Tai Ming Cheung is a Professor and the Director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego. In this interview, he talks about how the CCP’s approach to security has changed since Xi Jinping came to power and how this affects China’s international behavior. He has a forthcoming book on the rise of the Chinese Techno-Security State that will be published in spring 2022 by Cornell University Press.
Questions by Helena Legarda, Senior Analyst, MERICS
You have argued before that Xi Jinping is turning China into a national security state. What exactly has changed since he came to power in your view?
Xi has redefined what security means. In the past, security was much narrower and more compartmentalized. Now it has become more holistic, integrating the internal and external. Importantly, it is about political security and not just about military. It is much broader and encompasses many non-traditional areas.
How does this holistic notion of national security affect Beijing’s international behavior?
It is a much more zero-sum view. There are winners and losers, and China needs to be on the winning side. Also, increasingly, China’s security is linked to the international environment. Whether it is economic, in resources, in different domains – territorial, maritime, space or cyberspace – there is a sense that China needs to be leading. It does not want to be a reactive or passive type of power. It wants to redefine and put in new norms to shape the global security order. Xi has said China is taking a gradual, step-by-step approach to leadership and international power. The goal is that, by 2035, China will be a leading nation, and by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, China will compete for global leadership with the United States.
What is the goal of this emphasis on control over the military and security apparatus?
Xi very much sees himself at the top of the security apparatus, including the military and various other bodies. There was a major reform at the end of 2015 in which the military apparatus was reorganized. Prior to that, efforts had been made to delegate authority from the party, but under Xi, that was reversed. The reforms re-centralized not just political control of the military, but also professional control. There have been major challenges domestically in terms of political discipline, namely corruption; and externally, with the rise of great power competition with the U.S. Xi believes that a top-down, centralized, disciplined approach is very important.
Is there any way for foreign businesses and governments to cooperate with Chinese actors in matters of science and technology without unwittingly helping the PLA or China security?
The civil, military and security sectors are not actually that closely intertwined. Compartmentalization has been a deep-rooted feature of the Chinese system. There has been a lot of talk about military-civil fusion, but it has so far not led to much.
Now Xi has made a major effort to promote military-civil fusion, especially since 2015. China is in the first phase of this initiative laying the frameworks, governance systems and legal issues for reorganizing these structures. Only now, in the 14th Five-Year-Plan, will the military-civil fusion development strategy be implemented.
Time will tell how fused and integrated China will become. For foreign firms, governments or universities, that is the big question: Can we participate with Chinese counterparts without being entangled in this increasingly integrated military-civil system? What are the risks? What are the cost-benefits? Even if the chances of being linked to a non-transparent military system are relatively low, can firms, researchers or governments afford that risk? That is a political and policy issue that we outside China have to deal with.