PAP: The Rise of the Party’s Army

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 13

Following the crackdown on Tibetan protesters in March, President Hu Jintao issued a call for “greater security guarantees” against protesters and other disruptive forces in the run up to the August Olympic games. At the same time, the official news bulletin of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) informed its troops that a “political mobilisation order” had gone out demanding that internal security and domestic order was paramount leading up to and during the Games (International Herald Tribune, April 1). According to the People’s Armed Police News bulletin in April, “The drums of war are sounding; a decisive battle is at hand. For the sake of the Chinese nation’s image and for the honour of the People’s Armed Police, let us never forget our duty.”

The ‘duty’ of the approximately 800,000 Chinese PAP troops, the majority designated for ‘domestic security’ roles, recently caught the attention of China watchers. Reports surfaced in prominent American and European press outlets that the blue track-suited Olympic flame ‘attendants’ were drawn from the PAP – the same organization that led the crackdown of protesters in Tibet [1]. Back in January 2006, two senior PAP generals published an article in the influential magazine Qiushi stating that the PAP should “become an extremely combat-effective force to deal with sudden incidents.” Many China watchers had previously focused most of their attention on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), arguing that the process of the PLA becoming a modern, professional army of the state rather than one dealing with domestic problems and serving the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was evolving albeit slowly. Analysts knew that many PAP troops, possibly around half, were composed of former PLA personnel drawn from fourteen divisions during the latter’s downsizing from the 1990s onwards. But even if the PAP received the unwanted “dregs” of the PLA as some experts quipped (New York Times, March 28, 1999), little was known about this more secretive entity.

In the short to medium term, domestic instability rather than external threats constitute the greater threat to the regime. According to the latest official figures, there were 87,000 instances of unrest (defined as involving 15 or more people) in 2005. Under Article 22 of the National Defense Law, the PAP is charged with “maintaining public order.” Evidence is slowly emerging that although funding, planning, and operational control over the PAP is complicated – reflecting the struggle for influence by different institutions within the Chinese system – the PAP is quickly becoming the primary domestic coercive instrument of CCP rank and file officials. Since the Tiananmen protests in 1989, the PLA has been reluctant to become the main arm called upon to enforce domestic stability, preferring instead to remold itself into a professional, externally-orientated force. Meanwhile, any hopes that the PLA is evolving into a fiercely nationalistic and assertive but apolitical ‘state army’ must be tempered by the evolution of the PAP as the ‘Party’s army’.

PAP and the PLA

Even though the PLA and PAP are deemed to be legally separate entities, the PAP is often seen as under the control of the PLA. This is due to the formal and informal influence that the PLA exerts over the PAP.

First, hundreds of thousands of PAP personnel were drawn directly from dismantled divisions within the PLA. Today’s PAP is modeled after the army in terms of ranks, structure, and guiding concepts (China Daily, July 9, 2003). Regulations that apply to the PLA similarly apply to the PAP. Both implement the Military Service Law of the country, and PAP troops enjoy the same benefits as PLA troops. Almost thirty PAP officers have been promoted to the rank of Major General. The culture within the PAP is a distinctly ‘military.’

Second, even though the PAP is responsible for internal security, its personnel are frequently asked to cooperate with the PLA in military operations and exercises [2]. The distinction between internal and external operations is sometimes unclear.

Third, personnel management in the PAP is centralized rather than localized. This means that as the leaders within China’s messy but interlinked security network of military, paramilitary and militia forces, senior PLA officers play an enormous role in the appointment and even promotion of PAP personnel [3].

PAP and the CCP – becoming the ‘Party’s army’

Officially, the PAP remains under the joint leadership of the Central Military Commission and State Council. The 1997 National Defence Law explicitly states that the armed forces (which include the PLA, PAP, militia and reserves) are subordinate to the ‘state’. Only in one clause – Article 19 – does it mention the Party: “The armed forces of the People’s Republic of China are subject to leadership by the Communist Party, and CCP organizations in the armed forces shall conduct activities in accordance with the CCP constitution.” This tension between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the Party is nothing new for China watchers. It is a tension that analysts looking at the PLA have pointed to for decades. But even as China’s leaders and its senior generals eagerly brand the PLA as becoming more professional and ‘apolitical’, the evidence that the PAP primarily remains the Party’s organ is strong. The culture, internal structure, and training of the PAP might mirror the PLA but financial, structural, and operational realities are pushing the PAP closer towards the Party.

(a) Funding the PAP

Financially, the salaries and operational expenses of PAP personnel are paid by central and local government budgets rather than that of the military. Centrally, funding is coordinated through the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Public Security.

Since the mid 1990s, the funding situation has become much more complex. According to Ministry of Finance figures, local authorities are gradually bearing more and more of the costs for expenditure by the PAP. In 1996, the local share was only around 2.5 percent, rising to 10 percent in 2003 [4]. In 2006, it was estimated to be around 15 percent.

In China today, central authorities only collect and dispense around one quarter of all fiscal spending. Local governments account for the other three quarters [5]. Due to the fact that local PAP officers tend to offer obedience and favours to local officials in return for receiving extra funds officially and unofficially, it is certain that the official Ministry of Finance figures are overly conservative.

(b) Controlling the PAP from the bottom-up

Many analysts focus on the statements of China’s central leaders (for example President Hu Jintao and Meng Jianzhu who heads the Ministry of Public Security) to gauge developments in the country’s armed and security forces. However, as far as the PAP is concerned, the focus should be at the provincial and lower levels. The greater financial burden borne by local budgets is significant. It is symptomatic of a general shift toward decentralization of many of the state’s functions which actually enhance and entrench the role of local CCP officials and their de facto control networks over state organs such as the PAP.

There are three levels to the PAP leadership structure: general headquarters (central), contingent (provincial levels), and detachment (county levels). In terms of overall operations and capacity building, the general headquarters is under the leadership of the Ministry of Public Security. There is a PAP command office in every province and territory. At the provincial level, a garrison command office is established that includes the leaders of local public security officials as well as leaders of local PAP units. These garrisons are obligated to follow the ‘directions’ of the local PLA Garrison Command Headquarters. However, the implementation of these ‘directions’ are left to the discretion of local PAP and local public security leaders.

If this ‘joint leadership’ system sounds confusing, it is. Even though one purpose of reform was to create a more vertical command structure such that CMC control over local PAP units would be more effective, the chain of command is seemingly as unclear now as it was before Tiananmen. Although there is very little official material on how these reforms have worked in practice, piecemeal and anecdotal sources indicate local that CCP officials continue to exercise a great deal of influence when it comes to the de facto command and control of PAP units – even in instances when martial law is used [6]. This first came to light very publically when PAP forces at the behest of local officials opened fire at protesters in Shanwei, Guangdong Province in December 2005 [7]. Local officials initially ordered forces to fire tear gas into a crowd of protesters. These officials then unilaterally gave the order to fire live rounds as the protests continued. Witnesses reported at least twenty people dead and up to fifty people missing [8]. Although the official who gave the order to fire live rounds was later reprimanded by higher authorities due to intense public pressure, there was little change to procedure. Local officials still retained the right to issue these orders to local PAP units. Indeed, the delegation of authority to local officials to selectively deploy force in the face of unrest was subsequently outlined in internal security strategy manuals in 2006.

Predictably, there have been constant complaints by Chinese citizens that local officials use PAP troops for extra-legal purposes such as tax and debt recovery, and land seizures. For example, the PAP was used to break up a large protest against illegal land grabs in Sanjiao, Guangdong Province in January 2006 [9] (BBC News, January 20, 2006). In May 2007, more than 1,500 PAP troops were used to break up a 20,000 strong protest against corrupt officials in Hunan Province (The Economist, March 15, 2007).

This temptation to use the PAP as a coercive instrument to entrench one’s rule within a de facto kingdom is immense. Local CCP leaders have a huge informational advantage over the central leadership who have little other formal sources of information other than what local authorities reveal. It is difficult for central authorities to prove that local officials have abused their power or over-reacted when ordering any coercive action.

In reality, China’s provincial and local leaders have long had enormous discretion given the size and population of the country combined with the relative lack of institutions to guide public decision making and enforce top-down accountability. As an old Chinese proverb states: ‘Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.’ Outside major urban centers where most instances of unrest occur, central authorities have no choice but to hand over authority to local official to instruct PAP troops and other law enforcement authorities [10]. Only local officials are able to respond quickly in order to quell any unrest. According to one expert, “Some localities have degenerated into private fiefdoms run by local party officials [11].” What frequently occurs is a decentralized and even feudal-like system of enforcing social order.

Moreover, increasingly frequent calls by President Hu Jintao and other Politiburo Standing Committee leaders to work towards a ‘harmonious society’ and target social disorder as the top priority serves to hand more power and leeway to local officials with regard to the use of PAP troops. Local officials simply justify their deployment of armed police as a decisive response, as nipping potentially dangerous instances of unrest in the bud. Removing the right for local officials to immediately deploy PAP troops at their discretion would risk the inflammation of any one of the tens of thousands of incidents of unrest into a major event.

Finally, despite some attempts at reversing the decentralization of many state functions over the past decade, China’s central leaders have little choice but to continue to support local officials in order to prolong the survival of the CCP as rulers. Beijing relies on local Party officials to represent its authority and preserve the CCP’s interests. Over time, these local officials build up powerful connections with influential members and organizations within their communities, and become well entrenched. The now emerging story of Zhang Zhiguo, the local Party boss who ran Xifeng county in Liaoning Province like his own kingdom for five years with impunity, is “very typical of China” according to one of its local lawyers Su Chunyu. Key to Zhang’s power was collusion with heads of the local Public Security Bureau and other law enforcement authorities. This is “typical of the way politics works” says Su. Zhang was finally sacked only because he sparked widespread outrage when it was revealed he sent local authorities 600 miles to arrest a journalist in Beijing who had written an article criticizing his rule (Washington Post, June 10).


There is a happy coincidence of interests on all sides that the PAP should become the unofficial coercive instrument for the Party. The PLA with help from the Propaganda Bureau has relentlessly tried to restore the image of China’s military as the peoples’ army since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Being seen to be cracking down on its own people would be a backward step. The central leadership is eager to avoid giving the impression that they are dependent on the PLA to maintain national order and stability. Better to use a distinct organization such as the PAP and avoid incurring too much political debt owing to the PLA at the same time. For provincial and local Party members, access to the PAP is needed to maintain social stability and entrench their own rule in their localities. Arguably, the PAP is frequently used to legitimately enforce social order. But when the source of disorder is dissatisfaction with these same officials, self-serving deployment of the armed police is inevitable. Effectively, preserving the power of local CCP officials – incompetent and corrupt or otherwise – is becoming a primary ‘duty’ of the PAP.


1. For example, see “Torch Guards Have a Link to Tibet”, The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2008; “Unmasked: Chinese guardians of Olympic Torch”, The Guardian, April 9, 2008;

2. See Sol Po, “The People’s Armed Police”,, accessed May 29, 2008.

3. See Murray Scot Tanner, “The Institutional Lessons of Disaster: Reorganizing The People’s Armed Police After Tiananmen,” RAND Conference Proceedings, 2003.

4. Shaoguang Wang, “China’s Expenditure for the People’s Armed Police and Militia”, in Nan Li (ed.), Chinese civil-military relations: the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army (London: Routledge, 2006.)

5. See John Lee, Will China Fail? (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 2007).

6. See Andrew Scobell, “The Meaning of Martial Law for the PLA and Internal Security in China after Deng,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003.)

7. See “China rethinks unrest,” Stratfor, January 27, 2006.

8. See Esther Pan, “China’s Angry Peasants,” Council for Foreign Relations, December 15, 2005.

9. See Murray Scot Tanner, “Can China Contain Unrest? Six Questions Seeking One Answer,” Brookings Institution Commentaries, March 1, 2007.

10. See Murray Scot Tanner and Eric Green, “Principals and Secret Agents: Central versus Local Control Over Policing and Obstacles to ‘Rule of Law’ in China,” The China Quarterly 191, 2007

11. Carl Minzner, “Corruption in China: Anger Boils Over,” International Herald Tribune, May 29, 2007.