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The Rise of Another Red Army

June 20, 2008

By John Lee
Asia Times
June 20, 2008

Following the crackdown on Tibetan protesters in March, Chinese
President Hu Jintao issued a call for "greater security guarantees"
against protesters and other disruptive forces in the run up to the
Summer Olympic Games to be held in August.

At the same time, the official news bulletin of the People's Armed
Police (PAP) informed its troops that a "political mobilization
order" had gone out demanding that internal security and domestic
order was paramount leading up to and during the Games. According to
the People's Armed Police News bulletin in April, "The drums of war
are sounding; a decisive battle is at hand. For the sake of the
Chinese nation's image and for the honor of the PAP, let us never
forget our duty."

The "duty" of the approximately 800,000 Chinese PAP troops, the
majority designated for "domestic security" roles, recently caught
the attention of China-watchers. Reports surfaced in prominent
American and European press outlets that the blue track-suited
Olympic flame "attendants" were drawn from the PAP - the same
organization that led the crackdown of protesters in Tibet [1].

In January 2006, two senior PAP generals published an article in the
influential magazine Qiushi (Seeking Truth) stating that the PAP
should "become an extremely combat-effective force to deal with
sudden incidents". Many China-watchers had previously focused most of
their attention on the People's Liberation Army (PLA), arguing that
the process of the PLA becoming a modern, professional army of the
state rather than one dealing with domestic problems and serving the
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was evolving albeit slowly.

Analysts knew that many PAP troops, possibly around half, were
composed of former PLA personnel drawn from fourteen divisions during
the latter's downsizing from the 1990s onwards. But even if the PAP
received the unwanted "dregs" of the PLA, as some experts quipped,
little was known about this more secretive entity.

In the short to medium term, domestic instability rather than
external threats constitute the greater threat to the regime.
According to the latest official figures, there were 87,000 instances
of unrest (defined as involving 15 or more people) in 2005. Under
Article 22 of the National Defense Law, the PAP is charged with
"maintaining public order". Evidence is slowly emerging that although
funding, planning, and operational control over the PAP is
complicated - reflecting the struggle for influence by different
institutions within the Chinese system - the PAP is quickly becoming
the primary domestic coercive instrument of CCP rank and file officials.

Since the Tiananmen protests in 1989, the PLA has been reluctant to
become the main arm called upon to enforce domestic stability,
preferring instead to remold itself into a professional,
externally-orientated force. Meanwhile, any hopes that the PLA is
evolving into a fiercely nationalistic and assertive but apolitical
"state army" must be tempered by the evolution of the PAP as the
"party's army".

PAP and the PLA

Even though the PLA and PAP are deemed to be legally separate
entities, the PAP is often seen as under the control of the PLA. This
is due to the formal and informal influence that the PLA exerts over the PAP.

First, hundreds of thousands of PAP personnel were drawn directly
from dismantled divisions within the PLA. Today's PAP is modeled
after the army in terms of ranks, structure and guiding concepts.
Regulations that apply to the PLA similarly apply to the PAP. Both
implement the Military Service Law of the country, and PAP troops
enjoy the same benefits as PLA troops. Almost thirty PAP officers
have been promoted to the rank of major general. The culture within
the PAP is a distinctly "military".

Second, even though the PAP is responsible for internal security, its
personnel are frequently asked to cooperate with the PLA in military
operations and exercises [2]. The distinction between internal and
external operations is sometimes unclear.

Third, personnel management in the PAP is centralized rather than
localized. This means that as the leaders within China's messy but
interlinked security network of military, paramilitary and militia
forces, senior PLA officers play an enormous role in the appointment
and even promotion of PAP personnel [3].


Officially, the PAP remains under the joint leadership of the Central
Military Commission (CMC) and State Council. The 1997 National
Defense Law explicitly states that the armed forces (which include
the PLA, PAP, militia and reserves) are subordinate to the "state".
Only in one clause - Article 19 - does it mention the party: "The
armed forces of the People's Republic of China are subject to
leadership by the Communist Party, and CCP organizations in the armed
forces shall conduct activities in accordance with the CCP constitution."

This tension between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the party is
nothing new for China watchers. It is a tension that analysts looking
at the PLA have pointed to for decades. But even as China's leaders
and its senior generals eagerly brand the PLA as becoming more
professional and "apolitical", the evidence that the PAP primarily
remains the party's organ is strong. The culture, internal structure,
and training of the PAP might mirror the PLA but financial,
structural, and operational realities are pushing the PAP closer
towards the party.

Funding the PAP

Financially, the salaries and operational expenses of PAP personnel
are paid by central and local government budgets rather than that of
the military. Centrally, funding is coordinated through the Ministry
of Finance and Ministry of Public Security.

Since the mid-1990s, the funding situation has become much more
complex. According to Ministry of Finance figures, local authorities
are gradually bearing more and more of the costs for expenditure by
the PAP. In 1996, the local share was only around 2.5%, rising to 10%
in 2003 [4]. In 2006, it was estimated to be around 15%.

In China today, central authorities only collect and dispense around
one quarter of all fiscal spending. Local governments account for the
other three quarters [5]. Due to the fact that local PAP officers
tend to offer obedience and favors to local officials in return for
receiving extra funds officially and unofficially, it is certain that
the official Ministry of Finance figures are overly conservative.

Controlling the PAP from the bottom-up

Many analysts focus on the statements of China's central leaders (for
example President Hu Jintao and Meng Jianzhu who heads the Ministry
of Public Security) to gauge developments in the country's armed and
security forces. However, as far as the PAP is concerned, the focus
should be at the provincial and lower levels. The greater financial
burden borne by local budgets is significant. It is symptomatic of a
general shift toward decentralization of many of the state's
functions which actually enhance and entrench the role of local CCP
officials and their de facto control networks over state organs such
as the PAP.

There are three levels to the PAP leadership structure: general
headquarters (central), contingent (provincial levels), and
detachment (county levels). In terms of overall operations and
capacity building, the general headquarters is under the leadership
of the Ministry of Public Security. There is a PAP command office in
every province and territory. At the provincial level, a garrison
command office is established that includes the leaders of local
public security officials as well as leaders of local PAP units.
These garrisons are obligated to follow the "directions" of the local
PLA Garrison Command Headquarters. However, the implementation of
these "directions" are left to the discretion of local PAP and local
public security leaders.

If this "joint leadership" system sounds confusing, it is. Even
though one purpose of reform was to create a more vertical command
structure such that CMC control over local PAP units would be more
effective, the chain of command is seemingly as unclear now as it was
before Tiananmen. Although there is very little official material on
how these reforms have worked in practice, piecemeal and anecdotal
local sources indicate that CCP officials continue to exercise a
great deal of influence when it comes to the de facto command and
control of PAP units - even in instances when martial law is used [6].

This first came to light very publicly when PAP forces, at the behest
of local officials, opened fire at protesters in Shanwei, Guangdong
province, in December 2005 [7]. Local officials initially ordered
forces to fire tear gas into a crowd of protesters. These officials
then unilaterally gave the order to fire live rounds as the protests
continued. Witnesses reported at least twenty people dead and up to
fifty people missing [8]. Although the official who gave the order to
fire live rounds was later reprimanded by higher authorities due to
intense public pressure, there was little change to procedure. Local
officials still retained the right to issue these orders to local PAP
units. Indeed, the delegation of authority to local officials to
selectively deploy force in the face of unrest was subsequently
outlined in internal security strategy manuals in 2006.

Predictably, there have been constant complaints by Chinese citizens
that local officials use PAP troops for extra-legal purposes such as
tax and debt recovery, and land seizures. For example, the PAP was
used to break up a large protest against illegal land grabs in
Sanjiao, Guangdong province, in January 2006 [9]. In May 2007, more
than 1,500 PAP troops were used to break up a 20,000-strong protest
against corrupt officials in Hunan province.

This temptation to use the PAP as a coercive instrument to entrench
one's rule within a de facto kingdom is immense. Local CCP leaders
have a huge informational advantage over the central leadership who
have little other formal sources of information other than what local
authorities reveal. It is difficult for central authorities to prove
that local officials have abused their power or over-reacted when
ordering any coercive action.

In reality, China's provincial and local leaders have long had
enormous discretion given the size and population of the country
combined with the relative lack of institutions to guide public
decision making and enforce top-down accountability. As an old
Chinese proverb states: "Heaven is high and the emperor is far away."

Outside major urban centers where most instances of unrest occur,
central authorities have no choice but to hand over authority to
local officials to instruct PAP troops and other law enforcement
authorities [10]. Only local officials are able to respond quickly in
order to quell any unrest. According to one expert, "Some localities
have degenerated into private fiefdoms run by local party officials
[11]." What frequently occurs is a decentralized and even feudal-like
system of enforcing social order.

Moreover, increasingly frequent calls by President Hu Jintao and
other Politiburo Standing Committee leaders to work towards a
"harmonious society" and target social disorder as the top priority
serves to hand more power and leeway to local officials with regard
to the use of PAP troops. Local officials simply justify their
deployment of armed police as a decisive response, as nipping
potentially dangerous instances of unrest in the bud. Removing the
right for local officials to immediately deploy PAP troops at their
discretion would risk the inflammation of any one of the tens of
thousands of incidents of unrest into a major event.

Finally, despite some attempts at reversing the decentralization of
many state functions over the past decade, China's central leaders
have little choice but to continue to support local officials in
order to prolong the survival of the CCP as rulers. Beijing relies on
local party officials to represent its authority and preserve the
CCP's interests.

Over time, these local officials build up powerful connections with
influential members and organizations within their communities, and
become well entrenched. The now emerging story of Zhang Zhiguo, the
local party boss who ran Xifeng county in Liaoning province like his
own kingdom for five years with impunity, is "very typical of China"
according to one of its local lawyers Su Chunyu.

Key to Zhang's power was collusion with heads of the local Public
Security Bureau and other law enforcement authorities. This is
"typical of the way politics works", says Su. Zhang was finally
sacked only because he sparked widespread outrage when it was
revealed he sent local authorities 960 kilometers to arrest a
journalist in Beijing who had written an article criticizing his rule.


There is a happy coincidence of interests on all sides that the PAP
should become the unofficial coercive instrument for the Party. The
PLA, with help from the Propaganda Department, has relentlessly tried
to restore the image of China's military as the peoples' army since
the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Being seen to be cracking down on its
own people would be a backward step. The central leadership is eager
to avoid giving the impression that they are dependent on the PLA to
maintain national order and stability.

Better to use a distinct organization such as the PAP and avoid
incurring too much political debt owing to the PLA at the same time.
For provincial and local Party members, access to the PAP is needed
to maintain social stability and entrench their own rule in their
localities. Arguably, the PAP is frequently used to legitimately
enforce social order. But when the source of disorder is
dissatisfaction with these same officials, self-serving deployment of
the armed police is inevitable. Effectively, preserving the power of
local CCP officials - incompetent and corrupt or otherwise - is
becoming a primary "duty" of the PAP.


1. For example, see "Torch guards have a link to Tibet", The Wall
Street Journal, April 10, 2008; "Unmasked: Chinese guardians of
Olympic Torch", The Guardian, April 9, 2008.
2. See Sol Po, "The People's Armed Police",,
accessed May 29, 2008.
3. See Murray Scot Tanner, "The institutional lessons of disaster:
Reorganizing the People's Armed Police after Tiananmen," RAND
Conference Proceedings, 2003.
4. Shaoguang Wang, "China's Expenditure for the People's Armed Police
and Militia", in Nan Li (ed.), Chinese civil-military relations: the
transformation of the People's Liberation Army (London: Routledge, 2006.)
5. See John Lee, Will China fail? (Sydney: Center for Independent
Studies, 2007).
6. See Andrew Scobell, "The meaning of martial law for the PLA and
internal security in China after Deng," (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003.)
7. See "China rethinks unrest," Stratfor, January 27, 2006. 8. See
Esther Pan, "China's angry peasants," Council for Foreign Relations,
December 15, 2005.
9. See Murray Scot Tanner, "Can China contain unrest? Six questions
seeking one answer," Brookings Institution Commentaries, March 1, 2007.
10. See Murray Scot Tanner and Eric Green, "Principals and secret
agents: Central versus local control over policing and obstacles to
'Rule of Law' in China," The China Quarterly 191, 2007.
11. Carl Minzner, "Corruption in China: Anger boils over,"
International Herald Tribune, May 29, 2007.

John Lee is a visiting fellow at the Center for Independent Studies
(CIS) and managing director of Sydney-based research company L21. Dr
Lee is the author of Will China Fail? (CIS, 2007).
(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with

(Copyright 2008 The Jamestown Foundation.)
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