Hidden Players in Policy Processes: Examining China's National Security Research Bureaucracy

Deba R. Mohanty,Researcher,IDSA


No sovereign nation is an island in today's interdependent world. Interdependence, indeed, has become a fact of life in any sphere of activity. The national security of any country is no exception to this fact. It, by definition, requires consideration of a whole range of global factors which impinge on a country's security. In this respect, China's national security is no different from that of any other country. How does one define China's national security research bureaucracy (NSRB)? If one adopts a narrow definition of national security research to include only assessments of threats to Chinese territorial integrity, then one is in fact talking about defence policy that equates national security with military threats. If national security is defined so as to include a broader range of research on international security affairs and specific area studies including major factors like economic and political developments which now play an important role in the global strategic balance, then China's case is worth investigating. In this article, I will try to examine the role that China's national security research has played in the past and show how its bureaucratic system has brought about a mixed result so far in this field.Before any assessment is made, it is important to commence with a close look at a Chinese conceptualisation of national security for the simple reason that a one-sided approach may lead ultimately to a wrong conclusion.

Defining China's National Security

China takes a holistic approach to national security. This is quite evident from the fact that its consideration of actors and events in the field of international relations is not confined to its immediate Asian periphery. Chinese national security specialists nowadays frequently use the term "comprehensive" to describe their research approach. This approach has become more prominent especially after the end of the Cold War. The term "comprehensive" includes several functional areas —political, economic, military—in studying issues external to China. Within the broad field of international relations which they conceive of strictly as relations between states, the Chinese generally make a further distinction between foreign relations or diplomacy (waijiao) and foreign affairs (waishi). The latter includes a whole range of interactions between the Chinese and foreigners (including business, cultural, journalistic, etc.) usually in mainland China. Yet when one of these interactions is put on the leadership's agenda and thereby assumes a diplomatic dimension, it becomes the former. It can even be considered as a matter of international relations. In brief, foreign affairs can be considered as international contacts inside states. Foreign relations can be considered as relationship between states, and international relations as broader interaction among states. This approach which is quite flexible, hence complex, takes a broader picture of international relations altogether while analysing from a Chinese perspective.

The holistic approach to national security has been characteristic of Chinese strategists since Sun Tzu1 who have placed relatively less emphasis on purely military considerations than the political, economic, psychological, or moral aspects of inter-state relations and conflict. In Chinese military strategy, the human factor is deemed crucial.2 Staying power is more important than fire power. The opponent's tactical advantages can be offset by strategic planning, deception and moral justness. Implicit, therefore, in Chinese war-fighting strategies and writings about international relations is a sense of the long term. Western security planners, on the contrary, give emphasis on a specific frame for achieving the objectives. They believe that the order-of-battle can only be measured in terms of armaments, force disposition, command, control, and communications. Apparent differences between the Chinese and Western approaches also exist in the field of negotiations. Chinese negotiators have a protracted sense of time and work from general principles to specific points while Westerners tend to take the opposite routes.3 In brief, the Chinese definition of national security contrasts sharply with, and is more inclusive than, its general Western equivalent. Based on this foundation, an attempt has been made to examine the evolution and structure of the research component of the sprawling Chinese NSRB as a means of contributing to a significant degree the professional environment in which important strategic assessments are made.

In China, basic data needed for thorough research are tightly controlled and distributed as a scarce resource. This problem gets multiplied when one examines a specific, important field of study like military strategy or national security. However, though the effect of the post-Third Plenum reforms on China's NSRB has been quite modest, it has nonetheless attracted scholars to pursue more vigorously the important issues that have come up during the recent years. The NSRB's institutional revival and reorganisation, the resumption of publishing, and the increased opportunities for foreign interactions with working level Chinese analysts are some of the positive indicators that contemporary researchers have discovered. This does not mean that China has opened up completely. Identifying the exact location, functions, and interaction of several concerned individuals and institutions in the national security research hierarchy is still problematic. Most of their publications remain classified and restricted to internal circulation. There are different levels in this system. It appears that the lowest in the hierarchy is guonei faxing (domestic circulation), followed up by neibu faxing (internal circulation), xian neibu faxing (limited internal circulation), neibu cankao ziliao (internal reference materials), neibu kanwu (internal examination), zhu yi baocun (carefully protect), and a range of higher designations in the system of secret (baomi or jimi) government and military documents.4 Only a few of their published products are translated in the West and consequently never reach the broad community of strategic specialists who cannot read Chinese. These are some of the major hindrances that the researchers face when they analyse any aspect of Chinese society. In brief, in the case of China," the observer is in no position to offer certainties, only a tentative assessment subject to modifications as evidence comes in."5

Research on National Security: Institutional Structure and Process

All institutions in China must be considered in terms of the larger bureaucratic systems (xitong) to which they belong.6 The NSRB is no exception. A xitong is a functional bureaucratic hierarchy characterised by vertical configuration. It usually stretches from the higher strata of government in Beijing down to the local units scattered throughout China. In the case of China, relevant security research institutions belong to two main apex bodies: the State Council and the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. Some interesting facts are mentioned here for a better understanding of the system itself. The NSRB reflects a general structural characteristic of the Chinese bureaucracy marked prominently by vertical lines of authority. It is a highly compartmentalised system where there is minimal horizontal interaction between the institutions and the individuals below the zenith of the system. However, it also shares many of the informal mechanisms which are ingrained in the Chinese political culture. These take a number of forms but all entail bonds of mutual obligation. The Chinese conceive of three main types of relations: leadership, administrative, and professional. Among the three, leadership possesses both vertical and horizontal relationships. These relationships are based on a variety of common socialising experiences, kinship or clientalistic-based exchange relationships which have a powerful impact on the policy-making as well as implementation processes. In addition to this, the Chinese, during the recent years, have instituted several bureaucratic reforms aimed at creating mechanisms to regularise and coordinate the decision-making process which have affected the NSRB. International relations specialists are increasingly being consulted by policy makers on a wide range of issues. This takes several forms. Individual specialists are commissioned to write reports for the top leadership. Some others brief the leadership on specific issues personally. Ad-hoc groups of working level policy makers and outside analysts are convened to discuss particular issues from time to time. Initiatives by scholars for better informal and formal exchanges are also noticed nowadays.

A number of professional and research institutions, including several associations, concerned with international relations and area studies have been established, especially since 1979. They hold annual meetings, sponsor publications, and otherwise facilitate the exchange of research findings. Symposia on topics related to international security are now convened frequently. Usually a select group of specialists meets to discuss topics such as the Superpower Military Balance, Arms Control and Disarmament, Indo-China Relations, and so forth. Select Chinese experts from both civilian and military research and policy-making institutions attend these meetings. In some cases, joint conferences with foreign counterparts are also convened.

Several coordinating mechanisms have been established at the top of the system. The Foreign Affairs Small Group of the CCP Central Committee, the Foreign Affairs Consultation Group of the State Council, and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress all serve as policy coordination points for the top leadership. The Central Military Commission (CMC) operates similarly with respect to its bailiwick, although less is known about its functioning. Of key importance is the establishment of the International Studies Research Centre under the State Council which serves as a clearing house for transmitting raw and finished intelligence as well as policy papers from the lower to the highest levels of the government. One may notice that in the post-Mao era, the locus of the decision-making at the apex of the system institutionally has shifted from the Politburo to the Central Committee Secretariat and State Council and the decision-making process has become more collectivised and less prone to the whims of an individual leader or the machinations of factional strife.7 At the same time, at the lower levels, the newly opened consultative channels have decentralised the foreign policy network and increased the diversity of opinions. Another point worth mentioning is that the NSRB is located in Beijing. The Shanghai Institute of International Studies is the only institution outside Beijing to conduct serious research on strategic issues and to have some impact on policy planning. Provincial and municipal affiliates of several institutions are indeed peripheral to the policy process which in other words also implies that physical distance from the capital begets intellectual distance from policy relevant research.8

University-based scholars tend to be "establishment intellectuals" whose main professional function is to propagate officially sanctioned Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrines via teaching and publishing.9 Universities in China, particularly their social science departments and international studies programmes, primarily concern themselves with training students for careers as cadres and inculcating them with requisite tools (which includes a heavy dose of Marxism-Leninism) rather than pursuing independent research. This situation, inherited for obvious reasons from the Soviet educational system during the 1950s, is gradually changing as the Western tradition of serious university-based research is gaining wider currency.

As is evident, serious research is carried out in selected professional research institutes in which the civilian sector plays an important role. The increased professionalisation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), streamlining of its organisational structure, significant drop in the military representation at the Central Committee and more importantly Politburo, and the resurrection of several civilian research institutes in the post-Mao era have all contributed to the "civilianisation" of the NSRB.10 Also, a closer look at the qualitative aspect of research in the NSRB reveals some common characteristics. First, there is a marked increase in emphasis being given to area studies. The NSRB contains many country specialists. Most of the institutes are configured along regional lines with research sections for North America, the Soviet Union/Russia and Eastern Europe, South and South-East Asia, the Middle East, and so on. Many analyses continue to be couched in ideologically doctrinnaire terms. This obviously tends to make such analyses highly subjective and hence often not accurate. However, in recent years, a marked increase in objective analyses has been noticed that presents a step forward in analytical quality of research. Second, it has also been noticed that little research is conducted on functional topics which cross-cut area studies. Most research on security issues takes place in the context of studying foreign policies of the major states. Researchers ignore many subjects like bureaucratic politics and decision-making, war causation and conflict escalation, theories of deterrence, energy issues, etc., which are common in mainstream studies of international security affairs. Third, the Chinese give strong emphasis on state sovereignty, national interests and geo-politics while researching international security. The "search for wealth and power" and memories of imperial encroachment upon Chinese national sovereignty are some important operative factors in the psychological milieu of most members of the NSRB.

Key National Security Research Institutes

Among the national security research institutions, some were established in the post-Mao era and others before it. Many institutes were closed down during, and revived after, the Cultural Revolution. For reasons of national security, a few continued to operate throughout this chaotic period. The earliest of the institutes were established during the 1950s. The year 1964 is important because during this year several institutes were created due to the effort of the then Premier, Zhou En Lai, who in that year had visited Africa and was apparently impressed by the number of young diplomats he met there. Many new institutions have also been established after 1979.

The State Council and its sub-units are the consumers, not generators, of national security research.11 Its core group consists of 15 senior officials who meet periodically (twice a week) and assume operational control of the foreign policy-making process. An informal "foreign affairs coordination point" meets to coordinate diplomatic, political, and economic policies. These two sub-groups form the nexus of foreign policy, and to some extent national security policy decision-making. For this purpose, both depend heavily upon the research output of the NSRB which is channelled through another key State Council unit—the International Studies Research Centre (ISRC). As an institution, the ISRC's functions resemble those of the US National Security Council (NSC) staff and its head is almost equivalent to the NSC adviser. The centre acts as a conduit and central transmission point to channel intelligence, research reports and policy documents to the top leadership. Its small staff of approximately 30 undertakes some research and advocates specific policy positions. Its influence is best measured by the documents it chooses to forward to the leadership with the all important "covering memo."12

The Institute for Contemporary International Relations (ICIR) is the largest, though not the most important, research institute in the NSRB. It has a research staff of over 300. The ICIR is the Chinese government's main civilian foreign intelligence research unit. It carries out current intelligence research of a short-term nature and provides the Chinese leadership with biographic profiles and other materials in preparation for state visits, and prepares finished intelligence reports and national estimates which circulate throughout the upper echelons of the government. The ICIR's origin can be traced to the Communists' intelligence operations during the Sino-Japanese War, although since that time it has undergone several reorganisations and changes of name.13 It was partly closed down during the Cultural Revolution and since 1982 it has begun to emerge as a fully operational unit. It apparently continues to have some kind of identity crisis as to whether it is an intelligence unit that is supposed to be wary of foreigners or a research institute that intends to interact with them. But this position seems to have changed drastically during the late 1980s and early 1990s because it is noticed that this institute has been hosting several colloquia, inviting foreigners as well as sending some of its own staff abroad for training. It publishes a famous journal called Contemporary International Relations which focusses on current strategic, domestic, political and economic issues. Articles in this journal has been found to be of high analytical quality, empirically sound and unencumbered by Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. The ICIR's research staff is divided into seven regional research divisions (North America, Latin America, Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Western Europe, South and South-East Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, West Asia and Africa) and one "comprehensive" section that researches on global strategic, security and national security issues. It includes some of China's best known strategic analysts like Zhou Jirong, Wang Baoqin, Qi Ya, Ren Mei, Lun Wen and Chen Zongjing. Its researchers are mainly recruited from the College of International Relations. The college which was closed down during the Cultural Revolution was reopened in 1978. It publishes the internally circulated journal International Affairs Study.

A reasonable amount of research on national and international security is also carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), its Embassies abroad, and the affiliated Institute of International Studies (IIS) and the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS). Within the MFA, most of the research is undertaken by regional bureaus and country desks. Research on arms control and disarmament is carried out under the International Affairs and Organisations Department which has prepared China's position papers for the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva and the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD). Yu Mengjie, Shi Jicheng, Hu Xiaodi and Li Changde are some of the leading specialists on arms control and disarmament. The MFA's small Foreign Policy Research Office also provides studies on international security. The MFA-administered College of Foreign Affairs teaches a range of courses bearing on Chinese national security for career diplomats. The MFA's principal think-tank is the Institute of International Studies which was established in 1956. Between 1966 and 1978, it was dormant. After the downfall of the "gang of four" it began to rebuild itself as a leading foreign policy research institution. Its prestigious publication, Research on International Studies, has become a most authoritative mouthpiece for elaborating China's semi-official position on various international issues. It gets research projects on an irregular basis from the MFA. Its research is classified and not only circulated in the MFA but throughout the upper echelons of the government. It has got five regional and two functional research sections.14 Noted specialists of this institute are Ye Ri'an, Zheng Weizhi, Pei Monong, Guo Fengmin, Zhuang Qubing, Jin Junhin, Li Ning, Qian Dayong, Qian Nengxin, and others.

The SISS is under the guidance of the MFA. Though it is a nearly autonomous institute with a great deal of independence, in theory it answers to the Shanghai municipal government from which it receives the majority of its funding. It was founded in 1960 by the late Vice-Mayor of Shanghai, Jin Zhonghua. Like the IIS and other research institutes, it was closed down during the Cultural Revolution and fully reestablished only after August 1978. It consists of nearly 100 researchers. It has got five regional sections : the United States, Western Europe, Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Publications of the SIIS are testimony to the high analytical quality of the research staff. It publishes the internally circulated journal, Materials on International Studies, and its staff frequently publish in local and national newspapers and scholarly journals. It also publishes the annual Yearbook of the International Situation, a comprehensive interpretive survey of world events. Prominent scholars of the institute include Ding Xinghao, Zhang Jialin, Ji Guoxing, Liu Guangqing, Chen Peiya, Chun Hofeng and others.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has become a key centre of international relations and area studies research in China. Established in 1977, it has grown to include 32 research institutes. Though it includes seven area studies institutes and five others dealing with aspects of international affairs, only portions of three can be considered as part of the NSRB. The Foreign Policy Research Division of the American Institute, Soviet Union/East European Institute as well as sub-divisions of the Institute of World Politics and Economics (IWEP) must be considered as the core of research conducted on international security affairs at CASS. It is significant to note here that those not considered to belong to the NSRB but doing related research on international affairs include the South Asia Institute, among others. Zhang Jingyi, Hua Di, and He Di are key strategic analysts associated with the American strategy and foreign relations division of the American Institute. They, along with others, publish articles in newspapers and journals including the highly classified journal of the Institute, Reference Materials in American Studies. The Research Office of the Foreign Relations of the Soviet Union/Russia of the CASS Soviet and East European Institute primarily conducts research on Sino-Soviet relations, Soviet military deployments, strategic policy, etc. The IWEP has a strong concentration of international economists who conduct research on several economic aspects, both domestic and international.

International security affairs are both taught and researched at the specialised College of Foreign Affairs and College of International Relations. However, very little research or teaching is conducted in comprehensive "key point" universities. It is to be noted here that only three famous universities in the entire country (Beijing University, People's University, and Fudan University) have international politics departments. According to David Shambaugh, conventional topics like post-World War II international relations, theories of international relations, and foreign policies of major powers are taught whose content is little more than officially-approved Marxist-Leninist reicarnations of descriptive history. Controversial topics are either ignored or portrayed in a propagandistic manner. Research conducted by faculty members on general international relations is only marginally better than their course content. Research on Chinese foreign policy is almost non-existent in these universities.15 University-based scholars in China face tremendous hindrances in obtaining reference materials since the best available materials are kept in the national archives or professional research institutes which are generally out of bounds to university personnel. Another primary reason for the university based research is the adoption of the Soviet educational model, adopted by China during the 1950s. This system distinguishes between research carried out by professional research institutes whose product is used by the government and research carried out by the educational institutes which give input for training graduates for further research endeavours. The Chinese are now trying to correct this deficiency by adopting aspects of the American educational system, such as establishing research institutes at universities.

Very little is known about research on national security and international security affairs in the Chinese military establishment.16 What is known relates more to structure than process. All militaries observe secrecy, but the Chinese by comparison seem excessive. This also can be related to the general psyche of the Chinese society itself that regards information as a prime possession. This is a major problem for scholars who research on China. However, some information on China, though very little, has come to light about the composition of security research organisations in the military establishment.

Within the Ministry of National Defence (MND), all three service arms maintain research organs. All types of research, especially tactical, logistical, and strategic planning, is carried out by these organs. It is very difficult to know which area gets top priority. Supplementary to this is research done in the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) which, according to one source, is of four types: (1) history of Chinese wars, both pre- and post-1949; (2) history of foreign wars and foreign military history; (3) war strategy and weaponry; and (4) translations of important foreign military books.17 Information about foreign military thinking and weaponry is acquired through interaction with foreign counterparts, the National Defence Science and Technology Commission, and National Defence Industries Office. The latter two maintain separate research sections devoted to the study of foreign weapons systems.

The Beijing Institute of International Strategic Studies (BIISS) is the MND's principal research unit devoted to international security affairs. It is the MND's main contact point with foreign civilian experts.18 It was created in 1979. It has links with the PLA's General Staff Department (GSD).19 Actual research carried out by BIISS is unclear. It appears that it acts as a conduit point for the Chinese and foreign experts. It, in reality, is like an informal association that meets when warranted. It does not have a real office or a research staff. It has established international contacts with more than 30 prominent institutes including the Rand Corporation, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and others. Its views are heard by the central military leaders and foreign policy elites.20 It publishes a periodical called International Strategy.

The CMC and its affiliated institutes form the core of the military component of the NSRB. It is in de facto control of the MND and the PLA. The General Political, General Logistics, and General Staff Departments of the PLA report directly to the CMC. The GSD contributes the greatest input into the NSRB. Also of key importance to the CMC is the new National Defence University, (NDU), established in 1986. It is directly under the CMC and has been formed by merging the PLA Military Academy, Political Academy, and Logistics Academy. Its tasks are three-fold: (1) to train the senior Commanders at and above the military region level; (2) to play an advisory role in the policy decision-making of the CMC and the PLA; and (3) to research strategic issues and modernisation of national defence.21 Some high ranking civilian party cadres have also joined the NDU. It has a National Defence Research Department, a Basic Research Department, an Advanced Studies Department, a Strategy Research Institute, an Army Building Research Institute, a Marxism Research Institute, a post-graduate college and a teacher training course. Though it has been formed recently, the very nature and objectives of its establishment along with the importance attached to it by the CMC point to the fact that it has significant potential to contribute to the NSRB.


A majority of the NSRB research products are classified, and never see the light of day. Censorship remains an operative fact of life in Chinese publishing. The external audience seldom gets an insight into its important products. Foreign scholars only get some information from major newspapers which publish distilled information on issues that concern China. Also, Chinese authored books on international security affairs and Chinese foreign policy are very few.

China has a sprawling NSRB which is composed both of military and civilian analysts. The Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Institute of International Studies, Beijing Institute of International Strategic Studies, Shanghai Institute of International Studies, Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of World Economics, the General Staff Department and the National Defence University together form the core of the NSRB. The NSRB has been witnessing profound changes during recent years which shows that the changing times have brought about a change in China's strategic thinking as well. The Marxist-Leninist model, Soviet pattern of education and heavy ideological leaning all have been slowly paving the way for a more professional outlook that reflects the pragmatism of the NSRB. It is becoming increasingly specialised and competent. The system itself is becoming better coordinated and regularised. In brief, professionalisation of the national security policy process has begun. China has chosen to participate in today's international community which is marked by increasing interdependence. To be a responsible participant in this global community requires a recognition by China that its national security is not an isolated phenomenon but mingled with international security affairs. The proliferation of the NSRB in the recent years is a testimony to this linkage. Its continued evolution is a very good indication of China's commitment to international security.


1. Military and other aspects of inter-state relations and conflict have been narrated by Sun Tzu in great detail. See, Sun Tzu, The Art of War (translated with an introduction by Samuel B. Griffith), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).

2. After China became a People's Republic in 1949, Chairman Mao's thought became a dominant undercurrent in contemporary Chinese military strategy. For an analysis of the post-1949 development, see Stuart R. Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-tung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

3. Among the scholarly analyses on Chinese negotiation style, Lucian Pye's work has been by far the most comprehensive. See Lucian Pye, Chinese Commercial Negotiating Style (Cambridge: Gunn and Hain 1982). Also see Richard Solomon, Chinese Political Negotiations Behaviour (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 1985).

4. See Michael Schoenhals, Elite Information in China, Problems of Communism, September-October 1985, pp. 65-71. Also see, David L. Shambaugh, a "Profile of International Relations on Chinese Campuses and IR Associations and Publishing in the PRC," China Exchange News, June 1985, pp. 11-17.

5. Coral Bell, "China: The Communists and the World," in F.S. Northedge ed., The Foreign Policy of the Powers (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), p. 120.

6. A. Doak Barnett, The Making of Foreign Policy in China: Structure and Process (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985), p. 31.

7. n. 6, p. 32.

8. David L. Shambaugh, "China's National Security Research Bureaucracy," The China Quarterly, no. 121, June 1990, p. 285.

9. For a discussion of the relationship between the Chinese state and intelligentsia, see Carol Lee Hamrin and Timothy Cheek eds., China's Establishment Intellectuals (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1986). Also see Merle Goldman, China's Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

10. n. 8, p. 285.

11. For a detailed account of the functioning of the State Council, see n. 6, pp. 51-73.

12. n. 8, p. 288.

13. For a brief of the history of ICIR, see n. 8, pp. 289-90.

14. They are the Americas (North and South), the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Middle East/Africa/South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, International Economics and a comprehensive research section.

15. n. 8, p. 301.

16. Almost all previous studies on Chinese military establishments contain little discussion on this topic which is quite understandable.

17. For a broad description, see Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun zhanshi jianbian (Concise History of the Wars of the People's Liberation Army) (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 1983). Also see Chinese People's Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences' Foreign Military Research Group eds., Introduction to the Development of Foreign Weapons Systems, (Beijing: China Foreign Language Translation Press, 1983).

18. Wang Gangxi, "Beijing's Academic Brain Trust, China Daily, January 8, 1986.

19. Zhang Chunting and Zhang Qinsheng, "Beijing's Military Salon," Foreign Broadcasting Information Service (FBIS), China Daily Report, December 5, 1985, p. K10.

20. Ibid., p. K10.

21. Ibid., p. K11.