27 June 2019

China’s People’s Armed Police: reorganised and refocused

Now with a more centralised command structure and enhanced use of new technology like uninhabited air vehicles, China’s People’s Armed Police is being transformed into a more reliable and effective force focused on three core missions – internal security, maritime security and supporting the People’s Liberation Army in times of war. 

On 2 June, at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, the Chinese Defence Minister, General Wei Feng He, defended China’s handling of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and stated that China has enjoyed stability and development after properly handling the ‘Tiananmen incident’ through its ‘correct policy’. Thirty years after the events of Tiananmen, the internal security mission remains of central importance to the Chinese government. However, it is the People’s Armed Police (PAP,中国人民武装警察部队) and not the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that now has primary responsibility for this task, and it is a force – like the PLA – undergoing significant change.

The PAP’s role in Tiananmen in 1989 is thought to have been limited, in part because of its perceived weaknesses and lack of capability, forcing the Chinese government to turn to the PLA instead. In the intervening period, substantial amounts of time and investment have been put into improving the PAP’s capabilities and transforming it into a more reliable and effective force.

Perhaps understandably, much of the international interest in the most recent major reforms to China’s military structures has focused on the modernisation and power projection capabilities of the PLA. But the accompanying changes to the PAP are also potentially far-reaching, both in terms of internal structure and command and control and in terms of the expansive use of new technology by the Chinese state for monitoring and information-gathering.

Core missions

Between 2017 and 2018, the PAP was divested of almost all its lower-intensity law enforcement responsibilities. These previous missions included border defence, forestry and natural resource protection, firefighting and hydropower. Most of the units that fulfilled them have been transferred to other parts of the Chinese government. In their place, the PAP has gained responsibility for the Chinese Coast Guard (中国 海警局) and is now focused on three core missions – internal security, maritime security and supporting the PLA in times of war.

Other than the Coast Guard, the remaining PAP operational units are now divided between the Mobile Force and the Internal Security Force. The former comprises two corps-leader-grade formations created from 13 of the 14 ex-PLA divisions that transferred to the PAP in 1997, which form a strategic reserve of sorts; one corps covering northern and central China, including Beijing, whilst the other is responsible for eastern and southern China. The Internal Security Force has 32 regional commands, covering China’s provinces, cities and autonomous regions. Each of these has at least one mobile unit, and some key commands, such as Beijing and Xinjiang, have several more.

Along with the physical reorganisation, the PAP’s command and control has also been simplified. Whereas the PAP was once commanded by the State Council and the Ministry of Public Security, it now sits directly under the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and indeed under President Xi Jinping himself. This follows the trend under Xi’s leadership of aggregating greater centralised command over the country’s security and defence forces.

Despite the recent reductions in the official PAP budget reflecting the more focused mission set, it is estimated that the real-term spend in constant 2010 US dollars is still higher today than it was a decade ago. Proportionally, the PAP budget has maintained roughly three quarters of the annual budget for public security. This suggests that the PAP is now better funded for delivering its core goals.

New technologies

Along with a larger budget, the breadth of ‘uninhabited’ and ‘intelligent’ technology like uninhabited air vehicles (UAVs) available to the PAP has also grown and can therefore enhance the PAP’s ability to conduct national emergency, internal security and maritime security missions. Recently, certain divisions of the PAP have been trained in using UAV technology. The use of surveillance technology has also been on the rise, apparently spurred by Xi’s support for civil-military integration in his speech at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. PAP units are reported to employ high-definition network cameras and facial recognition systems. For counter-terrorism duties, the forces are reportedly using bomb disposal robots.

Potentially of value to the PAP, China has also been developing persistent frontier surveillance and communications systems including the use of satellites, such as NORINCO’s BeiDou+ Land and Maritime Defense and Control systems. Incorporated in the network are the Chinese-built features in the South China Sea.

As the PAP’s mission sets have become more focused, their more centralised command structure, reorganisation and enhanced use of modern technologies have turned the PAP into a more potent force ready to carry out the CCP’s vision of ‘correct policy’ and maintaining the Party’s control.

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