The initiatives first introduced in 2018 have turned the once-specialised subject into a discipline that is now accessible to the wider public and admits students from diverse academic backgrounds.
Previously, the curriculum was mostly focused on academic training for military, security and law enforcement officials. National security courses in Chongqing’s Southwest University of Political Science and Law, for example, have been offered since the 1980s.
In 2021, China’s Ministry of Education explained the rationale for the initiative as an “urgent need for a large number of national security talents” as China faced “complex and severe” international and domestic challenges.
Senior Chinese officials have repeatedly warned citizens about the “worst and most extreme situations” and to be prepared for “high winds and waves” – likely references to geopolitical headwinds from Washington and its allies.
Both outside observers and insiders say the push within the education sector to meet Beijing’s security-focused priorities reflects an in-depth assessment of the geopolitical environment against a long-held insecurity about Beijing’s place in the world order and its ability to compete with Western powers.
While China continues to play catch-up in a field that has been dominated for decades by the United States, the shift has also raised fears among experts that nurturing a new class of security personnel, and the apparatus to support them, would fundamentally refocus the mindset and approach to governance by Chinese officials.
Over the past five years, new national security studies departments at Chinese universities have boasted about their academia and geographical strength for specialised curriculums that tick the boxes of the 16 areas of security laid down by Xi in 2014, when he founded the country’s first National Security Commission. Xi continues to chair the commission to this day.
The all-encompassing framework seen as critical for China’s domestic stability and international prosperity, covers political, territorial and military aspects of security, as well as non-traditional aspects such as the economy, culture, cybersecurity, food, nuclear materials and financial security.
Zhu Feng, dean of the school of international studies at Nanjing University, said setting up the new discipline reflected the country’s long-term strategy to improve knowledge and talent in the national security field amid the most “unprecedented, severe international environment” China had seen since it was founded in 1949.
“The great powers’ competition is not something that can be easily and quickly be done with, so looking at things now, we need to aim for the long term and prepare accordingly,” Zhu said.
Since it was introduced, Xi’s vision for “comprehensive national security”, has become a prevailing theme, permeating all aspects of governance amid sustained tensions with the US-led West over trade, technology, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“Building the discipline is not only a response to strategic challenges, but more importantly, it pertains to future talent development and improves the entire governance in this area,” Zhu said, adding that national security studies will lead the future direction for China’s social sciences research.
A government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the establishment of the field of study at the general university level signalled that Communist Party leaders wanted to raise national security awareness in face of the perceived external threats.
“As the current situation is like this – China is going to rise and the US is going to suppress it. It is inevitable, and you have to admit the West is much more skilled in intelligence operations than China,” the source told the Post.
“Espionage cases in recent years have been scandalous and many government officials aren’t even aware of this when interacting with foreigners, so if Chinese leaders must pay attention to it, they would want to start with education.”
The source said that the fact that national security studies were made accessible to the general public and young people in particular, instead of being restricted to military academy members, meant that party leaders were intent on extending the overall influence of the security drive across the education sector.
However, William Kirby, a T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, said the establishment of the new discipline reflected more the “insecurity of the party” and its perceived external threats.
He said the move gave the sense that “China’s national security is somehow in danger, which I personally do not believe is the case”.
“It reflects more the insecurity of the party,” Kirby said.
China was in its “best strategic position of its modern history”, and it would make more sense if universities were set up for peace studies, he added.
The focus of the national security studies departments will vary and most will be built to leverage the traditional strengths of the university.
The national security department at Fudan University in Shanghai, which oversees one of the country’s best computer science schools, focuses on artificial intelligence and cryptography, reflecting China’s emphasis on cybersecurity.
Minzu University of China, in Beijing, which is affiliated with the country’s top office on ethnic affairs, focuses its national security studies on the far-west region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has drawn international criticism for alleged human rights abuses and sanctions from Western countries.
Earlier this month, Renmin University’s school of international relations opened a national security studies programme that features eight scholars who specialise in China’s various relations with major world powers.
Katja Drinhausen, head of the politics and society programme at Berlin-based think tank the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), said the national scope of the new discipline spoke to China’s overarching national security drive. But she said that developing such specialised subjects also came with risks for the next generation.
Drinhausen said the curriculum was designed to insert Xi’s security ideology into the education system, and risked skewing the minds of China’s young people with “a very securitised view” of how China related to the world.
When it was introduced in 2015, China’s National Security Law stipulated that incorporating national security into education systems would improve awareness for all. The directive has since been elevated to a key doctrine of the Communist Party and is now considered central to its future development and survival.
“We have seen in the past decade how much this [mindset] has driven friction with other countries, more isolation of China, more focus on self-reliance and … really a step back from the very format of opening to the world,” she said.
Such an agenda could become something that held back China both in its domestic development and in its ability to work with others internationally, Drinhausen said.
Nora Niu, a first year student in the national security studies programme at Jilin University, said many students faced the challenge of having to learn the curriculum from scratch since the new discipline had no established pathway from previous undergraduate coursework.
“It is quite a leap subject-wise and it is pretty difficult for us to learn,” said Niu, who began her studies this autumn, adding that many classmates were hoping for a career in government or academia.
Zhu Feng, who as dean of the school of international studies at Nanjing University oversees its new national security programme, said the most pressing challenge for the “relatively weak” discipline was its lack of real experts in the field.
He said China should use lessons from the US – which has a much longer history in the discipline – to build its own national security core curriculum with “Chinese characteristics”.
But Kirby, with Harvard University, said it was “not common at all” in the US to have such national security studies at regular universities and colleges.
US universities mostly spin out their national security studies courses as online master’s courses or short-term training for military or security professionals for career development. In contrast to scholarly research, the curriculum is more practical, sometimes with courses taught by the FBI and Nato experts.
Kirby said that as a new discipline, it was important for the curriculum to be taught in a way that not only understood domestic national security, but also security from other international perspectives.
“If you only learn what national security is like within your own country, then you do not understand the views of other countries – what their worries are about national security,” he said.
He said he would prefer to see Chinese students studying national security alongside their counterparts in the US, Europe, Russia and Japan.
“You have to see the way the world, your partner or your adversary sees it, if you are going to have any success,” Kirby said.