiti)—present a broad set of challenges for public security and social management (www.cdzfw.gov.cn, March 20). China’s number of police per unit of population is still relatively low (less than half) compared to developed Western countries, and information technology offers a force multiplier to compensate for the numbers shortfall. Consequently, the MPS across all its echelons has invested in integrated databases that can auto-generate leads and networked video surveillance with software improvements for feature recognition as well as other systems to improve the ministry’s exploitation of information. These systems underpin the MPS’s guidance to its operational elements to focus on “early subduing” (yufu), “manage [unrest] by striking early” (zao daji chuli) and “persist in putting detection and warning first; defend and control early”  (“China’s Adaptive Approach to the Information Counter-Revolution,” China Brief, June 3, 2011).

In addition to helping police officer do more with less, the tenor of the success stories has started to change along with the inputs to MPS databases that increasingly hold financial, personal and travel data. A municipal police chief in Sichuan noted informatized police operations have moved from investigations toward preemptive warning and providing specific location data for arresting officers. One such example was the use of an economic intelligence tracking system, which tracked financial data, that alerted to the MPS to the possibility of a counterfeiting operation. Due to the automatically-generated lead, the police cracked a crime ring that produced $1.77 million in counterfeit Chinese currency (China Policy Daily, March 28).

The informatization program also has been used to meet one of the other three pillars of MPS modernization: improving the relationship between the ministry and the Chinese citizenry (www.mps.gov.cn, September 25, 2008). After a period of experimentation leading to a national police conference in September 2011, the minister of public security endorsed a national microblogging policy as a part of open e-government and developing better communication with the local populace (China Police Daily, September 27, 2011; People’s Daily, September 27, 2011). Although it is easy to be skeptical, the police weibo feeds now are some of the more popular government public outreach efforts to the surprise of many observers.

The few numbers available on the intelligence-related information technology spending suggests this may be one of the explanations for the steady increases in the internal security budget—now 769.1 billion yuan ($124.12 billion)—which has outpaced defense spending since 2010 (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 11; Xinhua, March 5). According to the police chief of the five million-person Weinan City in Shaanxi Province, the local public security bureau (PSB) has spent 2 hundred million yuan ($32.25 million) since 2003 on technical systems for informatization work. Weinan PSB also has sought cooperation from a local telecommunications company to help manage the city’s networked video surveillance system, involving another 60 million yuan ($9.68 million). Elsewhere, Shandong Province’s Yantai municipal police spent 2.4 hundred million yuan ($38.7 million) to establish its integrated intelligence center (China Police Daily, March 28). Under Bo Xilai from 2007 to 2010, Chongqing reportedly spent $300 million on its intelligence center and contributions to China’s “Great Intelligence System” (daqingbao xitong), according Chinese newspapers cited by Ho Pin and Huang Wenguang [1].

The boost in capabilities and budget appears to be expanding the MPS’s institutional scope and influence, possibly at the expense of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Prior to last year, references to “public security informatization construction” in official publications, such as the People’s Daily and the China Police Daily, described the objective of this process as “protect[ing] public security and social stability.” Last year, however, official newspapers at the national level and owned by the political-legal system started referring to the MPS’s informatization process as designed to “protect national security” (weihu guojia anquan) (Legal Daily, January 21; People’s Daily, August 29, 2012; China Police Daily, July 29, 2012). This seemingly minor rhetorical change masks the distinction in the People’s Republic that gives the MPS back a mission against external threats in a domestic context. Many of those functions were given to the MSS when it was created in 1983. Up through the 1990s, especially during the tenure of Jia Chunwang (1984–1998), the MSS seemed to be organization in ascendancy (“Assessing the Foreign Policy Influence of the Ministry of State Security,” China Brief, January 14, 2011). The MPS’s importance for national security seems to complete the power shift that began with Zhou Yongkang as an MPS chief with Politburo standing.

There may be an alternative explanation related to the international role played by the MPS in protecting Chinese interests. Whether in pursuit of the drug lord responsible for the murder of Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in October 2011 or assisting law enforcement in Angola and the Congo, the MPS is more overtly active internationally than ever before (Wen Wei Po, August 25, 2012; Beijing News, May 11, 2012; Guangming Daily, October 10, 2011; South China Morning Post, January 1, 2011). Given the MSS presence already abroad as well as the People’s Liberation Army support for UN peacekeeping operations and the Gulf Aden deployments, the MPS’s international work so far seems unremarkable if still novel. The data fusion now available to the MPS nationwide and its ownership of networked surveillance equipment, however, gives it a set of resources that are valuable to counterespionage and other national security operations. The MPS and its local elements may not outstrip MSS capabilities if they are not required to share the fruits of public security informatization.

Overall, the MPS’s informatization efforts seem to have had three major consequences: better targeting of police operations to compensate for low numbers, increased budget and expanded organizational scope. Comparing China’s police modernization to its military modernization, however, suggests some missing elements, such as the human factor. Two years ago, the MPS vice minister responsible for informatization spoke of a need to develop intelligence specialists and police officers educated sufficiently to exploit the ministry’s new technologies (Shangrao Xinwen, April 29). It is not clear that the MPS has made the necessary adjustments to education and training, which have proven critical to the People’s Liberation Army’s harnessing of the Information Age.