Security Chief’s Efforts to Seal Up the Political-Legal Chairmanship

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 4

One of the "Three Inquiries, Three Assessments" Campaign Slogans

The run-up to this year’s leadership succession has brought more excitement than observers could reasonably expect when the top two presumptive leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, seemed set after the 17th Party Congress in 2007. The competition between Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang over the models of China’s future governance offered a tantalizing glimpse behind the curtain of Chinese politics (“Bo Xilai’s Campaign for the Standing Committee and the Future of Chinese Politicking,” China Brief, November 11, 2011). That Bo Xilai’s unprecedentedly public campaign exploded in a confrontation outside the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu—involving public security forces outside their jurisdiction, a vice minister of state security and the possibility of defection—makes the competition for the remaining seven Politburo slots all the more titillating (Financial Times, February 14; Bloomberg, February 10). There is a quieter campaign, however, taking place to ensure a widely-expected result becomes a foregone conclusion. State Councilor and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu is pushing to claim the top spot on the Central Political and Legal Committee, replacing Zhou Yongkang as overseer of China’s police, prisons, judiciary and civilian intelligence.

The latest evidence of Meng’s efforts to lock in his future position is a new Ministry of Public Security (MPS) publicity campaign: “three inquiries, three assessments to deepen the big visits” (san fang san ping shenhua da zou fang) and “practical love-the-people activities” (aimin shijian huodong). The overarching goal of the new sloganeering is to demonstrate MPS officials are putting the people in their hearts, even invoking an old Teresa Teng song to popularize the message (China Police Daily, January 31; People’s Net, January 20). At a time when unofficial security forces, e.g. chengguan, seem to provide the muscle for official corruption, the propaganda campaign aims to show “the people’s police for the people” (renmin gong’an wei renmin) (China Police Daily, February 6). Although the campaign officially launched last December, most of the publicity and related pro-police articles have appeared in the last three weeks.

The “three inquiries, three assessments” campaign breaks down into six different activities and questions, ostensibly reshaping the MPS from a control and enforcement agency to a more solicitous police force. The slogan breaks down into “inquire about the people’s situation; inquire into public opinion; inquire into the people’s concerns; assess [MPS] work; assess the problem; and assess options to advance” (fangwen minqing, fangcha minyi, fangpai minyou, pingyi gongzuo, pingyi wenti, pingxuan xianjin) (MPS Sanfang Sanping Homepage, December 17, 2011). It also explicitly builds off the public microblogging effort that became MPS policy last fall to keep the ministry and its local elements active among the population (China Police Daily, January 31; “Public Security Officially Joins the Blogosphere,” China Brief, September 30, 2011).

While it is easy for observers to be cynical about the MPS’s efforts to burnish its public image, the main message of the campaign supports the overall drive for social management laid out by Zhou Yongkang last year. In an article for a leading party journal, Zhou argued social management required a broad toolkit to collect information on public sensibilities, not just information of actionable intelligence value (Qiushi, May 1, 2011). This “three inquiries, three assessments” campaign along with public security microblogging and informatization all change the nature of MPS engagement with society, forcing the police to operate more publicly and visibly. The short-term impact could be minimal; however, over the longer term, the police probably will be evaluated in the public eye by the ministry’s self-professed standards. This is either a mechanism for accountability or disenchantment.

Meng’s assiduous development of the MPS’s capabilities since becoming minister in 2007, in line with his superior Zhou’s stated objectives, indicate he is the favorite to replace Zhou. He also is the right age for China’s security and intelligence chiefs, who, since the abuses of the Mao era, have typically been near the end of their careers. The chairmanship has been the final senior position for its holders since Qiao Shi moved to become Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in 1992.  Meng, who will turn 65 this year, would serve only one term as chair of the Central Political-Legal Committee, stepping down in 2017 assuming the retirement age holds.

One of the more important issues with Meng’s likely ascendance is the selection of the next MPS chief. Ever since Jia Chunwang’s lateral transfer from the Ministry of State Security (MSS), MPS influence has been rising—based on personnel comparisons—especially vis-à-vis its principal rival, the MSS (“Assessing the Foreign Policy Influence of the Ministry of State Security,” China Brief, January 14, 2011). Jia, Zhou and Meng all were serious political figures with Jia considered for the Politburo in 1997 and the latter two serving as provincial party secretaries prior to their selection for public security chief and state councilor (South China Morning Post, May 29, 1997). Zhou and Meng came out of former Vice President Zeng Qinghong’s energy network and the Shanghai Clique, respectively. One can speculate how the next minister will be chosen or what will be his likely factional alignment, but the choice could affect that faction’s ability to wield power. While this law and order position probably is mostly technical, i.e. preserve stability and investigate crimes, the MPS has substantial, nation-wide investigative resources that may be available to whatever faction controls the ministry and its senior posts.