Analytic Guidance: Watching for Chinese Intelligence Service Purges

4 MINS READMar 3, 2015 | 20:52 GMT
A Chinese soldier stands guard behind a door of the Great Hall of the People during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on March 3.
(GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese soldier stands guard behind a door of the Great Hall of the People during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on March 3.

Beijing's expansive anti-corruption campaign might have found a new institution to target. On Feb. 25, Ma Jian, China's vice minister of the Ministry of State Security — the nation's top intelligence institution — was removed from his seat on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress. The removal followed a Jan. 16 announcement that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection was investigating him for corruption.

The Ministry of State Security conducts surveillance on Communist Party of China officials at all levels — perhaps even members of China's highest governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee — making it an extraordinarily powerful and politically sensitive institution. A number of developments indicate that President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive may soon target the Ministry of State Security in order to strengthen his hold and replace key leaders. Such a course could also ensure that Xi has access to intelligence on potential threats in the Chinese hierarchy and prevent the institution from being turned against him.

There is always a chance that the investigation into Ma was an isolated case. It comes, however, at a time when Xi is using his anti-corruption campaign to eliminate corruption and consolidate political power. The president has already mounted sustained campaigns to eliminate the networks of Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua and targeted the military. This pattern raises the possibility that the Ministry of State Security has become the next target.

China Intelligence organization chart

China's Executive Structure and Intelligence Services

At this stage it is impossible to confirm that the Ministry of State Security as a whole has come under investigation. There is evidence, though, that Zhou and Ling's networks extended into the ministry. Zhou was a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee with power bases in domestic security, Sichuan province and the energy sector. Ling was a top aide to former President Hu Jintao who was said to sit atop the so-called Secretary Gang. Ma was allegedly targeted because of involvement with Ling's Founder Group. 

Chinese state media — and by proxy, Beijing — have confirmed only the removal of Ma from the Ministry of State Security. Reports from independent media, however, suggest that Xi may already have acted to clear other former Zhou associates in the ministry. Beijing Ministry of State Security chief Liang Ke came under investigation in January 2014, according to U.S.-based Mingjing News. Liang was reportedly spying on Politburo Standing Committee officials for Zhou at the direction of Qiu Jin, a Ministry of State Security vice minister and counterintelligence chief. This might explain the Feb. 22 report from state-run Xinhua that Liang had been dismissed and replaced.

Qiu, who reportedly directed Liang, was a high-ranking Communist Youth League member — an organization affiliated with Hu as well as with purged official Ling. Qiu allegedly became Ministry of State Security vice minister in charge of counterintelligence in 2002 and was one of Zhou's top associates. Zhou reportedly handpicked Qiu as a trusted representative to defuse a high-profile crisis when Chongqing Public Security chief Wang Lijun took shelter the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in March 2012. Mingjing reported that Qiu was implicated in the Liang case in 2014 and was supposedly removed from power at the time and replaced by Ma.

Contradictory reports about Qiu have appeared since Ma was removed from power. Reuters reported Jan. 16 that Qiu had taken over for Ma — a remarkable rehabilitation if Qiu was removed last year and had ties with Zhou. Qiu himself then published a People's Daily article praising Xi's espionage legislation on Feb. 12. Mingjing, however, reported Jan. 18 that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection took Qiu away Jan. 16 because of his ties with Zhou. These reports — aside from the People's Daily article — are unconfirmed, but the volume of chatter supports the idea that something is happening.

What to Look For

The sensitive nature of the Ministry of State Security means that unlike with other targeted institutions, the government may not officially announce an anti-corruption campaign. Xi might make public new intelligence legislation that implements streamlining or leads to reorganization of the intelligence service in keeping with one of his major 2014 focuses on counterespionage legislation. Going forward, it is important to watch for the introduction of such legislation at the National People's Congress.

If Xi does target the Ministry of State Security, its leaders will not be passive. Unusual things tend to happen when intelligence services come under attack. Intelligence gathered on Communist Party of China leaders could enable intelligence officials to retaliate. It is important to monitor for any information leaks appearing in the media that catch Xi or his allies off guard. Any signs of a wave of officials defecting from the ministry would also be noteworthy.

Finally, it is important to see whether Qui and Minister Geng Huichang stay in their positions. Geng is said to be a lame duck with little influence of his own, but if Xi wants to enforce his control over the ministry, he may replace Geng with an ally who has substantial political power.

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