Role of armed police even a mystery to mainland bureaucrats

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am

They are called police but they carry military ranks. They are structured and equipped like a regular military force but they are not on the army's payroll. Their tasks range from guarding state leaders to helping out with production at gold mines.

The People's Armed Police, whose total strength of 660,000 is larger than most national armies, is unique: a hybrid police and military force. Its role and layers of command were so opaque, the central government had to pass a law this year to tell its own officials when and how they could use this special force.

The history of the PAP is relatively short. It was set up on June 19, 1982 by merging several military units in charge of internal and border security roles; its stated main tasks are to safeguard strategic locations, provide internal security and maintain social stability.

The real reason for its establishment was simple: to help the Communist Party keep its hold on power and quell riots.

All these missions were at first carried out by separate guard units within the PLA. But as internal security duties grew, a unified special force was needed to better marshal resources and avoid overlapping.

It also provided an ideal answer to the question of how to deal with hundreds of thousands of soldiers made redundant by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's colossal cuts in the 1980s.

Deng believed China faced no immediate risk of an all-out war and decided to cut the number of troops by 500,000 to focus resources on economic development.

All these retired soldiers were later re-employed as armed police officers. Most of the responsibility for internal security and other policing work carried out by the PLA was passed to the PAP.

At first, the PAP was regarded as a constituent part of public security (police) departments. But in 1995, it was restructured and its daily operation was centralised under the Central Military Commission (CMC) - the PLA's supreme command.

Today, the PAP is under the joint leadership of the CMC and the State Council, which commands it through the Ministry of Public Security.

The PAP can be roughly divided into three parts: the internal troops in charge of keeping social order and crime-fighting; the border troops responsible for border security; and four specialised, non-combat branches tasked with economic development roles - the forestry, gold mining, transport and hydropower troops.

To add even more confusion, the operations of the PAP are paid for by the State Council and local governments, not the country's defence budget. But its personnel affairs, education and training are managed by the military.

The PAP forces are organised in division-sized units and deployed to deal with any internal unrest.

Since the operation and chain of command of the PAP is so complicated, at times even bureaucrats have trouble distinguishing between the roles and duties of the PLA, PAP and the regular police.

To prevent local governments abusing the PAP's powers, in August the National People's Congress passed a law on the PAP aimed at clarifying its duties and jurisdiction.

Still, many lawyers say that the law is too vague and that the role of the PAP is too hard to define.