A detachment of the Chinese People's Armed Police responsible for the security of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City attend a ceremony to mark the handover of guard duties in Beijing in 2009. Photo: AFP

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s potential coronation as president-for-life at the country’s recent National People’s Congress may have captured the world’s headlines, but a sweeping governmental reorganization may have an equally profound effect over China’s police in the coming years.

As one pillar of China’s armed forces, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) is poised to take on a greater role in defending China’s national interests. On March 21, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee made public a “Plan for Deepening Reform of Party and State Organs” in which considerable changes were announced for the PAP – with the intention of accelerating the Armed Police’s militarization and professionalization.

Compared to the People’s Liberation Army, the PAP’s focus is mainly on counterterrorism, guarding critical state assets, and combatting “mass incidents” – jargon for protests, strikes, and confrontations between citizens and the state. According to the latest estimate by a Tsinghua University sociologist, in 2010 China had more than 180,000 “mass incidents,” an average of 500 per day. PAP units stationed in every province, city, and county, are therefore indispensable to guarantee the continued existence of the party-state.

However, prior to the current reforms, the PAP was not simply a force for domestic security. In addition to its 330,000 internal security troops, about half of the PAP was involved with projects such as building hydropower stations and mining gold for the state.

Aside from the distraction of these unusual duties for a security force, the PAP also suffered from serious chain of command problems. The Ministry of Public Security’s Active Service Troops – firefighters, border control, and security guards – are listed as part of the PAP’s organizational structure and trained by PAP advisers, although they only respond to the Ministry of Public Security’s command.

To further complicate the matter, PAP units themselves follow a dual command structure in which the Central Military Commission and the State Council share the responsibility of leading and maintaining the PAP – the former during wartime and latter during peacetime.

The PAP’s complex chain of command has created many problems. For example, there have been numerous instances when PAP commanders became improperly influenced by strong local politicians since Armed Police units rely on local governments for funding and support. One poignant example occurred when Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun took refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu in 2012. Party Secretary Bo Xilai ordered Chongqing PAP units to cross provincial lines and surround the consulate, causing profound embarrassment for China on the world stage.

With incidents such as these in mind, the reforms are intended to remove the PAP from civilian control and any non-internal security duties. In other words, the changes are expected to elevate the PAP to a higher level of professionalization and militarization. On January 1, the State Council’s power to command the PAP was terminated. The Armed Police now responds solely to the CMC.

On March 21, PAP troops tasked with gold mining, hydropower project construction, transportation work and forestry duties were transferred to civilian agencies. The firefighting, border control, and security guard troops are no longer under the PAP’s control.

More importantly, the China Coast Guard, previously under the State Oceanic Administration, was placed under the PAP’s command, allowing the Armed Police a maritime presence and exposure to foreign coast guards and navies. Given China’s rising domestic security expenditure, it is possible that the China Coast Guard will add new non-lethal weapons to its arsenal following the PAP’s own rearmament drive.

Looking ahead, the PAP will have a growing role in not only domestic security missions but also conflicts in the South and East China Seas. Beijing may have learned a valuable lesson from Russia’s Crimean operation, in which a blend of unconventional military forces – irregular militias, special forces, and information warfare – allowed rapid achievement of military objectives. In the near future, it is likely that the PAP, with PLA assistance, will add maritime special forces, information warfare units and even aviation capabilities to reinforce its ability to accomplish new missions on land and sea.

Zi Yang is a Senior Analyst at the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Follow him on Twitter @ZiYangResearch.

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