China’s People’s Armed Forces Departments: Developments Under Xi Jinping

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 9

A PAFD unit performing exercises in Anhui province. (Source: Ministry of National Defense website)

Executive Summary:

  • People’s Armed Police Forces Departments (PAFD), or People’s militias, have grown under Xi Jinping. This reflects apprehension about domestic security rather than any serious effort at wartime preparedness.
  • PAFD units are staffed by military and civilian employees from local governments. They are responsible for recruiting personnel for all the armed forces, as well as overseeing the recruitment, organizing, and management of militia forces.
  • The Party aims to create a heightened sense of corporate responsibility toward the PRC’s national development goals through efforts to build militia units within companies.
  • PAFD also contributes to military modernization through training and recruitment efforts. Xi has also directed all elements of the armed forces, including the PAFD, to support the strengthening of the military-civil fusion development strategy.


On April 19, the Qinghai Branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a major state-owned commercial bank, held an opening ceremony for its new People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD; 中国民兵). This department will be run by the Xining garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Xining TV, April 23).

Under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, the PAFD has experienced a resurgence in activity. Reflecting broader apprehension about domestic security, the PAFD has increased its involvement in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and bolstered its political control. It has also stepped up efforts to support the military’s modernization through enhanced training and recruitment. While these measures could marginally improve the readiness of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for war, they are principally driven by the CCP’s focus on maintaining social stability in a period of economic deceleration and popular unrest. The reappearance of people’s militias under the PAFD during a period of economic difficulty could underscore the legitimacy challenges that Xi Jinping is concerned about, highlighting the close interplay between security concerns and societal stability under his leadership.

The PAFD’s Background

The PAFD’s history dates to the founding of the PRC. Under Mao Zedong, these units focused primarily on the recruitment and management of militia at the county and village level. During the Cultural Revolution, these militias reached their peak at more than 30 million members, all mobilized to support Mao’s political campaigns. However, in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping oversaw a significant reduction in PAFD activities. By 2011, the number of militia members dwindled to an all-time low of 8 million (CNN, February 21).

The PAFD is one of the CCP’s three main People’s Armed Force groups (人民武装部; 人武部), along with the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP). The PAFD is primarily responsible for ensuring domestic public security and social stability. PAFD units are staffed by military and civilian employees from local governments. They are responsible for recruiting personnel for all the armed forces, as well as overseeing the recruitment, organizing, and management of militia forces. PAFD units and the militia they oversee also serve in an auxiliary capacity to help local officials cope with disasters and other crises, and aid political control through propaganda and defense education activities. [1]

Militia cadres are expected to retain their regular jobs and are embedded in the population. Militia members thus maintain a presence in all areas of society, including the government, companies, and universities. This arrangement allows them to keep a lower profile than active-duty officers and develop a closer relationship with the populace, affording them a greater ability to acquire intelligence, including about citizens in all walks of life and their opinions. This in turn facilitates efforts by police forces to identify and suppress potential opposition to the CCP.

The PRC’s military service law establishes that male militia members should be between 18 to 35 years old. Women are also eligible to join, but specific age requirements are not listed in the law. [2] The flexibility and low-profile nature of PRC militia allows them to carry out a wide range of missions, making them a valuable asset for achieving the leadership’s goals of tightening control over society during periods of social and economic turmoil. PRC government officials, such as defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian (吴谦), have highlighted the militias’ versatility, stating that they are capable of everything from large-scale mobilization to responding to natural disasters (MND, November 13, 2023). However, their greatest utility to the Party lies in their ability to direct popular political activity at the grassroots level, and to engage in patriotic propaganda and pro-CCP educational activities in various settings such as schools and factories.

Developments under Xi Jinping

In recent years, the PRC leadership has faced various socio-economic challenges, prompting a tighter grip over society. The economy continues to struggle with high youth unemployment, a real estate slump, crackdowns on private firms in the tech and education sectors, major shadow banks defaulting on their investment products, and significant layoffs by SOEs (see China Brief, March 15, October 6, 2023). As a result, the population has been expressing greater discontent with the government through an increase in protests and demonstrations, threatening the political legitimacy of the Party. According to data from the China Labor Bulletin, a non-profit organization that tracks workers’ protests, the number of labor strikes and demonstrations more than doubled in 2023 to 1,794, compared to only 1,386 cases recorded in 2019 (China Labor Bulletin, January 13).

To address these problems, the leadership has revitalized PAFDs and assigned them greater responsibilities. These include detecting domestic threats, instilling greater political spirit and support for the Party, and ensuring compliance with party directives. For example, a press release by Zou Jinsong (邹劲松), Secretary of the Armed Forces for Beijing’s Fangshan District, urged PAFD cadres to boost national defense education and create a greater sense of responsibility and loyalty to the party atmosphere in society. [3]

Xi Jinping has strategically established PAFD militia units within the corporate sector. These are primarily within companies where the central or regional government has some level of ownership. The Yili Group (伊利集团), headquartered in Hohhot and ranked as the world’s fifth-largest dairy producer, stands as a prominent example of this initiative, as the first major non-public enterprise in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to form PAFD militia units (North News, December 30). These units within Yili operate under the governance of the region in which they are based, supervised by the PLA garrison in Inner Mongolia. According to Yili’s executive vice-chairman for the Inner Mongolia region, these national forces are designed to bolster the Party’s role in businesses and to help with the construction of other PAFD units, as well as to promote the brand of the companies themselves (Baijiahao, January 2). This incorporation of armed force groups within businesses enables the Party to directly influence and monitor employee activities, data flows, and communications, ensuring adherence to government regulations while also extending influence over strategic sectors at the grassroots level.

PAFD units within companies differ from Party committees. The latter are key decision-making bodies within these various entities tasked with ensuring effective operations while aligning with party policies, values, and regulations. PAFD units, on the other hand, comprise individuals with responsibilities for security and defense, including the recruitment for the armed forces and militia management. Alongside these duties, PAFD personnel conduct surveillance and assist in emergency and crisis responses as part of their security role (Xinhua, October 24, 2017).

Other important sectors of the economy have also set up armed forces units. These include property market enterprises, such as the Shanghai Municipal Investment Group, a government-owned property developer and construction firm. The company’s militia unit is overseen by the Shanghai garrison of the PLA (The Paper, September 28, 2023). The force has a role in providing jobs to demobilized veterans or recruiting soldiers for the military. Similar actions have been taken by Hai’an Urban Construction Investment and Development Group (海安市城建开发投资集团) in Nantong city, Jiangsu province; three companies involved in property construction, transportation, and water services in Huizhou city, Guangdong province; and nine firms located in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province (CNN, February 21).

The Party aims to create a heightened sense of corporate responsibility toward the PRC’s national development goals through these efforts. Under Xi, the CCP’s traditional view of security, which pertains primarily to hard power and protection from foreign threats and aggressors, has evolved. The behavior of the majority of the PRC’s population suggests an overriding concern for economic security. This has prompted Xi to strengthen comprehensive security, seeking closer interrelations between the economy and national security. This includes a focus on internal threats such as poor corporate governance, low confidence in investments, market volatility, and limited job prospects causing wage stagnation. The reemergence of PAFD militia units contributes to efforts to improve the comprehensive national security.

PAFD Support for Military Modernization

Under Xi, the PAFD has stepped up its contributions to military modernization through training and recruitment efforts. Xi has also directed all elements of the armed forces, including the PAFD, to support the strengthening of the military-civil fusion development strategy (cf. China Brief, April 14, 2023). Militia forces have also stepped up their professional military training. For instance, a notice published by Jiangda County, authored by the county’s People’s Armed Force unit, stated that PLA personnel had been invited to PAFD training sessions to provide on-site guidance and follow-up training. The PLA personnel taught classes on “hand to hand combat, enemy capture skills, baton shield skills, and the use of explosion-proof equipment” (Tibet Daily, January 24). New militia units have appeared with capabilities in electronic warfare, drones, network communications, and helicopter rescue. They have also increased joint training with active duty personnel, further enhancing their combat readiness (CASI, November 14, 2022).

The PAFD’s militia plays a crucial role in identifying promising young people with the potential to become “high-quality (高素质)” recruits for the armed forces. [4] For example, a written summary from Yangpu County’s People’s Armed Force meeting highlighted the militia units’ efforts to bolster the “sense of responsibility and mission” for conscription and grassroots armed work. This includes aligning thinking, improving positions, strengthening leadership, clarifying tasks, consolidating responsibilities, and carefully selecting politically reliable personnel and outstanding young individuals with attributes such as good ideas, strong physical fitness, excellent professional skills, and a diligent work ethic (Yangpu District Government, February 27).


The increasing militarization of PAFD could marginally improve the PRC’s wartime readiness. PAFD cadres receive military training to enhance their response to national emergencies, which could facilitate efforts to carry out defense mobilization during wartime. With militia expanding into private companies, the PRC might be slightly better positioned to mobilize private sector resources to support a war effort. However, the impact of the changes to the PAFD for military operations should not be overstated. These units receive a modest amount of fairly basic military training and appear to train with active-duty forces on an infrequent and inconsistent basis. More importantly, the changes to PAFD activities do nothing to address the more fundamental problems with the PRC’s defense mobilization system, such as a lack of standardized data management, understaffed and misaligned bureaucracies, inconsistent authorities, and unresolved compensation policies. [5]

For now, at least, trends in the PAFD’s development reflect concerns about social stability and security far more than they do any serious effort at wartime preparedness. The expansion of PAFD militia units into the corporate sector is primarily a result of fears about rising social instability due to the slowing economy. People’s frustrations and growing social unrest are an increasing concern for the Party and its ability to maintain political stability. While social stability is an important condition for any country’s economic development, the inverse is also true. The Party has long tethered its political legitimacy in large part to its ability to maintain economic growth and improve the people’s material conditions. This interconnectedness between economic development and national defense goals has received greater emphasis under Xi. As the PRC government grapples with increasingly severe economic challenges, it is likely to rely more heavily on all available security forces to maintain stability and increase control over companies.


[1] Dennis Blasko, “PLA Conscript and Noncommissioned Officer Individual Training,” The People in the PLA: Recruitment, Training, and Education in China’s Military by Roy Kamphausen (ed), SSI, 2008.

[2] “Military Service Law of the People’s Republic of China,” The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China,

[3] “In 2024, the plenary (enlarged) meeting of the Party Committee of the Ministry of Human Resources and Armed Forces in Fangshan District and the Party-controlled armed forces debriefing meeting were held,” Fangshan District People’s Government of Beijing Municipality,

[4] M. Taylor Fravel (2020) China’s “World-Class Military” Ambitions: Origins and Implications, The Washington Quarterly, 43:1, 85-99.

[5] 刘瑞强 [Liu Ruiqiang], 《国防动员法》实施以来的成就、问题与展望 [“Achievements, Problems and Prospects of National Defense Mobilization Law Since its Implementation”], 北京理工大学报告 [Journal of Beijing Institute of Technology ], Vol. 24, No. 1, 2022, pp. 130-137.