Journal of Human Security | 2016 | Volume 12 | Issue 1 | Pages 112–120
DOI: 10.12924/johs2016.12010112
ISSN: 1835–3800
Journal of
Human Security
Research Article
Human Security: China’s Discourses and Experience
Xiao Ren
Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, China
Submitted: 28 February 2016 | In revised form: 3 July 2016 | Accepted: 2 August 2016 |
Published: 6 September 2016
This article addresses three research questions by elaborating on how the idea of human
security is understood or defined by the government and social actors in China; how the distinction between
the “protection” aspect and “empowerment” aspect of human security is understood and accepted; and
what particular downside risks are perceived as pressing human security issues in China. Amongst these
the major ones include air pollution, food security, and cyber security. The study reveals that, whilst as
a term “human security” is not frequently used, there have been significant discussions leading to the
consideration and implementation of various human security practices in China. The idea of human security
has been firmly established and threats to human security detected. For both the government and academic
community in China, human security and state security are not necessarily confrontational but can rather
be combined, often complimenting each other. Recent developments in China are pointing to a positive
direction in terms of human security in the country.
Keywords: China; empowerment; human security; practice; protection
1. Introduction
Human security, defined as freedom from want, freedom
from fear and dignity, by the Commission on Human Se-
curity led by Sadako Ogata and Amatya Sen, which the
UN General Assembly endorsed by referring to the “right
of people to live in freedom and dignity, has also drawn
attention in China, where it has helped made progress over
the years. Though the very term “human security” has not
been widely used in China thus far, a number of similar
ideas or practices have been flourishing in China recently.
This paper tries to elaborate on China’s experience with
respect to human security by respectively dealing with three
major issues, namely, how the idea of human security is
understood or defined by the government and social actors;
how the distinction between the “protection” aspect and “em-
powerment” aspect of human security is understood and
accepted; and what particular downside risks are perceived
as pressing human security issues in China. The paper
concludes with an overall assessment of human security
practices in China and the right direction indicated by their
2. The Understanding of Human Security in China
2.1. A New Consensus
In China, the government is often wary of new academic
terms and tends not to use them directly. However, the facts,
according to our previous study, have clearly shown China’s
trajectory of increasingly attaching more importance to “hu-
man (both individual and collective) security. Much more
attention has been paid to mitigating threats to human secu-
rity and a number of measures are being taken in the practice
to fulfill this mandate [
]. I would like to emphasize the con-
vergence of the idea of human security and China’s practices.
My findings have disproved the following statement, i.e., “the
very notion of ‘human security’ has so far not appeared in
2016 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
the Chinese language in any possible translation, and the
Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has not even accepted or
adopted the concept of ‘human security’ in either domestic
development papers or foreign policy guidelines. . . [
]. My
examination has suggested otherwise. Though the Chinese
government has only used the very term “human security” on
a few occasions, China has been engaged in the enterprise
for enhancing human security.
China’s becoming more open and susceptible to human
security has much to do with its experience within the United
Nations system. As one of P5 members of the UN Security
Council, China has long been supportive of the UN, the
most important international organization in the world today,
and has played a proactive role in various areas such as
peace-building, development, and global governance. Over
the years, the UN has encountered a number of criticisms
and it is widely believed that reforms are needed, of which
China is supportive. Nevertheless, Beijing always supports
the UN believing that it plays an irreplaceable role in global
governance, and tries to prop up the UN to encourage it
to play such a role well [
]. This has been an unchanged
priority on China’s foreign policy agenda.
China’s steady backing has boosted the status of the
UN in world affairs, at a time when the world is faced with
growing global challenges into the first decades of the 21st
century. Meanwhile, the UN has taken the lead in advocating
and/or spreading norms or principles, and this helps affect
and shape China’s perspective. Usually, UN initiatives or pro-
posals attract Chinas attention and prompt Beijing to take a
close look at them, before taking actions to adapt to the new
norms or principles. For example, China was involved in the
deliberations and adoption of the UN World Summit Outcome
document in 2005. Although it is not the same thing as the
“Responsibility to Protect” idea proposed by the International
Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)
], to some extent the Outcome Document is consistent with
this in terms of thinking around protection. The Outcome
Document attempts to strike a balance between protecting
innocent people around the world from being harmed and
avoiding the abuse of external intervention or selfish behavior
in the name of protection. For this the outcome document im-
poses limitations by listing four specific crimes against which
the international community should take action to protect
people from being jeopardized, i.e. via genocide, war crimes,
ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this way the
Outcome Document has become a new international legal
document. China was involved in this process and made its
own contribution to it. Thus, involvement in global or regional
institutions has pushed China to clarify or develop its thinking
on human security.
Against the backdrop of the great earthquake and
tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, in June
2011, the Ministerial MDGs Follow-up Meeting was held
under the UN framework in Tokyo, Japan. China sent Vice
Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai to attend the meeting. In the
speech he delivered, Cui, as the representative of the Gov-
ernment of China, stated:
“To discuss the MDGs from the angle of human security
offers a thought-provoking perspective. We believe that the
MDGs and human security are interrelated and should be
mutually reinforcing. The MDGs embody so many aspects of
human security, while the realization of MDGs aims at greater
well-being and security for more people in the first place”.
By pointing to the fact that “the general picture of global
security remains disturbing. Civilians in North Africa and the
Middle East continue to bear the brunt of turmoil. Innocent
women and children are still being displaced or killed in armed
conflicts in various parts of the world”, Cui stated, “These give
rise to the call for a new concept on security (italics added)
and an international political order where the United Nations
should play a central role. We strongly believe that the pur-
poses and principles of the UN Charter should be upheld,
and Security Council resolutions should be implemented in
a faithful manner. [. . . ] In a word, if human security in the
larger sense of the term is still so much threatened, there is
little hope for better individual security” [5].
This is an illuminating example of China clearly and
definitively adopting and using both the idea and terminol-
ogy of human security in the context of a formal UN meeting.
Though it was an event on MDGs and not specifically on
human security, the term “human security” was explicitly
employed to express China’s opinion and position.
This discourse was reinforced by further developments.
In February 2014, Ms. Fu Ying, Chairwoman of the National
People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, was invited
to and spoke at the Munich Security Conference. She ar-
gued that the security for people to survive and develop is
fundamental to all forms of security. The core of the Chi-
nese Dream of the revival of the Chinese nation, proposed
by President Xi Jinping, is to make the 1.3 billion Chinese
people live a better and happier life. In other words, all
ordinary people have the right and are entitled to live with
dignity in a secure environment. This is the attraction of
China’s success story to the world, as well as the charm of
the Chinese dream [
]. This line of thinking has many ele-
ments in common with the widely shared “human security”
idea. For instance, both have an emphasis on individuals
and their happiness, and this has to be fulfilled together with
national development. Ends and means should come along
together, and the persistent value should be that people
should not be sacrificed for whatever national goals.
The key point here is that Chinas security concept is un-
dergoing a profound transformation. A new consensus has
emerged which assumes security does not equal military se-
curity, and security should not only be comprehensive but also
people-centered. “National security now has new connotations.
2.2. The Third Plenum
During the landmark Third Plenum which was held in
November 2013, a major resolution for the comprehensive
deepening of China’s reform was deliberated and passed.
The long reformist document has sixteen parts and sixty
items. As an element in the thirteenth part, on a new social
governance system, it announced the decision to create
a new National Security Commission. The purpose is set
to improve the relevant institutions and strategy in order
to better safeguard China’s national security. According
to the explanatory speech Xi Jinping gave, reform and de-
velopment are conditioned on national security and social
stability, without which wider reform and development can-
not be further advanced. At present, China is faced with the
dual pressure of safeguarding national sovereignty, secu-
rity, and development interests externally and maintaining
political security and social stability internally. All kinds of
risks that can or cannot be foreseen are clearly increasing
while the country’s institutions and mechanisms for security
cannot meet the need of maintaining national security well,
and thus comes the demand for setting up a powerful and
capable platform to coordinate the whole national security
work. The responsibilities of the National Security Commis-
sion include formulating and implementing national security
strategies, advancing the construction of national security
rule of law, deciding national security guidelines and poli-
cies, and studying and solving major issues in the national
security work [
]. Quite understandably, this major decision
drew considerable attention from both home and abroad.
In April 2014, the first meeting of the new National Se-
curity Commission was held. According to the speech Xi
Jinping delivered, the security of people has to be the main
objective. It has to be insisted upon that state security
should in every sense serve the people and rely on people.
The mass foundation of state security has to be laid and
consolidated [
]. This means that state security and human
security is not confrontational but, rather, that the two can
be combined in coexistence.
Internally, China is undergoing a modernization process
during which a number of contradictions are growing. At
a time of rapid economic and social development, a series
of social problems are accumulating which have not been
“digested” well. Some Chinese observers have noted that
“group incidents” resulting from unbalanced distribution of
interests break out often and that they are affecting social
stability negatively. Externally, the growth of China sees
some powers and neighboring countries hedging against
China’s interests, and as a result contradictions and frictions
in Chinas neighborhood are increasing. Moreover, these
challenges to social stability and security from home and
abroad are jointly entwined making them difficult to cope
with. In the current era, the concept of national security is
enriching in depth and widening in breadth, involving various
issues in various areas. They cannot be dealt with only via
foreign affairs, national defense, and security departments
but, rather, are demanding more agencies, social organiza-
tions and even the whole of society to work together [9].
Since the initiative to create China’s NSC appears in
the “social governance system” part of the November 2013
resolution, its domestic and internal security dimension is
self-evident. In the meantime, it is also obvious that the
commission’s work involves two dimensions, i.e. both ex-
ternal and internal, rather than just one. Thus the notion of
“security” that the initiative refers to is of comprehensive na-
ture. It is not difficult to come to this same conclusion simply
by thinking of the July 5, 2009 incident in Xinjiang, the riots
in Tibet and Tibet-related immolations in its neighboring
provinces, and the killing at the Kunming Railway Station on
March 1, 2014. During all these incidents innocent people
were killed or injured and some of the incidents were taken
advantage of by hostile external forces. That is arguably
why it is pretty widely believed that internal security will be
the dominant concern for China’s NSC, at least in its early
stage. When ordinary people can be harmed by violent
terrorist attacks in any place and without any warning, a
sense of insecurity arises and this can be frightening. Thus,
when freedom from want is no longer a problem in today’s
China, it is reasonable to expect that ordinary people may
also be free from fear. A broad concept of security of this
kind logically becomes the goal for China’s NSC.
In fact, as Cui Shunji of Zhejiang University points out,
since the initiation of reform, China’s high-level attention
paid to poverty reduction, the pursuit for a sustainable de-
velopment model, and China’s proposals for constructing
a “harmonious society” and “harmonious world” all indicate
that China has regarded guaranteeing basic human needs,
social justice and harmony, as well as sustainable devel-
opment as a continuum for national security [
]. “Letting
people live a happier life with more dignity” has become the
goal of national development, which indicates that China’s
recognition of human security has been elevated to the polit-
ical level. Putting people first and “governing for the people”
have become the new thinking for governing the country. As
a reflection of the foreign policy changes, handling foreign
affairs for the country is shifting to handling foreign affairs
for the people [10].
2.3. The “Non-Traditional Security” Discourse
In China’s research community, “human security” is often
related to the discourse on “non-traditional security” [
], a
term used for years. Obviously, so-called “non-traditional”
matters are in stark contrast to more “traditional” matters.
Traditional security usually refers to military security, namely,
assuring national security through boosting military power.
After the end of the Cold War, threats to security increas-
ingly come from non-military domains and become uncon-
ventional or “non-traditional” security threats. There are
many examples of such issues and they have often been
listed as financial crisis, terrorism, transnational crime, envi-
ronmental degradation, the spread of HIV Aids, scarcity of
water resource, food security, and so forth.
According to the summation by a leading Chinese re-
searcher, non-traditional security is broad-based, complex,
and multi-dimensional. First, non-traditional security is
broad-based: While traditional security falls into military,
political, and diplomatic areas, and its supreme value is the
pursuit of peace and the elimination of war or the “possibil-
ity of war,” non-traditional security is more about economic,
social, cultural, environmental threats as well as the emerg-
ing cyber security and space issues. In addition to peace,
“non-traditional security” relates to risk, crisis, emergency,
and daily threats to life. It also relates to natural disaster ac-
cidents, emerging public health incidents, and major public
security events.
Second, non-traditional security is complex: Threats to
non-traditional security are mainly threats to “societal secu-
rity” and “human security”. Society and its people are the
chief referent objects of non-traditional security, and a “safe
China” has societal and human dimensions. For individuals,
“safety” means that the security of people is guaranteed or,
namely, that individuals enjoy a state of existence in which
a person’s body is not injured, mind not harmed, property
not deprived, and living environment not undermined.
Third, non-traditional security is multi-dimensional: Ac-
cording to the place and origin of non-traditional security
events, the threats to non-traditional security facing a coun-
try can be placed into four categories: (1) “exogenous”
non-traditional security threats which take place abroad
and chiefly require a diplomatic approach; (2) “endogenous”
non-traditional security threats which take place at home
and chiefly require domestic handlings; (3) “bi-dogenous”
) non-traditional security threats which take place
in the peripheral areas that involve both domestic and in-
ternational handlings; and (4) “multi-dogenous” (
non-traditional security threats that involve both traditional
and non-traditional security issues and require the involve-
ment of the military in addition to other organizations [12].
Throughout the above process of ideational transition,
there occurred a few landmark crises that strike China
deeply, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis which
highlighted the importance of financial security, the 2003
SARS crisis which highlighted public health security, and
the March 1, 2014 terrorist attacks at the railway station of
Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. The March 1 violence
against innocent people especially amplified the serious se-
curity threat that ordinary people could encounter in their
daily lives. This genuine risk gave rise to a widespread
sense of fear.
Until recently security policy in China was mainly fo-
cused on state security, the importance of which nobody
denied. Now, “human” security has been put forward and it
is gaining momentum. It has undeniable value orientation.
In fact, Chinese scholars speak highly of “human security”
and argue that it goes beyond the limits of state-centric tra-
ditional security research and is the least traditional theory
in the non-traditional security domains [
]. Human security
research explicitly sees people as a collectivity and individ-
uals as the referent object of security. This transcends the
dilemma of more traditional security theory, since the state
can bring about insecurity to its citizens. Such a possibility,
after all, raises a question over the relationship between
state security and human security. Generally speaking, Chi-
nese researchers do not endorse the view that individual
security overrides state security or that the two are con-
frontational, but rather affirm the reasonableness and value
of state security at the same time.
For Shi Bin, a professor at Nanjing University, the hu-
man security idea is a focal embodiment of non-traditional
security and “new security” concepts, and yet the relation-
ship between “human security” and state security is actually
much more complicated. He has tried to elaborate on this
in the following ways.
First, both state security and human security, in terms
of their security concern or value pursuit, have legitimate
claims. However, neither of them can become absolutely
dominant. “Human security” is of course the fundamental
goal and ultimate value of human development. The value
orientation of putting people first with “human security” at
the center possesses the moral high ground and legitimacy.
However, a person has both individuality and sociality, and
an individual is often weak and helpless. Resisting foreign
military invasion and safeguarding national sovereignty and
territorial integrity are therefore in the nation’s common inter-
est. Nonetheless, the traditional state-centric security idea
and strategy indeed ignore the security needs of many non-
state or sub-national entities, and cannot adequately deal
with external non-military threats such as environmental
degradation and pandemic disease.
Second, although there is a tension between “human
security” and state security, and the two may conflict in prac-
tice, they still can be mutually accommodating and com-
plimentary if handled and balanced well, and therefore be
favorable for upgrading the overall security degree of all enti-
ties. People’s security and welfare, and the improvement of
their living condition and life quality, are an important base
for national identity, social stability and political legitimacy.
In this sense, “human security” and state security are not
necessarily contradictory [
]. For Shi, the “human security”
discourse has tangible Western value orientation, and in
practice has a tendency of overriding the security interests
of the sovereign state. The acclaimed “paradigm shift” from
the state to individual excessively downgrades the positive
role of the state in dealing with various security challenges.
For Zhang Yunling of the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences, the rise of non-traditional security issues does
not mean that traditional security is no longer important.
The appearance of non-traditional security on the agenda
and it being stressed imply that it has been included in the
category of “security”, and therefore the formation of a “com-
prehensive security” concept that includes both traditional
and non-traditional security as well as the corresponding
security policies seems to be desirable [15].
Taken together, when “non-traditional security” is in-
creasingly becoming the mainstream discourse in China,
the researchers tend not to deny the value of state secu-
rity but rather see human and state security as mutually
accommodating. Nevertheless, the theoretical shortcoming
of “non-traditional security”, as Guoguang Wu rightly points
out, is obvious as it is generally deployed against “traditional
security” without any positive and substantive defining of
the contents and nature of new “securities” [2].
Moreover, these days many things are securitized and
many issues become security issues. This may not be a
healthy situation. When security is discussed too much,
this could lead to a growth in insecurity. For example, in
China, “food safety” was not discussed often before but is
now widely talked about. This implies food safety was not
an issue but it is now. The deterioration of food safety is
a negative development which involves the need for moral
reconstruction in society.
Thus interaction between state security and personal
security is not a zero-sum game. The more state security
does not mean the less personal security, and vice versa.
The ultimate goal should be a calibrated balance between
the two.
As has been shown, the Chinese research community
has attached more importance to the issue of “human secu-
rity” in recent years. Meanwhile, they are not just following
others’ footsteps, but have come up with their own analyses
and views. Some researchers stress that both the starting
point and ultimate purpose of any society is the individual.
The emancipation of the individual should be the funda-
mental core of any social emancipation. It is the individual
who is the final destination of security and the core value
any security is supposed to protect, while the state is the
means or a temporary purpose [
]. The establishment
of the idea that “the individual is the purpose” as a value
has great significance for the Chinese society, after having
drawn lessons from the history of the People’s Republic
since 1949.
During the Cultural Revolution period, many innocent
people were attacked, detained, or persecuted illegally and
immorally, and the rights of people ignored or harmed. After
that disastrous decade, people reflected on their painful
experience and thought about the phenomena of imposing
horrible acts on innocent people which should never happen
again. In the early reform period, there emerged a move-
ment in China’s intellectual community aimed at promoting
the discussion of issues around humanism (rendao zhuyi)
and alienation (yi hua), during which many academics af-
firmed the significance of humanism and argued for the pro-
motion of human value. Some of them cautiously adopted
the term “Marxist humanism” or “socialist humanism” to
distinguish from the so-called “capitalist” doctrine. Not long
after, the debate abruptly came to a halt due to a political
intervention. However, along with further economic reform
and considerable social development, the awareness of the
individual man or woman in China was awakening and the
value of the individual confirmed. The initiative towards hu-
manism which began in the 1980s in fact became accepted
by the whole of Chinese society over time. This was also
reflected in discussions and research on “human security”
since it was made clear that guaranteeing human security
is the value basis for maintaining non-traditional security.
The protection of people and human development should
be set as the ultimate goals of any security policy. This is a
decisive and valuable intellectual progression.
The paradigm of human security opposes harm towards
human freedom and rights for motives of economic growth
or social stability. Neither is it in favor of pursuing economic
benefits and communitarian policies at the expense of sacri-
ficing the security and dignity of the individual or the nation.
The fundamental reason lies in the value of the individual
which is the key and ultimate aim, and there is no higher
goal than this.
The previous practices of both “collective security” and
“common security”, as one leading scholar in human
security—Yu Xiaofeng—argues, could not have avoided the
limitations arising when the state is regarded as the chief
actor. Aside from these, the notion “shared security,” which
Yu proposes, regards the human community as the central
target and beneficiary of security, the protection of human
life as the value base of security, social safety and prosperity
as the priority goal of security, and harmony and cooperation
as the supreme principle for security interactions between
the states [
]. This goes beyond the traditional discourse
and has the potential of being further developed theoretically.
3. Protection and Empowerment
According to the Human Security Now report and the Octo-
ber 2012 resolution adopted by the United Nations General
Assembly as a follow-up to paragraph 143 on human secu-
rity of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, human security
has two dimensions, i.e. protection and empowerment. In
China, the dimension of protection has drawn much atten-
tion, as is epitomized in the doctrine of “putting people first”
(yiren weiben) and “diplomacy serving the people” (waijiao
weimin), which we have discussed in detail in an earlier
study [
]. This is reinforced by further evidence and here is
one example. There was a Chinese newspaper correspon-
dent who reported from the National People’s Congress
(NPC) sessions and wrote about his experience. He was
deeply impressed by the attention the NPC delegates paid
to the concrete issues concerning people’s daily lives, in-
cluding social insurance, income distribution, rights of peas-
ant workers, food safety, unreasonably high drug prices, and
protection of stakeholders’ interests. For him, never before
had those kinds of issues been so meticulously discussed
at the NPC [
]. The changes the correspondent detected
indicated positive ongoing trends in human security terms.
A harmonious society has to be a society that puts peo-
ple first, which means people’s everyday life is a priority
for that society. A government that puts people first is a
government that represents people’s interests. Economic
and social development should put human development at
the center, and human development is the ultimate value
judgment for social progress [
]. Meanwhile, “the achieve-
ment of human security is a cooperative venture between
individual, society, and the state [
]”. Government as a
“necessary evil” is very much a Western invention and it
is not a Chinese idea. Traditionally, people in China often
have strong wishes regarding government and they want
government to do good things for them. Compared to the
Western political culture, they have less vigilance and more
expectations for government. One revealing example is the
use of the term “parent officials” (fumu guan) to refer to
government officials, which indicates that they are expected
to play a paternalistic role. Without a cooperative venture,
human security cannot be achieved.
On the protection side, while people-oriented ideals are
noble ones, the challenges come from the process of imple-
mentation. Not surprisingly, many problems are encountered,
a prominent one among which involves the area of land recruit-
ment and resident relocation. Sometimes the failure to protect
the rights and interests of ordinary people has led to con-
flict, and in some cases even extreme acts of protest. When
property development businessmen and power coalesce, they
arguably together undermine the interests of the ordinary peo-
ple who are affected. Protecting peoples legitimate interests
has become an outstanding issue in China’s human security
amidst drastic social changes and urbanization.
Moreover, the leadership came into office with a promise
to narrow a widening gap between rich and poor and shift to
a more environmentally and economically sustainable growth
model. GDP worship” has prevailed since GDP became
the government officials’ principle measure of accomplish-
ment, leading to the initiation of ‘achievement projects” and
“image projects”. These poorly planned projects can lead to
ill-conceived planning and environmental damage. When this
became obvious, a shift of policy had to be undertaken. “No
GDP growth at the expense of environment” is becoming a
new norm and “ecological civilization” the new banner.
The reform era has been characterized by success in
terms of rapid economic growth and the improvement of
people’s living standard. After three decades of successful
economic development, the country was standing on a new
starting point. If the ruling party’s historical promise to ‘let
some people get rich first and eventually arrive at common
prosperity” was a prerequisite for reforms to unfold, and if
three decades later this historical task was basically fulfilled,
what the reform enterprise has to accomplish now is that
promised common prosperity. This is a goal that will justify
and inform further reforms. The reaffirmation of realizing
common prosperity in line with the principles of governing
for the people and building a comprehensive and balanced
well-off society will guide future reform with a clear direction
]. To fulfill its pledge to narrow the gap between rich and
poor and ‘unwaveringly pursue common prosperity”, the
leadership has to have the people in their heart and take
them seriously. This is part of the “Chinese dream” which is
not a bad term. What the new leader, Xi Jinping, expressed
right after the 18th Party Congress, “To fulfill the people’s
desire for better lives is what we shall strive for”, sounded
dear and close to the ordinary Chinese people.
On the empowerment side, there have also been a num-
ber of measures. Only when a person has the capability for
survival and development can he or she enjoy real freedom.
The capacity for development empowers an individual. To-
day’s China should not only accept empowerment besides
protection, but also appreciate its importance as a way to
realize human freedoms and guarantee human security [
Education as a right is the fundamental and most sig-
nificant form of empowerment, as human experience has
repeatedly revealed. Thus, educational development is a
significant way to empower people, especially compulsory
education. China has reasons to be proud in this regard.
It possesses a tradition that puts much emphasis on edu-
cation, in which parents always try their best to pave the
way for their children to receive good education, and of-
ten they are willing to make sacrifices. In China, nine-year
compulsory education has been in practice for years. In
1989, Project Hope was set up as a supplement which
later became well-known throughout Chinese society. It
was initiated by the Central Youth League and the China
Juvenile Development Foundation as a philanthropic en-
terprise to help less developed areas to establish primary
schools, financially support dropped-out children in poorer
regions to return to the school, and improve education in
the rural areas. The project received society-wide attention
and support. Implemented successfully, the project has
positively changed the fate of hundreds of thousands of
kids from poor families and also beefed up the whole of
society’s awareness of educational importance, therefore
helping to enhance China’s fundamental education.
As a major initiative for the future, the Third Plenum set the
aim to modernize Chinas “governance system and governing
capability, a long-term goal for China. An important part of it
is the shaping of a new social governance system. During the
2014 National People’s Congress session, President Xi joined
the Shanghai delegation for deliberation of the governments
work. For him, the key for future social governance is institu-
tional innovation, and its core lies in the people. Only when
our people are living harmoniously can society operate stably
and in an orderly manner. For Han Zheng, the party secretary
of Shanghai, social governance is up to everybody, and the
governing process should serve the all-round development of
the people. Rule of law is the foundation of social governance,
without which there can be no basis for long-standing good
governance and robust stability [
]. For that matter, what is
required of the grass-root cadres includes regarding people’s
matters as their own matters, whilst always trying to under-
stand their feelings and demands. Again, the key challenge is
to make this happen in real life. Fortunately, in China, there
have been local autonomous grassroots organizations that
play an intermediate role and serve to help handle problems
at a grassroots level. They offer assistance to ordinary peo-
ple who encounter any difficulty, and they also, for example,
mobilize donations to help people in regions that have been
stricken by earthquake or by other natural disasters. The work
of these local self-help organizations has proved to be useful
and reassuring in terms of social governance.
4. Prominent Human Security Threats and the
Chinese Responses
Since “human security is central to non-traditional security,
what it is concerned about are all kinds of factors that are
directly threatening human security” [
]. In today’s China,
prominent among those direct threats are air pollution, food
safety, and cyber security.
4.1. First, the Air Pollution Threat
2013 was a year that impressed everybody in China with
the seriousness of air pollution. Heavy smog emerged in
not just North and Northeast China, but was also reported
in other regions, creating an alarming situation. The de-
gree of seriousness caused alarm in neighboring Japan
and South Korea as well. As the smog was spread, it be-
came obvious that the environment people were living in
was deteriorating. The situation acted as a red light signal-
ing the dangers of the existing pattern of economic growth,
which was consuming a great amount of energy and yield-
ing considerable waste. If people had already been aware
of the issue, smog’s covering the whole country in 2013
shocked and awakened everybody to an unprecedented de-
gree. Different from before, the threat and the related risks
became real and present. With many people walking in the
streets were wearing masks, the sense of human insecurity
became tangible and imminent. In this context, the specific
threat of air pollution almost became the number one risk
in people’s minds, though as will be seen shortly, that has
remained as food safety.
To cope with this threat, in June 2013 China’s State
Council laid out ten measures to prevent and combat air
pollution. As a follow-up, in September, China released an
Action Plan to implement this, in the form of a blueprint to
fight against air pollution by 2017.
This desire to act has continued. In his Government
Work Report delivered in March 2014, Premier Li Keqiang
swore to “fight pollution like fighting poverty”. When he was
looking around the city of Beijing, President Xi emphasized
that the sprawling pattern of urban development had to be
contained and steps should be taken to deal with smog
pollution and improve air quality. Among the five requests
Xi made, one was logically to reinforce the degree of reining
in air pollution. The top priority set for combating air pol-
lution and improving air quality was to control PM2.5, and
major steps should be taken in areas including reducing
burn of coal, strictly limiting the growth of car use, adjusting
industries, tightening management, and joint prevention and
control [
]. Xi’s move clearly sent a signal that steadfast
measures were needed for better air quality.
Previously, the Chinese leadership pledged to launch a
“revolution in energy production and consumption,” and said
that urbanization must be balanced with “ecological secu-
rity” [
]. However, pollution was worsening— which is now
posing a serious threat to human health and social stability.
To reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, Beijing (pop.
20 million) is attempting to phase out coal-fired power plants
within the city’s urban core, replacing them with cleaner-
burning natural gas power plants. These measures are also
basically valid for other cities. After all, fighting pollution
is relevant to everybody’s security and this has become a
high-degree consensus within Chinese society.
Similarly, China’s energy sector had a watershed year in
2013 also. Reforms that could have a profound impact on
China’s environment and energy policy were floated. And
with concerns over air pollution mounting throughout the
year, the country is poised to shift away from its reliance on
coal and to use more clean energy including natural gas.
Shale gas exploration is making progress in parts of the
country. Driven by the crises, a true transformation is under
way but surely will take time.
4.2. Second, Food Safety
In recent years, there have occurred a series of food contami-
nation incidents throughout the country which caused serious
concerns among the Chinese people. While the broadcast
of the recording movie A Bite of China is absolutely popu-
lar nation-wide, a bite of food and its safety has become a
case in point. A 2010 poll by Xiaokang (
Well Off) Magazine and Tsinghua University in 12 Chinese
cities found that food safety ranked number one of all social
concerns among those surveyed, reflecting mounting anxiety
after the 2008 melamine crisis [26,27].
In the context that the continual food safety problems
are plaguing China and threatening human security, it is not
true that the government is unaware of or insensitive to the
food safety problems. When appearing before the press
conference, Premier Le Keqiang responded by stressing
that “food safety is of utmost importance” (2013 National
People’s Congress press conference). When answering
the question concerning the missing MH370 aircraft, he
stressed that “a case involving human life has to be treated
with utmost care” (renming guantian). Again, the 2014
Government Work Report promises to adopt the strictest
surveillance, the most severe punishment, and the most se-
rious accountability measures to resolutely govern hygiene
on the dinner table and reassure “security on the tongue tip”
]. In fact, making efforts to ensure food safety is a widely
shared necessity and a consensus in China.
Specialists distinguish the issue into two kinds, one is
food security which refers to sufficiency in quantity, and
the other is food safety which refers to the quality of food.
While the former involves whether there is sufficient overall
provision of food, for which China avows to “hold the bowl
firmly in our own hands,” the latter involves whether people
can be assured they eat food safely everyday. In the good
old way, food scarcity trumpeted food safety. But today the
main problem in China lies in food safety as people are
alarmed by the risk of different forms of contamination. This
even spilled over into China’s foreign relations, as was epit-
omized in the spoiled Jiaozi (Chinese dumpling) incident
between China and Japan recently.
The incident originated in Hebei Province. An employee
in the Tianyang food factory resented his income. As re-
venge he deliberately poisoned some Jiaozi. The contam-
inated Jiaozi were exported to and sold in Japan. Some
customers bought and ate them and were contaminated.
Eventually, pesticides were found in the frozen dumplings
exported from China to Japan. This was a single case of
crime that caused grave consequences. The reputation
of China’s food products was seriously hurt and the Sino-
Japanese relationship was somewhat affected also. This
once again highlighted the close link between domestic and
international issues.
In the final analysis, the root cause lies in individuals.
The issue of “moral collapse” has been raised to refer to the
situation. To what extent it is true can be debated. It was
believed that the overuse of fertilizer and pesticide was ram-
pant. Disconcertingly, the growers distinguished between
what they themselves ate and what was to be sold in the
market, passing on lower quality food for consumption by
customers. Again how widespread the phenomenon is can
be discussed, yet the existence of these kinds of practice
suffices to make people feel unsafe regarding food.
As a result, there has arisen a lack of public trust in
food safety. Tighter regulation has to be carried out. More
transparency is needed to help build public trust, including
more official data and statistics about improvement (or de-
terioration) in food safety, more freedom for media and civil
society to verify official data, more effective actions from the
government in handling corruption and misconduct in food
safety practices, and more protection for whistle-blowers
who uncover the production of unsafe food and, more impor-
tantly, the corrupt officials involved. Further measures have
to be taken for China’s improved food safety regulations,
consumer education, as well as supply chain traceability
and sustainability.
4.3. Third, Cyber Security
The internet use has increasingly become a part of peo-
ple’s everyday life in China. By 2013, there were over 600
million internet users in the country, and mobile internet
users reached 461 million. The numbers are increasing
and China has the largest number of netizens in the world.
Thus cyber security has become a prominent issue. In
fact, China is one of the major victims of cyber attacks.
The covert activities which Edward Snowden revealed high-
lighted the vulnerability of those nations and individuals who
are monitored illegally and immorally [29].
At the government level, a Central Small Leading Group
on Cyber Security was created. It was emphasized that
cyber security involved national security and development,
as well as the career and everyday life of the vast majority
of ordinary people, and was therefore a major strategic is-
sue [
]. The breakdown and vulnerability of the internet
can have widespread impact on people and their lives and
therefore must be avoided.
5. Conclusion
This article has addressed its three research questions by
elaborating on how the idea of human security is under-
stood or defined by the government and social actors; how
the distinction between the “protection” aspect and “em-
powerment” aspect of human security is understood and
accepted; and what particular downside risks are perceived
as pressing human security issues in China, the major ones
being air pollution, food security, and cyber security.
As has been indicated, though as a term “human se-
curity” is not frequently used, there have been significant
discussions and various human security practices in China.
The idea of human security has been firmly established
and threats to human security detected, while problems
exist as China has been undergoing a still unfinished pro-
cess of industrialization, urbanization, and drastic social
change. The good news is that progress is being made.
And theoretically, only when the security of the individual
is of paramount importance in policy making, can there be
globally accepted values. China has gotten far beyond the
lip service level of cheaply talking about people’s interests.
They are now integrated into human security in its full sense.
Threats to human security can include domestic risks, yet
they are often transnational ones such as air pollution and
sand-storms. They require different sectors of society and
neighboring countries to work together.
Over twenty years ago, the Commission on Global Gov-
ernance produced a report which emphasized the distinc-
tion between the security of states and the security of peo-
ples [
]. Twenty years later, the security of peoples has
gained momentum. This is also true in China, the most
populous country in the world. China’s practices have con-
siderably reinforced the overall trends of affirming the value
of people, protecting their lives, whilst pursuing legitimate
interests and dignity, and empowering them not only to sur-
vive but also to live a respectful life. What is happening in
China is indicating a positive trend in this direction.
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