Secretive arm of the law

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2007, 12:00am

A rather secretive branch of the People's Liberation Army has been expanding, despite a general trend of downsizing in the army, to cope with growing social unrest on the mainland.

The People's Armed Police was set up in 1983 to maintain internal security.

It is administered by both the State Council through the Ministry of Public Security and the PLA's Central Military Commission.

Official figures on the size of the paramilitary force, like a lot of other military data, are top secret, but there are varying estimates, with some saying up to 1 million.

Antony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau, said western military experts put the number at somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 personnel.

A substantial number of new recruits to the force were among those trimmed from the PLA, Mr Wong added.

'This force is something between the police and the army. Their combat ability is superb and better than the police, given their military background,' he said.

Some observers have said that the armed police are expanding their ranks during a period of frequent demonstrations, riots and disputes spawned by rampant corruption and social injustice which, in turn, are the result of the government's blind pursuit of economic growth.

In one of the worst recent flare-ups, armed police shot dead at least three villagers involved in land dispute protests in Shanwei, Guangdong, on December 6, 2005.

Mr Wong said that with their military background, armed police had gained notoriety over the years for their tendency to resort to violence more often than other disciplinary forces.

'Unlike police officers who are taught to comply with the law, the armed police are trained to combat problems with violence and speed,' he said.

On top of the expansion in personnel, the force's weapons have also been upgraded. Mr Wong said armed police officers were now equipped with more specialised weapons.

'There are some weapons that will keep someone under control without harming them. This has become an issue, especially since the crackdown on students in Tiananmen in 1989,' he said.

The force has also acquired new duties throughout the years, one of them being a counterterrorism mission.

Those duties have gained more importance since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

In 2003, Mei Xingrun, the armed police's commander in Xinjiang, where a Muslim separatist movement has been a thorn in the government's side, told Xinhua that military spending had been increased to crush the 'terrorists' in the region.

With the 2008 Beijing Olympics looming closer, the armed police, together with the police, will be responsible for ensuring the Games go smoothly.

The government has vowed to send 3,000 armed police officers to patrol every day when Beijing launches a rehearsal of the Games this month.

According to Mr Wong, units are also trained to prepare for any possible conflict with Taiwan.

Other responsibilities include guarding forests, gold mines, hydroelectric power infrastructure and transport.