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China’s People’s Armed Police will fall under the sole command of the Central Military Commission, chaired by President Xi jinping. Photo: AFP

Why China’s armed police will now only take orders from Xi and his generals

Changes to the PAP’s command structure are meant to stop local authorities using paramilitary personnel against the leadership in Beijing, observers say

The decision to put China’s 1.5 million paramilitary police under the sole command of the Central Military Commission is meant to ensure the Communist Party’s “absolute control” over the armed forces and to guarantee the “political security” of the regime, according to the military.

The People’s Armed Police (PAP) has been under the dual command of the CMC, which oversees the armed forces, and the State Council, China’s cabinet. The structure gave lower-level authorities the power to deploy the PAP to tackle natural disasters, protests and hostage crises.

But from January 1, the PAP will be under the sole command of the CMC, chaired by President Xi Jinping, a move that will strip local officials of that power.

Analysts said the change – applauded by party media outlets as strengthening centralised control – was prompted by fears among top leaders that the PAP could be used to challenge their rule.

One incident that might have sparked those concerns was in February 2012 when armed police were sent to Chengdu after former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge in the US consulate in the Sichuan capital.

Former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai reportedly deployed armed police in 2012 after a rift with his police chief. Photo: Reuters

The PAP officers had reportedly been sent on the orders of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai after Bo and Wang argued over the involvement of Bo’s wife in the murder of a British businessman.

Observers said the use of armed police in the political crisis might have spooked Beijing.

“The paramilitary has in reality become a local armed force,” a China-based political analyst said. “Local power factions can potentially use them against the central leadership.”

On Thursday, defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said the change in command was meant to ensure the CMC had control over the PAP and its “sacred tasks” of safeguarding national security and social stability.

“It is a significant [change in the] political ... system to ensure the party’s control over the People’s Liberation Army and other kinds of armed forces,” Ren said.

Military mouthpiece The PLA Daily said the overhaul would resolve “outstanding contradictions and problems” within the paramilitary forces.

“To implement the party’s absolute leadership over the PLA and other armed forces, and carry out the great struggles and defend political safety in a better way ... it is essential to make changes to the paramilitary’s command system,” the newspaper said in a commentary.

Beijing Youth Daily social media outlet Zhengzhijian quoted a paramilitary source as saying that under the existing system even county-level officials could call out armed police.

But in the future, local authorities would need Beijing’s nod to deploy the PAP, forcing them to rely more on regular police to maintain social stability.

The PAP’s mission will not change, according to the defence ministry. Photo: AFP

The paramilitary’s responsibilities include providing security for important events and people, protection of strategic facilities and infrastructure, quashing protests and riots, and responding to terrorists attacks. The defence ministry said that mission would not change.

Powerful local opponents have long been seen as a threat by the leadership under Xi, whose relentless anticorruption campaign has brought down a raft of senior central government and provincial officials.

For example, Bo and Wang may both be behind bars but the party’s discipline watchdog is still warning against their “pernicious legacy” in Chongqing as well as that of one of Bo’s successors, former Politburo member Sun Zhengcai, who also came under investigation for graft.

Last month, Chongqing party chief and close Xi ally Chen Miner called on local officials to firmly eradicate the legacies of Sun, Bo and Wang.

And in March discipline inspectors were still trying to extinguish Zhou Yongkang’s influence from the Ministry of Public Security, two years after the former security tsar was jailed for life for graft.

Besides the change in the PAP’s command, Xi has also cemented central control of the PLA through a sweeping restructure, cuts to troop numbers and investment in advanced weaponry.

As commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest armed forces, Xi has also punished more than 100 senior military commanders for corruption and appointed allies to key army positions.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: armed police move puts party in ‘total control’