The Rise and Fall of China’s Domestic Security and Legal Affairs Apparatus

By Janet Liu and Larry Ong

In the five years before Xi Jinping took office in 2012, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC) was one of the most powerful organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Helmed by then-Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, the PLAC enjoyed an annual budget of $120 billion, larger than that of the military. Zhou was nicknamed the “security czar,” and with good reason—policies instituted during Jiang Zemin’s era of dominance greatly expanded the PLAC’s reach to the point where Zhou could mobilize the armed police in Beijing in an attempted coup in 2012.

The PLAC today is no longer the all-powerful security organ of Zhou Yongkang’s time. Xi’s policies and personnel changes have combined to curb the PLAC’s authority and weaken its influence. As more reforms are rolled out, the PLAC would lose its Jiang-era status and relevance on overseeing security and legal affairs in the Chinese regime.

Peak power

Established in 1980, the PLAC is an organ under the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee that is responsible for oversight of security and legal affairs. The PLAC was mandated to direct, coordinate, and supervise the courts, the procuratorates, the public security bureau (PSB), and other departments involved in national security work. In its early days, the PLAC employed few legal or security professional and was regarded as a “token” Party organ. Still, the “token” PLAC managed to interfere with the administration of justice in the 1980s, and was promptly downgraded from a commission to a leading group from 1988 to 1990.

The PLAC did not stay marginalized for long. The Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, 1989 appeared to convince then newly appointed Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin of the need for the CCP to exercise stricter control over Chinese society. He restored the PLAC to a commission in March 1990 and increased its funding. Jiang also slowly turned the PLAC into a personal fiefdom of his faction by installing confidants to top positions in the PLAC and the CCP’s domestic security and legal apparatus. After targeting the Falun Gong spiritual community in 1999, Jiang again strengthened the PLAC and the security apparatus to better execute the Falun Gong persecution campaign. By the time Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang as Party leader, the PLAC was a “second Party center” whose loyalty belonged to Jiang and his faction.

There are several key milestones in the PLAC’s rise to prominence.

In 1991, the Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission (PSCMC), an organ under the CCP Central Committee responsible for law enforcement and social management, was established. The PSCMC was helmed by the PLAC chief, and it shared offices with the PLAC in the central government and the provinces. When Zhou Yongkang was in charge of the PLAC, the PSCMC was renamed the Central Commission for Comprehensive Social Management (CCSM), and its jurisdiction and powers were expanded further. At its peak, the CCSM oversaw the operations of nearly 20 government organs, including the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Supervision, the civil aviation and tourism authorities, the armed police headquarters, and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Through the PSCMC/CCSM, the PLAC had a reach that was beyond security, procuratorial, and judicial affairs.

In 2000, the PLAC was immensely strengthened after personnel appointments and institutional changes linked the Party organ with a very powerful but extralegal security agency. Three days after Jiang Zemin convened a Politburo meeting on handling Falun Gong on June 7, 1999, the Central Committee created the Central Leading Group on Dealing with Falun Gong (later the Central Leading Group on Preventing and Dealing with Heretical Religions) and the extralegal “610 Office” to coordinate the persecution of Falun Gong. The Gestapo-like 610 Office had the authority to order the Chinese regime’s security and legal apparatus, the military, the propaganda department, and virtually all other departments and ministries to do its bidding on persecution matters. For example, the 610 Office saw that courts held kangaroo trials to sentence Falun Gong adherents to prison; and it ensured that work units or schools fired practitioners from jobs, denied them promotion, or blocked them from advancing school grades if they refused to renounce and denounce their faith. Starting from 2000, the 610 Office shared offices with the PLAC, and PLAC secretaries Luo Gan and Zhou Yongkang were also appointed 610 Office head. The personnel and institutional arrangement meant that the powerful PLAC was de facto in control of the 610 Office, which had a jurisdiction that was as intrusive and all-encompassing as the infamous Mao-era Cultural Revolution Group.

In 2002, the PLAC rose to the highest rung of the institutional hierarchy following the expansion of the Politburo Standing Committee. When Jiang Zemin handed over his office to Hu Jintao, he added then-PLAC secretary Luo Gan to the new 9-member Politburo Standing Committee. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the PLAC became a national-level organ to correspond with Luo’s promotion.

In 2003, Luo Gan and then-Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang started the practice of jointly appointing provincial PLAC chiefs as head of provincial PSBs. This security personnel setup gave the PLAC secretary immense control over the Chinese regime’s entire law enforcement and security apparatus. The personnel setup also gave the PLAC sway over the paramilitary because some provincial PSB chiefs were also commanders of provincial People’s Armed Police (PAP) units. The PAP, which was then under the dual command of Central Military Commission (CMC) and the State Council (Ministry of Public Security), could carry out the PLAC’s “stability maintenance work” if so required by virtue of provincial PSB chiefs being concurrently provincial PAP commander and provincial PLAC chiefs.

In 2007, Zhou Yongkang replaced Luo Gan as PLAC secretary. The following year, Zhou used the excuse of keeping the peace at the Beijing Olympics to admit the PAP commander into the ranks of the PLAC committee. As PLAC chief, Zhou was virtually omnipresent on security issues and earned the moniker “security czar.” During Zhou’s tenue, the PLAC was allocated a budget bigger than that of the military and reached the apex of its power.

Power pulled

Just as Zhou Yongkang contributed to the PLAC’s steady ascent, he too sowed the seeds of its gradual marginalization. In February 2012, former Chongqing top cop Wang Lijun exposed the Jiang faction’s coup plot against incoming Party General Secretary Xi Jinping when he tried to defect at the United States Consulate in Chengdu. Wang’s defection attempt led to the purge of his ex-boss and Politburo member Bo Xilai in March. Bo’s downfall led Zhou Yongkang to mobilize the PAP troops in Beijing to surround the CCP leadership headquarters at Zhongnanhai and pressure Hu Jintao. Hu managed to repel the PAP forces with troops summoned from a nearby People’s Liberation Army unit. Zhou’s coup, however, cast the die against the PLAC.

Zhou’s coup demonstrated two things to Xi Jinping. First, ambitious Party cadres in the PLAC could far too easily use the Chinese regime’s powerful security apparatus to challenge the Party leadership. Second, the domestic security and legal apparatus had the potential to severely impede and undermine the Xi administration because its officials loyal to the Jiang faction commanded its ranks.

Control over personnel is paramount in the CCP. During his first term, Xi appeared to prioritize reshuffling the top ranks of the security apparatus to bring the PLAC to heel. Unofficial investigations into Zhou Yongkang began in 2013, and he was arrested in December 2014. Other key PLAC officials and Jiang faction associates that were purged include Li Dongsheng, Yang Huanning, Xia Chongyuan, Xi Xiaoming, Wang Jianping, Niu Zhizhong, Wu Changshun, Zhang Yue, Zhou Benshun, Su Hongzhang, Wu Tianjun, Zhu Mingguo, and He Ting. Overseas Chinese media often carried reports about leading city-level PLAC officials being quietly removed or committing suicide. By the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, all 31 provincial PLAC chiefs that took office at the 18th Congress had been replaced.

The arrest of Zhou Yongkang, Li Dongsheng, and Zhang Yue are of particular note given their involvement in the 610 Office. For years, Zhou retained oversight of the 610 Office as PLAC secretary and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Li was the 610 Office chief. And Zhang headed the provincial PLAC in Hebei and the Hebei PSB’s 610 Office (the 26th Bureau). A purge of the 610 Office leadership from Party central to the provinces was unthinkable during the Jiang era.

Xi Jinping installed his men in place of the purged officials in key domestic security apparatus posts. For instance, Zhao Kezhi was appointed Minister of Public Security and deputy secretary of the PLAC; Wang Xiaohong was promoted to executive deputy director of the MPS; Chen Yixin became central PLAC secretary-general; Wang Ning was named PAP commander; and Song Dan was appointed PLAC secretary of the CMC. Xi’s top-level appointments and personnel reshuffle over the past five years, however, do not necessarily mean that he has secured the absolute loyalty of the domestic security apparatus or the PLAC. After all, Luo Gan and Zhou Yongkang spent two decades running the PLAC, and there would likely be Jiang faction holdouts in the ranks. Thus, Xi can be expected to continue reshuffling domestic security and judicial personnel during his second term.

Aside from replacing personnel, Xi sought to rein in the Chinese regime’s domestic security apparatus through institutional changes. The changes served to dilute the PLAC’s power and bring various elements of law enforcement under his direct control.

One way of weakening the PLAC’s prominence and control is seeing that its senior leaders do not jointly hold other posts of power. For instance, central PLAC secretaries no longer serve on the Politburo Standing Committee since its membership was trimmed from nine to seven at the 18th Party Congress. Because the top PLAC chief is only a member of the Politburo and not its Standing Committee, the Party organ’s status has been downgraded to the sub-national level to correspond with the status of its chief. In some provinces, separate officials are installed to the offices of provincial PLAC secretary and PSB chief. And several of the new provincial PLAC chiefs are deputy governors or deputy mayors with no experience in domestic security work. The appointment of non-security officials to the local PLAC leadership and having different officials heading the PLAC and PSB are clearly aimed at preventing the central PLAC from having de facto control over provincial domestic security and paramilitary assets.

The PLAC’s power was also undercut by institutional changes.

In January 2014, Xi Jinping established and chaired the CCP National Security Commission (NSC). The NSC consolidates the political leadership of many departments and organs, including those previously overseen by the central PLAC. For instance, the NSC is responsible for coordinating intelligence, military affairs, diplomacy, and domestic security. The NSC can also mobilize the military, the paramilitary, and other national security assets. On paper, the NSC outranks the PLAC in the institutional hierarchy, and its establishment allows Xi to partially regain some control over the domestic security apparatus.

The PLAC’s power was diluted further after the 19th Party Congress with the creation of new institutions and additional institutional changes. The new Advancing Law-based Governance Leading Group which Xi Jinping announced in October 2017 would almost certainly weaken the central PLAC’s influence over the courts and procuratorates. The changing of the PAP’s command structure from State Council-CMC dual control to one where only the CMC is in charge in January 2018 prevents the central PLAC from mobilizing the paramilitary via the state hierarchy. The National Supervision Commission (established at the Two Sessions in March 2018), which is responsible for supervising, investigating, and prosecuting civil servants, reduces the space for the PLAC to intervene in judicial affairs. Finally, the scrapping of the Central Commission for Comprehensive Social Management, the Leading Group for Stability Maintenance, and the Central Leading Group on Preventing and Dealing with Heretical Religions, as well as their respective administrative office (like the 610 Office), means that the PLAC’s ability to coordinate the repressive policies of the Jiang era (like the persecution of Falun Gong) has been severely diminished.

In early 2018, the Hong Kong-based, Beijing-linked Phoenix Television reported that the trial reform plan for the PSB would see the police force withdrawn from the public security system and placed directly under the control of the central government. A “police general office” would be established to handle day-to-day administration. Meanwhile, the PSB would be focused on other administrative affairs like the household registry system (hukou) and customs. Should the Phoenix Television report of PSB reform prove accurate, the PLAC looks set to revert to its former status as a “token” Party organ. In this scenario, the PLAC’s continued existence could even be called into question.