In the United States of America, citizens and their representatives are entitled to know the names and backgrounds of individuals appointed to head their nation's premier intelligence or law enforcement agencies. It is not uncommon for former senior officers or agents to recall their interactions with these leaders, nor for journalists to dig up long buried secrets which may dim these leaders reputations and their organizations cohesiveness. The People's Republic of China (PRC), in contrast, has no such tradition.
Founded in 1983, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) is China's central intelligence collection, counter-intelligence, and political security organization. In the midst of increasing strategic competition with Washington, the MSS has increasingly proven itself to be one of Beijing's most effective tools for advancing national interests, both at home and abroad. Despite the importance of the MSS, the profile of the organization's minister, Chen Wenqing, remains a mystery. As the head of China's main intelligence and domestic security agency, Chen wields a great deal of power in both Beijing and the Asia-pacific region. Thus, understanding the life and background of this key figure may have major implications for the United States in the midst of renewed competition.
The life of Chen Wenqing is shrouded in secret. Both intelligence professionals and policymakers alike refuse to divulge any information not already publicly available from Chinese sources. As one American intelligence official told a major geopolitical journal, "Can't help you on Chen, and because of who he is, I wouldn't even if I could." As a result of such apprehension, there is little reliable information available in the public realm on the biography of the intelligence chief of the MSS.
Chen Wenqing was born in Renshou County, Sichuan Province in 1960. According to open source intelligence, it appears as though Chen's father was a major figure in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and public security apparatus of the People's Republic of China throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Although the name of this man remains unknown, there are multiple references to him as a progressive worker and figure. In an interview with a Chinese language newspaper, Chen described his father as a, "people's policeman from 1951 until he retired. He had been a progressive worker in the province for 20 consecutive years." He went on to claim his decision to pursue a career in the national security apparatus of the PRC was "deeply influenced" by his father's life. The name of Mr. Wenqing's mother is also unknown, and there have been no public references to her in the past six years.
It is interesting to note that Wenqing's father became a public security officer immediately before the harsh and bloody Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. Chen would've been eight years old at the initiation of the Cultural Revolution, when even an offhanded comment by a child to a member of the Communist Party could potentially endanger an entire family.
In 1980, Chen preformed overwhelmingly well on the yearly college entrance examination. In fact, his scores granted him access to China's premier educational institutions: Peking University and Qinghua University. As SpyTalk, a Columbian intelligence website, once put it, "the Harvard and MIT, respectively, of China." In a surprising move, however, Chen decided to attend Southwest University of Political Science & Law, a rather unimpressive school near Sichuan. His reasoning is unclear. He graduated from the institution in 1984, with some form of law-oriented degree.
According to official sources, which are notoriously unreliable, Mr. Wenqing served from 1984 to 1990 as a lowly beat cop in Pengshan Xian, Sichuan. During his six years in Pengshan Xian, Chen appears to have risen considerably in rank, as he was awarded the title of, "outstanding public security bureau chief." In layman's terms, Chen had become equally impressive as his father had in the public security service.
In 1990, Chen became the Deputy Director of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Leshan City, Sichuan. Following this promotion, the young man from Renshou County rocketed through the ranks. In 1992, he became the Director of the PSB in Leshan City. Following a massive uprising across twelve provinces in 1993, in which multiple government facilities were stormed by citizens protesting high taxes, Wenqing was recruited by the Ministry of State Security. It is unclear what actions during the uprising caught the eye of the MSS, although it is clear something occurred.
In 1994, Chen began operating in Chengdu as Deputy Director of the Province of Sichuan, and worked mainly out of Chengdu. Throughout his posting to Sichuan, which lasted until 2002, the province was increasingly difficult for western intelligence agencies to operate within. As one former official told SpyTalk, "Chengdu was a nasty place for the US."
In 2002, Mr. Wenqing was appointed as head of the Sichuan Provincial Prosecution Office of the Supreme People's Procuratorate. While in this position, similar to that of a US Attorney's office, Chen attempted to clamp down on blatant corruption, although this may have been a ruse to target political enemies. His work in this position allowed him to be promoted to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in Fujian province and simultaneously as Deputy Provincial Party Secretary. The CCDI appointment was a major step up for Chen, as it serves as the premier law enforcement, anti-corruption, and internal control body of the Communist Party of China. Thus, it ranks amongst the most powerful organizations in the People's Republic of China.
In 2012, Mr. Wenqing was appointed by Xi Jinping himself to join the main Central Discipline Inspection Commission in Beijing. It is believe that Chen played a major role in the purge of nearly 100 communist officials in these early days of Xi's leadership. As SpyTalk notes, "The cleansing had begun just before his arrival, with the dismissal of no less than the vice minister of the MSS, Lu Zhongwei, ousted at least in part because one of his aides was among the dozen or so Chinese accused of working for the CIA from 2010 to 2012."
In 2016, Chen Wenqing was appointed to lead the Ministry of State Security, a position he has held ever since. This appointment was followed a year and a half later by a simultaneous appointment to head of the Central State Security Office (CSSO).
Under Mr. Wenqing, the MSS has developed into a formidable, albeit simple intelligence agency. With a new era of strategic competition heating up, Wenqing's leadership of the MSS may be a deciding factor in the People's Republic of China's success or failure in the coming years.