China’s Counter-Terrorism Vanguard: Public Security Border Control Troops’ Organization, Strategy, Training and Intelligence Capability

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 13

Xinjiang Border Control Troops conduct rapid assault exercises. (Image: Xinhua)

The past two years have been a period of frustration and setbacks for China’s counter-terrorism agencies. In spite of the state’s efforts to clamp down on terrorism, the number of terrorist attacks actually experienced an upsurge in 2013 and 2014, with one even striking near Tiananmen, at the heart of Chinese state authority. Indeed, China’s fight against terrorism is an endeavor far from completed. Following the pattern from previous years, the most recent attacks were masterminded by terrorist organizations rooted in the volatile Chinese province of Xinjiang, a source of Islamist militancy. With the creation and consolidation of the so-called Islamic State–a development that boosted the morale of jihadists worldwide–China’s war on terror has entered a new phase. In this war, the Public Security Border Control Troops (公安边防部队), or simply BCT, is a force of crucial significance due to its status as the first line of defense against terrorist activities brewing in and beyond the Xinjiang border region. This article attempts to explain the origins, organization, methods and track record of the BCT. While the BCT has created many of the structures it needs to be effective, continued efforts need to be made in reforming and improving its intelligence gathering apparatus. 

Organization

First established in November 1949 as the Border Protection Department, the BCT is currently a militarized police force placed under the shared authority of the People’s Armed Police and the Public Security Active Service Troops (公安现役部队), which is subordinate to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). [1] Although the BCT is sometimes referred to as the Armed Police Border Control Troops (武警边防部队), it does not belong to the PAP’s chain of command (Zhejiang Online, April 20, 2010).[2] Instead, its immediate superior is the MPS Border Control Department. As a unit under the MPS, the BCT follows a dual command system, where it responds to the leadership of both the local government and superiors in the Public Security Border Control xitong (system) (Journal of Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Academy, March 25, p. 15). Reportedly 100,000 strong (Zhejiang Online, April 20, 2010), the BCT is divided into five levels. At the top of the command chain is the MPS Border Control Department located in Beijing. The provincial-level command comes next, where there is one BCT zongdui (equiv. to a PLA division) for each province, autonomous region and direct-controlled municipality (with the exception of Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau). [3] Further down the chain of command are the prefectural-level zhidui (equiv. to a PLA regiment), county-level dadui (equiv. to a PLA battalion) and local-level zhongdui (equiv. to a PLA company) (Legal System and Society, April 15, 2014, p. 137). [4] The BCT is responsible for managing all inspection stations at ports of entry as well as main roads leading to border areas in addition to being the first line of border defense, except for the Chinese–North Korean border, and the Yunnan portion of the Chinese-Burmese border, where it plays an auxiliary role to PLA border control units (Journal of Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Academy, March 25, 2015, p. 14). [5] The mission of the BCT, stated succinctly, is to defend China’s national sovereignty by maintaining security and ensuring safety along the country’s borderlands (Ministry of National Defense of the PRC, April 16, 2013). This includes striking out against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism (China Brief, January 9, 2014). The Xinjiang BCT plays a special role in that it is the one that shoulders most of the burden in dealing with these three issues. Focusing on the Xinjiang BCT’s success and failures as well as the causes behind them provides valuable insight into understanding larger issues within China’s counter-terrorism efforts.

Strategy

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region shares a 3,544-mile-long border with eight countries. There are 235 mountain passes and key travel routes to neighboring states, making the province a crossroads of great strategic value while at the same time posing a significant challenge for border security forces. Further complicating matters, members of ten ethnic groups in Xinjiang have shared ethnicity and familial ties across the national boundaries (Journal of Xinjiang Education Institute, June 30, 2013, p. 100). Together, these factors make China’s northwest frontier the least stable part of the country. Unrest and terrorist attacks are not unusual; there have been more than 200 violent incidents since the 1990s (Journal of Guangxi Police Academy, February 24, 2014, p. 47).

The largest Islamist militant group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), operates mostly outside of Xinjiang, making border security especially important in reducing the group’s operational capability. The Xinjiang BCT’s current “counter-terrorism and maintain stability” strategy, as elaborated by the commander of the Xinjiang zongdui Senior Colonel Zhang Genheng, is one that concentrates on working closely with the local population, strengthening inspections at border crossings, and building a new “border protection and control network” that enhances relations between all levels of the Xinjiang BCT (PLA Life, December 13, 2013, p. 8).

Due to the region’s enormous size and lengthy border, it is almost impossible for BCT troopers to cover all entry and exit points with their limited manpower alone. Local help is needed, which led to the formation of the Masses’ Border Protection Unit (MBPU,群众护边员). Numbering about 17,000, the MBPU recruits agents from people (mostly herdsmen) living along the border to assist the BCT by leading teams of locals to patrol areas around their community, or going on joint patrol missions with BCT troopers (PLA Life, December 13, 2013, p. 8). Besides having firsthand knowledge of the rough border terrain, the MBPU also makes up for the chronic personnel shortage suffered by BCT units (Legal Daily, October 30, 2012). [6] 

In addition to traditional human intelligence, the BCT has adopted advanced technology at border checkpoints, and is an essential part of the overall plan to standardize inspections. Biological agent detectors, rolling chassis inspection devices, as well as explosives and narcotics detectors are all being used at border crossings and ports of entry for the purpose of making inspections more effective (PLA Life, December 13, 2013, p. 8). An interview with a trooper of the Khunjerab Pass inspection station revealed that x-ray and terahertz technology have also been incorporated as part of the inspection process (CRI Online, June 19).

Building a network that brings together different elements of the Xinjiang BCT is probably the most important part of the strategy since counter-terrorism is a task that requires extensive intra- and inter-agency collaboration. Thus, the Xinjiang BCT has established a “border protection and control network that encouraged cohesion and cooperation by streamlining the process of agent selection, training, personnel management and budget formulation (PLA Life, December 13, 2013, p. 8). Local outreach, new technology and enhanced training are all important elements, but due to the complex border environment, international cooperation is equally vital to counter-terrorism success. Collaboration between the border control forces of China and its neighboring states is frequent, with monthly meetings between Chinese BCT troopers and their foreign counterpart to discuss issues of concern and to deepen mutual understanding. Provincial level communication occurs every quarter, while ministerial-level exchanges take place every one to two years (People’s Police, September 10, 2014, p. 44). In recent years, joint anti-terrorism exercises have occurred annually under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) framework, either involving all of its member states or on a one-on-one basis, such as the China-Kyrgyzstan joint border law enforcement exercise on June 15 (Xinhua Online, June 15).

Training

Quality troopers are the sine qua non in putting any counter-terrorism strategy into practice. The training of BCT personnel consists of physical training, psychological training, and technical training. Physical training classes for cadets include takedown techniques, marksmanship, boxing and mixed marital arts, sniper training, crisis negotiation, police combat skills, and police combat tactics (Frontier Defence Police China, July 1, 2014, pp. 32–33). An article written by Ma Zhiqiang, lecturer and director of the military affairs research and education office at the Public Security Border Control Troops Urumqi Command Academy, reveals that physical training of cadets still emphasizes on order, uniformity, and visual impact, a reference to the mass synchronized practice of martial arts that is even now a main method of instruction. According to Ma, there is much formalism attached to physical training, though what might be visually impressive to visiting superiors is, in reality, a hindrance to producing qualified troopers (Frontier Defence Police China, July 1, 2014, pp. 32-33). In an education system like this, the individual’s ability to creatively come up with new ways to enhance physical fitness is suppressed, which is not always a positive development. This is changing, and the examination system of the Urumqi Command Academy has been reformed to make questions on exams more open-ended and less rigid and memorization-based, which may inspire creative thinking when it comes to problem solving (Frontier Defence Police China, September 1, 2009, p. 28).

The jidongdui or Mobile Detachment (MD) is the principal special operations force of the BCT. Its duties are comparable to the Border Control Tactical Unit of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that is to deal with high-risk contingencies whenever the order is given. The MD’s ability to rapidly react to exigency is valued by the BCT as a form of deterrence against possible terrorist attacks. Each MD has a reconnaissance team, a bomb disposal team, and a biodefense team. BCT training reflects the rugged terrain they patrol, and their physical training routine includes a five-kilometer ruck march, 400-meter obstacle course, handling various kinds of combat equipment, mountain climbing, and swimming (Police Practical Combat Training, February 15, 2012, pp. 84–85).

Due to the often traumatic and violent situations that BCT personnel are expected to encounter during counter-terrorism operations, psychological training for BCT personnel is equally important. However, the latest publication on this subject, while divulging few details, admits that most BCT troopers lack real combat experience and there has not been an intensive psychological training program instituted as part of the training curriculum (Journal of Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Academy, March 25, 2010).

With regards to technical training, the PAP Urumqi Command Academy, which graduates 40 percent of the Xinjiang BCT’s entry-level cadres, stress six skillsets that it expects the cadets to excel in. These include guard duty, law enforcement, military knowledge, management skills, political work and bilingual proficiency. A few general courses taught at the Academy cover the following topics: mid-level Mandarin Chinese, basic Uyghur, English for border protection work, managing border exigencies, border patrol, military topography, and theories for battles along borderlands (Frontier Defence Police China, September 1, 2009, pp. 27–28). These skillsets are vital for any border unit. However, the special nature of the BCT, and their evolving role in counter-terrorism operations necessitates perfecting another skill set: intelligence gathering.

Intelligence Capability

While training cadets according to high standards is quite necessary in building up a professional border control force, having strong capability to obtain and analyze intelligence is indispensible in winning the fight against terrorism. This area is the BCT’s Achilles’ heel and became a source of public embarrassment when it was revealed that BCT forces did not receive any intelligence prior to the Urumqi train station bomb attack that occurred on May 1, 2014, the final day of Xi Jinping’s first tour of Xinjiang after he became China’s President (Journal of Intelligence, June 18, 2014, p. 18). While inadequate education of intelligence analysts negatively influences their overall expertise (Journal of Intelligence, December 30, 2011, p. 243), the lack of inter-agency intelligence sharing is the primary factor undermining the effectiveness of not only the BCT, but also the entire public security system in preventing terrorist attacks (Journal of Intelligence, June 18, 2014, pp. 17–18). [7] Draft legislation submitted to the October 2014 plenum of the 12th National People’s Congress Standing Committee proposed the concept of a national counter-terrorism intelligence center, which would facilitate inter-agency intelligence sharing, and is still undergoing review (People’s Daily Online, October 28, 2014; National People’s Congress Online, February 28). Second, the BCT system maintains a passive attitude in intelligence collection. Instead of taking the initiative to build a grassroots intelligence network through engaging in fieldwork, the BCT intelligence wing still depends heavily on leads from the civilian population, which restricts the amount of information that could be gained. A recent article in a professional journal has proposed a model that focuses on cultivating a terrorism suspect’s relatives, friends, colleagues, and connections with the criminal underworld. The article argues that such sources of information might be able to cut across the wall of mistrust between the authorities and certain disenchanted sections of the Uyghur populace, since it is difficult for anyone to associate exclusively with people sharing the same ethnic and ideological background (Journal of Intelligence, June 18, 2014, pp. 17–18). Of course, the BCT almost certainly made use of its Uyghur, and other ethnic minority troopers’ bonds with their own community to expand the web of human intelligence collection. Nevertheless, culturally insensitive policies implemented in Xinjiang will quite likely stymie any future efforts to construct an effective human intelligence network. Not only the collection but also the retention and protection of BCT intelligence is far from professional. Apart from being understaffed, the available personnel assigned with intelligence safekeeping tasks are unmotivated and incompetent. At some BCT locations, intelligence files are placed in a disorderly fashion without the basic security measures in place, i.e. burglarproof doors and windows, dehumidifiers, double layer curtains, etc. Some BCT units do not have the necessary storage hardware in its archival repository, while others never had a specialized storeroom for important files to begin with (Archives & Construction, August 15, 2013, p. 71). This is particularly dangerous because leaked or stolen intelligence could cause great harm to counter-terrorism efforts, including the work of the BCT.

Counter-intelligence is another area of concern. Though the exact nature of counter-intelligence functions in the BCT are unknown, Sun Xiao of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Academy has indicated that insufficient attention is paid to counter-intelligence. This is due to the main objective of the BCT being not directly related to intelligence work and the long tradition of baomi (secret keeping 保密)—that focuses more on protecting secrets rather than preventing infiltration—impeding the construction of a well-fortified counter-intelligence system (Legal System and Society, July 15, 2010, p. 213).

Conclusion

To conclude, the BCT is an organization of vital importance to China’s war on terror. Regardless of the complicated circumstances surrounding the roots of China’s “Xinjiang problem,” the struggle against terrorism is likely to continue into the future. The BCT, despite having made steady progress in bettering its counter-terrorism strategy and training, still needs to vastly improve its underdeveloped intelligence capabilities by striving for an intelligence-sharing nexus, a proactive intelligence gathering network, a proper system of intelligence safekeeping, and a professional counter-intelligence apparatus if it wants to succeed in the fight against terrorism in Xinjiang. 

Notes

1. The BCT is listed under the PAP’s order (xulie 序列) as a type of armed police because, similar to the PAP, it uses military equipment in addition to training and operating according to military standards. The PAP still plays a minor advisory role regarding the BCT, but the PAP General Headquarters cannot issue any orders to the BCT, because forces belonging to the Public Security Active Service Troops fall under the authority of the MPS.  

2. The China Coast Guard was once the maritime branch of the BCT until March 2013, when it was transferred to the State Oceanic Administration.

3. The division of tasks along the Chinese–North Korean border and the Yunnan portion of the Chinese-Burmese border is one where the PLA takes responsibility for frontline (一线) border defense and control. The BCT is responsible for second-line (二线) duties that include the maintenance of public security in border control districts (边防管理区) and the management of entry and exit points.

4. Lu Ying鲁英, and Pan Cheng潘澄, Wujing changyong zhishi shouce武警常用知识手册 [The Armed Police: A General Knowledge Handbook], (Beijing: Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe, 1993), 69–70.

5. The BCT’s organizational structure follows the PAP, which is, in turn, partially modeled upon the PLA. A PLA division is generally made up of roughly 10,000 men. Given there are 30 BCT zongdui in China, 300,000 men would be the total estimate of BCT personnel, a number that directly contradicts the figure provided by the official Zhejiang Online portal. However, there is the possibility that each zongdui differs drastically in size since border control needs in a hinterland province like Hunan is probably far less demanding than a frontier province like Inner Mongolia. 

6. The salary paid to MBPU personnel could be inadequate for the amount of patrol work they are required to perform. A 2013 story profiling Adili Amudong, a model Xinjiang MBPU agent accidently revealed that the stipend provided to Amudong is not even enough to purchase gas for his patrol motorcycle.See also: Wei Lü 吕威, “Xinjiang Adili Amudong: Xin-Zang gonglu shang de ‘lieying’ 新疆阿地力·阿木东:新藏公路上的‘猎鹰’ [Xinjiang’s Adili Amudong: the ‘falcon’ of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway]” Xinhua Online, November 29, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2013-11/29/c_125784166_2.htm.

7. As of December 2011, BCT intelligence analysts holding a bachelor’s degree are still in the minority.