Issue: 2014: Vol. 13, No. 2

Foreign and Security Affairs in the Third Plenum

Article Author(s)

John Garver

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John W. Garver is Professor Emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a member of the editorial boards of the journals China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, and the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is the author of eleven books and over one-hundred articles dealing with China’s foreign relations. His books include: China’s Quest: A History of the ... 
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Stress on Internal Stability and National Security

The political direction outlined by the Third Plenum in November 2013 for China’s international relations embodied a contradiction. It coupled a call for deepening integration of China’s economy with the global economy with an intensified struggle against ideas carried into China by that very process of deepening globalization — ideas that are antithetical to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party and its monopoly on state power. To realize its and the Chinese people’s aspiration of making China rich and strong, the CCP must open China to the world. But that very opening brings in powerful ideas of human liberty that have already toppled scores of undemocratic regimes in recent years. Xi Jinping’s and the Third Plenum’s answer to this conundrum is rejection of political liberalization and intense ideological struggle among China’s people against liberal democratic ideas, coupled with the judicious use of assertive nationalism to rally popular support for the CCP regime.

The Communiqué issued by the Third Plenum affirmed the work of the Politburo since the previous Congress, work conducted, it said, “in the face of extremely complex international circumstances.”[i] The nature of those “extremely complex international circumstances” was not specified, but the stress of the Communiqué was on maintaining internal stability. The Plenum resolved to “safeguard national security, guarantee that the people can live and work in peace and contentment, and that society is stable and orderly.” The Communiqué also warned against marching “the evil road of changing banners and allegiances” and falling from the path of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This was an allusion to the Soviet experience and warning against political liberalization à la loosening of the Party’s control. To this end the Plenum decided to set up a National Security Commission and “prefect national security system and a national security strategy to guarantee national security.” It was imperative, the Plenum decided, to build strong armies for the Party, “people’s armies which listen to the Party’s instructions, [and] can be victorious in battle.” “New era” military strategies and “modern military force[s] with Chinese characteristics” were to be built.

Xi Jinping elaborated on the nature of security threats during an explanation after the Plenum of the decision to set up a National Security Commission. China faced two security challenges, Xi said, which would be addressed via strengthened unified leadership of state security work to be provided by the new Commission. The first challenge involved the need to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and “development interests.” The second involved the need to ensure domestic political security and social stability. [ii]

Challenges to Sovereignty and Development Interests

In the several years leading up to the Third Plenum, challenges to China’s “sovereignty” came mainly from Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South Sea. Starting in 2010 an escalating cycle of Chinese and Japanese military assertion of presence around and over the Sengaka/Diaoyu Islands and the disputed middle zone of the East Chinese Sea moved Chinese and Japanese military forces to an increasingly sharp confrontation that is, fortunately, still without firing. In 2010 the number of Chinese fishing boats entering the waters close to the disputed islands increased dramatically. Chinese boats also became less compliant with orders by Japanese coast guard ships to leave the area. In September one Chinese fishing boat, rather than leave the area as ordered by a Japanese coast guard ship, rammed the Japanese vessel. When Japan detained the offending captain, Beijing responded with a number of forceful moves, including severe restriction of export of Chinese rare earths to Japan. Large emotionally charged anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in China, and Beijing catered to that opinion with strong moves.

Garver Maritime Map

When the Japanese government in September 2012 purchased several of the Sengakus still privately owned (reportedly as a way of preempting provocative actions there by freelancing Japanese nationalists) Beijing responded forcefully. China accelerated PLA-N operations in the seas around Japan, in effect warning Tokyo to desist from challenges to what Beijing deemed China’s territorial sovereignty in the East China Sea.[iii] Japan responded to China’s moves with increased military moves of its own, and throughout 2013 Chinese and Japanese coast guard ships and aircraft confronted one another in the seas and airspace around and over the Sengakus. In the South Chinese Sea, Philippine and Vietnamese efforts to survey and exploit the energy resources under the sea floor were countered by PLA-Navy moves.

China’s “developmental interests” requiring “new era” military capabilities include evacuation of Chinese citizens (including Taiwanese, according to Beijing’s policy) working abroad but finding themselves in conflict situations. China’s first military operation to evacuate citizens endangered by internal disorder came in Libya during the uprising there in early 2011. More than 35,000 Chinese citizens were evacuated from Libya in a period of weeks, constituting the largest and most complicated evacuation of Chinese nationals up to that point. A PLA-N frigate on anti-piracy duty in the Gulf of Aden was dispatched to assist and safeguard the Chinese evacuation. The growing international presence of Chinese firms and personnel, combined with mounting instability in countries where Chinese firms operate, mean that Beijing called these rescue operations a major category of “military operations other than war.” By conducting these operations effectively and professionally, Beijing demonstrates to its citizens that it protects China’s interests and reputation as a strong country.

China’s most strategically vital “developmental interest” involves the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) over which moves China’s vast merchandise, energy, and raw materials trade. Broadly speaking, as China has globalized its economy, the SLOCs, which carry 90 percent of all world trade, have become more important to China.[iv] The implications of this are profound, ranging from rising ship insurance costs for vessels transiting the pirate-ridden Gulf of Aden, to the hypothetical ability of the United States Navy to blockade China in the contingency of a U.S.-PRC war that became protracted.[v]   There is a huge gap between PLA-N requirements and capability to protect China’s SLOCs.[vi]

Beijing’s ability to defend these Chinese interests is linked to legitimization of the CCP regime and internal stability. Since the upheavals of 1989-1991, nationalism has become China’s dominant popular ideology and de facto legitimization of the CCP regime. This requires that the regime demonstrate its ability to defend China’s interests and honor. Having founded its claim to continued political tutelage on its ability to make China rich, strong, and esteemed among the nations of the world, the CCP cannot appear to be weak-kneed. Thus the Third Plenum Communiqué affirmed CCP rule since 1978 and proclaimed the objective for the future as “creat[ing] a wealthy, strong, democratic, civilized and harmonious Socialist country, and realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Enemies Within and Without

In the run-up to the Third Plenum, the CCP devoted considerable effort to ideological work aimed at unifying thinking. In May 2013 an internal document was issued by the Party’s General Office for study by Party organs. The contents of the document leaked to the foreign media.[vii] The secret study guide identified seven dangerous Western values that had to be struggled against as a matter of life and death. It was especially important to prevent communication of these dangerous ideas via the Internet.   The seven dangerous and subversive Western ideas were:[viii]

  1. Constitutional democracy
  2. Universal human rights
  3. Media independence (from Party guidance)
  4. Judicial independence (from Party guidance)
  5. Civil society (made up of autonomous organizations)
  6. Pro-market neo-liberalism
  7. “Nihilist” criticism of past errors by the Party

Xi Jinping reiterated in an “important speech” to a National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference convened in Beijing on August 19 (about a month before the Third Plenum), the importance of ideological class struggle against external and internal enemies. [ix] In effect, Xi was fleshing out the “extremely complex international circumstances” alluded to vaguely in the Third Plenum Communiqué. Powerful foreign forces were conducting a propaganda campaign, especially via the Internet, but including all forms of media and communication, to create the ideological base for overthrow of the CCP regime, Xi said:

Hostile forces are doing their utmost to propagate so-called ‘universal values’ … their objective is … to overthrow the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s Socialist system. If we allow [this] … those false efforts will … endanger the Party’s leadership and the security of the Socialist national regime… Western anti-China forces continue to vainly attempt to use the Internet to ‘topple China’ … On this battlefield of the Internet, whether we can stand up, and gain victory, directly relates to our country’s ideological security and regime security.

The ideological class struggle was crucial. Alluding to the upheavals of 1989-1991 Xi continued:

History and reality have repeatedly proven that whenever or not ideological work is done well relates to the Party’s future fate …we cannot even for a moment slacken and weaken ideological work. In this area we have gained deep lessons. The disintegration of a regime often starts from the ideological area, political unrest and regime change may perhaps occur in a night … If the ideological defenses are breached, other defenses become very difficult to hold. We must grasp the leadership power … in ideological work closely in our hands … otherwise, we will make irredeemable historical mistakes.

“Western countries see our country’s development and expansion as a challenge to their value views, systems, and models, and intensify ideological and cultural infiltration of our country,” Xi said further. There were a range of “mistaken viewpoints” within China upon which the Western ideological offensive could build: embrace of Western values, discussion of party or national history, denial of reform or the Four Cardinal Principles. There were also “social contradictions and problems” in Chinese society that were creating fertile soil for foreign hostile ideological subversion.

Xi Jinping’s August 2013 “important talk” on ideological class struggle was followed by the release of a six-part, 100-minute video program titled “Silent Contest.”[x] Mandatory viewing for all CCP cadre above a certain level, the program apparently was produced by the General Staff Department of the PLA along with the PLA’s National Defense University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The program argued in detail that the U.S. defeated its greatest enemy, the Soviet Union, by non-military means, including especially ideological subversion, and was now trying to do the same thing with China. Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” that had erased Soviet Communist Party members’ awareness of domestic and foreign class enemies and attempted “westernization” that produced Soviet weakness, had all facilitated a sustained and long-term campaign of U.S. subversion. The result was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This resulted in the U.S. shifting its spearhead toward China. The years 1978-1989 had been a “honeymoon” in U.S.-PRC relations because of common opposition to the Soviet Union. The United States was using a vast array of weapons to subvert China: radio and television broadcasts, cultural and academic exchanges, the Internet, support for Tibetan or Xinjiang rebels, and even the village election program of the Carter Center in Atlanta.

“Silent Contest” grew out of a decade-long debate in China over the cause of the Soviet disintegration. A leadership consensus was reached in 2004 that, in line with comments by Deng Xiaoping from 1989, a major reason for the Soviet collapse was the abandonment of core Marxist principles.[xi]

Deep Internal Insecurity and Assertive Nationalism: Concluding Thoughts

The efforts of the CCP to anathematize expression of doubts about Marxism-Leninism and the Four Cardinal Principles are linked to debates within China, and probably within the Party itself, about whether to undertake basic reform in China’s political system. Discussion of that would, however, take this essay away from its proper focus on China’s international relations. In terms of China’s diplomacy, several conclusions follow from the previous discussion.

The deep insecurities of CCP leaders regarding domestic stability and legitimization will, first of all, lead Beijing to be careful to avoid genuine military conflict with its neighbors. In a conflict with Japan over a dispute in the East China Sea the PLA-N could well be defeated by the very high tech and very well-trained Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. Chinese defeat in a naval clash with Japan would touch off anti-Japanese protests that could become very dangerous for the CCP. Hatred of Japan is easy to mobilize in China these days, but once anti-Japanese demonstrators are in the streets, it is extremely easy for popular anger to be directed against the government rather than against Japan. Under normal conditions Party authorities are able to turn down or off popular anti-Japanese fashions once they threaten state objectives.[xii] But the spilling of Chinese blood by Japanese forces could well unleash a wave of emotion that overwhelmed controls that worked well enough during earlier upwellings of anti-Japanese emotion. In such circumstances, escalation into a larger scale clash with Japan might be deemed preferable to backing down. This could confront the CCP with a bigger war, with one of China’s main economic partners that might derail the economy and/or lead to a Chinese confrontation with the United States — with Japan at the U.S. side. On the other hand, assertive Chinese moves that generate tension but remain below the threshold of use of armed force, and which allow the CCP state to demonstrate its bold resolution in defense of China’s interests, could be very attractive to China’s rulers.

By defining liberal democratic ideas as “Western” the CCP is better able to anathematize them as part of a hostile Western ideological attack on China. In the first instance it must be observed that the linkage of democracy with the West is bogus.   While many of these ideas did originate in Europe, they are today embraced by many non-Western countries: South Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Turkey, and so on. Scores of non-Western countries are struggling toward adoption of some variant of these universal ideas: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, Egypt, the Ukraine, Tunisia, etc. Ideas of human liberty and democracy have spread across the globe. To call these ideas today “Western” makes as much sense as to call science “Western.” Yet in China, convincing China’s people that these ideas are “Western” goes a long way toward persuading them that they come from power centers hostile to China and are outside China’s 4,000-year-old tradition.

The period between the spring 1989 internal challenge to the CCP regime and the collapse of the Soviet Communist state in December 1991 was pivotal. With old Marxist-Leninist ideas drained of popular appeal, the CCP state stood exposed as founded on naked brute power, unadorned by popularly appealing ideas. Confronted by this deep crisis of legitimacy, the CCP turned to aggrieved nationalism to rally popular support.   Ideological indoctrination and mobilization was one thing the CCP regime was still good at. Over the next two decades China’s populace was intensively indoctrinated with the ideology of “China’s century of national humiliation” focusing on all the putative injustices inflicted on China when China was weak — i.e., before the CCP came to power. Expression of contrary ideas within China was repressed. The CCP’s new ruling strategy was remarkably effective in re-legitimizing CCP rule, especially among China’s more educated urban classes, a group that historically was attracted to ideas of nationalism. The turn-around from a deep legitimacy crisis in 1989 to strong nationalist support for the CCP regime today (as indicated by many opinion polls) is truly remarkable. And perhaps troubling. Lacking the legitimization of free popular election —the immensely powerful legitimizing mechanism of modern liberal democracy — the CCP has appealed to nationalism.

The intense, popular nationalist belief fanned by decades of CCP indoctrination apparently has begun to exercise significant influence on China’s foreign policy moves.   Forceful moves against putative foreign miscreants injuring China’s interests or opposing China’s unquestionably just “rise” are popular, especially when directed against Japan, the number one villain of China’s national humiliation narrative. The idea that “little countries” like the Philippines or Vietnam should be allowed to trample on China’s unquestionable territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea — which is how the CCP’s ideological apparatus frames the issue — go down well with popular nationalist opinion.[xiii] Moreover, attempts to settle territorial disputes with China’s neighbors via negotiation not backed by demonstrations of China’s now-great power and by concessions and compromise — as are perhaps inevitable in any negotiation — are decried as cowardly and naïve, or perhaps downright treasonous. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more attuned to foreign views than other organs of China’s government, has occasionally been criticized for lack of patriotic ardor.[xiv] A Chinese leader who aspires to high position, such as Xi Jinping, cannot afford to seem weak in rebuffing foreign transgressions.

The PLA officer corps may be a second constituency particularly enamored of

China’s new aggrieved nationalism and favorable to forceful action to rebuff foreign offenses against China’s honor or interests. Since the upheaval of 1989-1991, the CCP has paid special attention to indoctrination of the PLA, and China’s soldiers are probably less exposed to challenges to the CCP’s orthodox national humiliation narrative than are China’s urban intellectuals. The PLA’s budget and status are also linked to an active role in defense of China’s interests. This is not to say that PLA leaders favor war, especially against countries allied with the United States. But the use of China’s carefully cultivated and ever-greater military power in support of China’s interests in ways short of war — i.e., in the sort of demonstrations in the vicinity of the Sengaku’s in 2009-2014 — may well accord with PLA recommendations.

These hawkish forces in China are balanced by extremely powerful groups with vested interests in minimizing conflict with China’s neighbors let alone with the United States. China’s state-owned enterprises, private sector entrepreneurs and development-oriented provinces, plus broad swaths of China’s slowly emerging civil society, are deeply interested in participation in the global economy and recognize that this would be hindered by international tension. CCP leaders also understand that it is they who will bear the possible risk of embarrassing defeat in foreign adventures, and/or the potentially internally destabilizing aspects of economic losses associated with foreign conflicts. The international trajectory of China’s rise is not ordained. Yet the question looms: how will an undemocratic and even anti-democratic but intensely nationalist China behave as its power waxes over coming years and decades?

[i]           Communiqué of the Third Plenum of the 18th CCP Central Committee, (Full Text).

[ii]           Xi Jinping expounds security commission role, Xinhuanet. November 15, 2013

[iii]          A detailed review of PLA-N activities in the seas around Japan is in Defense of Japan 2013, White Paper, Ministry of Defense, Japan., Part 1: Security Environment Surrounding Japan, 41.

[iv]          See, Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).

[v]           A major factor prompting Beijing to decide in late 2008 to deploy PLA-N warships to join in international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden was the fact that Chinese companies were threatened with bankruptcy from escalating ship-insurance costs and disruption of delivery schedules because PRC ships needed to round the Cape of Good Hope rather than transit the Suez Canal.   See Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience; Chinese anti-piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden (Newport: China Maritime Studies Institute, China Maritime Studies monograph Number10, November 2013).

[vi]          For a review of PLA-N anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and growing PLA-N attention to “military operations other than war,” Erickson & Strange, Ibid.

[vii]          Chris Buckley, “China Warns Officials against ‘Dangerous’ Western Values,” The New York Times, May 13, 2013; Chris Buckley, “China’s New Leadership Takes hard Line in Secret Memo,” The New York Times, August 19, 2013.

[viii]         Raymond Li, “Seven Subjects Off Limits for Teaching, Chinese Universities Told,” South China Morning Post, September 19, 2013.

[ix]          “Xi Jinping’s 19 August speech revealed?” (Translation), China Copyright and Media.   For a discussion of the authenticity of the leaked CCP document see Cary Huang and Keith Zhai, “Xi Jinping rallies party for propaganda war on internet,” South China Morning Post, September 4, 2013.

[x]           Jeremy Page, “China Spins New Lesson From Soviet Fall,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2013, 1.18; Jane Perlez, “Strident Video by Chinese Military Casts U.S. as Menace,” The New York Times, October 31, 2013. The program was available on November 2013 at but was later removed.

[xi]          Page, “China Spins New Lesson From Soviet Fall.”

[xii]          For an insightful discussion of the relation between CCP authority and semi-autonomous nationalist activism see, James Reilly, Strong Society, Smart State; the Rise of Public Opinion in China’s Japan Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[xiii]         One study found that a Google search of the Chinese media yielded 210,000 uses over a several year period of key three-phrase descriptions of putative Vietnamese and Philippine violations of China’s sovereignty and resources in the South China Sea. Zheng Wang, “Bad Memories, Good Dream: the Legacy of Historical Memory and China’s Foreign Policy,” The Asan Forum (July 25, 2014): 10,

[xiv]         Jeff Bader, a key Obama China aide during his first term, recounts in his memoir the intimidation of less militant-minded voices in China’s elite during the 2009-2010 debate.   Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama and China’s Rise; An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2012, 109. 122. 104-05).