Terrorism, Riots, and the Olympics: New Missions and Challenges for China’s Special Forces

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 19

A series of external and internal demands in China’s security environment have resulted in modifications to the country’s Special Forces units. Changes to special forces units in the PLA have been driven by the possibility of Taiwanese independence, the military requirements of increasing power projection capabilities, and the country’s policy of ‘active defense’ that requires a pre-emptive strike capacity. Accordingly, PLA Special Forces have expanded their role from traditional reconnaissance operations to include counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, combat search and rescue, and direct attack missions.

Internally, marked socioeconomic tensions have forced the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to commission special units, known as anti-riot squads, to maintain ‘social stability.’ These special police units confront mounting social grievances and protests that stem from rural-urban migration, the closure of inefficient state enterprises, widening income gaps, and restive minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Not least among the duties of these police units will also be the task of ensuring security for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and other cities.

People’s Liberation Army Special Forces

The People’s Liberation Army and its predecessor, the Red Army, have always had Special Forces elements embedded in their regimental structures. The Red Army in 1928 included a special task company in its regimental structure [1]. During the Jiangxi Soviet period a Red Army division had a reconnaissance team of 40 men at the divisional level, 18 to each regiment and six to each battalion [2].

Even when Mao Zedong and Lin Biao were pushing the benefits of the ‘People’s War’ doctrine in 1961, the PLA fostered and encouraged special units. The bulk of the operational training budget of the PLA went to the Special Forces, which at the divisional level were meant to account for 70 percent of the local training time, and at the regimental level for 60 percent of the total training time [3].

These companies later became the reconnaissance elements of the regiment, and, as the best trained, received the newest equipment. People’s Daily reported in 2002 that these were the first units in the mid-1990s to be issued unmanned air vehicles, battlefield video systems and thermal imaging systems. Since the mid-1990s the roles of the PLA Special Forces have grown. The PLA Special Forces now train to attack the “accupoints of the enemy,” such as ballistic missile sites by direct action, or as in a recent exercise, to provide targeting data for strategic bombers and theater ballistic missiles of the Second Artillery force after insertion by helicopter and parachute [4].

Each of China’s seven military regions has a Special Forces battalion, dedicated to operating in different tasks due to the different geography of the region and mission profile. The special operations battalion in the Nanjing Military Region, for example, according to Renmin Gianxian (January 28), is involved in OPFOR psychological warfare and trains with air, land, and naval assets and ‘stressful’ live-fire exercises. This unit is responsible for operations in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, and, accordingly, their training would include beach reconnaissance and the raid conduct.

The PLA invests a large amount of resources to study the lower level operations and equipment of foreign forces. In January Fazzhi Ribao reported that the Blue Team OPFOR staff in Beijing studies advanced tactical theories of foreign military forces and by its own admission has collected a large amount of information on them. It is doubtful whether any Western country has a comparable organization to study foreign forces at the lower levels. This enables their Special Forces to understand how their possible targets operate. The PLA’s first Army Airborne Regiment, stationed in Xinjiang, develops tactics and doctrine for heliborne operations, including night-time combat search and rescue, as well as counter-terrorist and insurgency missions. Stationed there after September 11 to combat Uighur separatists, the unit was initially equipped with approximately 30 Chinese built Z-9G helicopters [5]. Its roles and mission profile are similar to a U.S. Army Ranger battalion combined with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). The Army Airborne Regiment also has PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Mi-17 transport helicopters at its disposal to provide greater troop lift and fire support.

PLA Counter-Terrorist Exercises

Since late October 2002 the PLA has conducted an annual joint anti-terrorist exercise with its neighbors under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The first one involved PLA personnel from the Army Airborne Regiment and Kyrgyzstan forces on the Sino-Kyrgyzstan border in the western region of Xinjiang. Other members of the SCO were present as observers. This was the basis for developing operational level planning and execution of multi-national counter-terrorist operations under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization [6].

The next exercise, called “Unite 2003,” was conducted from August 6–12 with forces from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, with the third, “Two Friends 2004,” conducted by over 200 PLA and Pakistani Special Forces including personnel from the PLA’s new dedicated anti-terrorist battalion on August 6, 2004 [7].

Police Special Units: Anti-Riot Squads

Acknowledging a paucity of trained personnel, in early 2001 the Public Security Bureau ordered large Chinese cities to create anti-riot squads for the maintenance of ‘social stability.’ Municipalities like Beijing were to have no less than 300 trained personnel, and provincial capitals were required to field 200 trained personnel, according at the time to People’s Daily. These units deal with counter-terrorism and hostage rescue, and will be responsible for high-level security during the Beijing Olympics. They are also involved in operations against narcotics traffickers and other organized crime. In Xinjiang they assist the military in counter-insurgency and terrorist missions against Uighur independence fighters.

By 2003 some units were very well equipped, as a display in Beijing on 1 August 2003 showed. The police were equipped with modern body armor, Type 95 5.8 mm assault rifles with advanced video targeting equipment, silenced sub-machine guns and their own Z-9 helicopters. The Type 95 family of weapons uses the 5.8 mm DBP 87 cartridge, which is actually a 6 mm bullet of poor ballistic shape that, although adequate for close quarter battle, loses velocity rapidly after 300 meters. This relegates the new 5.8mm QBU-88 sniping rifle to a marksman’s rifle, so the PLA is acquiring the JS 7.62mm and JS 12.7mm sniping rifles for shots over 300 meters [8].

An article in Beijing Qianlong in April showed off the skills and equipment of the Chongqing special police unit. Dressed in combat fatigues they were equipped with assault rifles, silenced pistols, rocket propelled grenade launchers, QBU-88 5.8 mm sniping rifles, and lightweight body amour. They were more like the Italian Carabiniri or French Gendarmie, and in the exercise gave assistance to regular police units.

In August, citing rising unrest, the Public Security Bureau created more anti-riot units in 36 cities. Chinese Security Minister, Zhou Yongkang was quoted saying that about 74,000 protests and riots broke out nationwide in 2004, up from just 10,000 in 1994, which involved over 3.7 million people. Zhengzhou, in central Henan Province, recently created a force of 500 officers [9]. According to Xinhua, the new unit’s mission is to mainly deal with terrorism, violent crimes, riots, and threats to public security, and will also be responsible for safety during major public occasions.

One such occasion is the 2008 Olympic Games, and the Public Security Ministry is making this a top priority. According to Xinhua (July 17), Beijing’s public security authorities have invited their counterparts from ASEAN, South Korea, and Japan to exchange ideas and give advice on security issues. For its part, China will combine all the military and police special force elements available to the country’s security forces to ensure the safety of the athletes and facilities themselves. The normal police units will have their hands full in moving traffic and people to and from the venues, let alone Beijing’s normal traffic. The Chinese police are also in the process of setting up a coordinated counter-terrorist command and control system in China’s northern provinces and autonomous regions, as reported the same day in Xinhua. This is vital; otherwise disparate units will start clashing with each other over proper roles and missions. It will also hopefully standardize procedures and tactics, as the various special police units are based and trained on a regional basis.

A single command authority crossing military region responsibilities is necessary for the Olympic security effort. It enables the government to deal with one organization in the event of a major incident. This will be critical given the impossibility of stopping foreign media transmissions during the Olympics. A single command authority, coupled with the expansion of roles for the PLA’s Special Forces, might also be expected to lead to some form of Special Operations Command as practiced by the United States and Australia. This would ensure the standardization of training, overcoming regional idiosyncrasies, the proper use of specialized equipment, and prevent the misuse of Special Forces personnel by regional commanders.


1. Mao Zedong, “Resolutions of the Sixth Congress of Party Representatives from the Fourth Red Army (6 December 1928),” in Scrahm, S.R. Mao’s Road to Power, Revolutionary Writings 1912 – 1949; Volume III From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets July 1927-December 1930, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, 1995, p. 125.

2. A Red Army division was a regiment in size, a battalion was a company in size and a company was a platoon in size. Collier, Harry H. & Chin-Chih Lai, Paul, Organizational Changes in the Chinese Army 1895-1950, Office of the Military Historian, Taipei, 1969, p. 186.

3. “A Summary of the Minutes of the Meeting of the Military Affairs Commission on Military Training (20-26 January 1961) in Cheng, J.C. (ed). The Politics of the Chinese Red Army: A Translation of the Bulletin of Activities of the People’s Liberation Army, Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1966, p. 218.

4. ‘Airborne Unit Begins Winter Drill to Retrain Troop’, Beijing Kongjun Bao, 11 December 2004; Wei Chun. “Battle on the Sea of Death Battlefield”, PLA Pictorial, 1 April 2005, pp. 28 – 31.

5. “China Dispatched 30 Z-9G helicopters to the Sino-Afghan Border to Prevent Terrorists from Entering China and to Annihilate Terrorists Associated with Eastern Turkestan,” World Journal, 23 October 2001, p. A7.

6. ‘Zhongji lianhe junyan’, Tanke Zhuangjia Cheling, 2002 Niandi, 12 Qi, Zhongdi 202 Qi, p. 49.

7. Zhong Ba shouci lianhe fankong yanxi’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2004 Niandi, 10 Qi, Zhongdi 204, p. 23.

8. Liang Yongli & Du Xianzhou, “Coalition-2003: a successful joint anti-terrorism maneuver,” PLA Daily, 14 August 2003; “Shanghai hezuo zuzhi chengyuan wuzhuang liliang ‘lianhe-2003’ fankong yanxi lueying’, Xiandai junshizao (CONMILIT), 2003 Niandi, 10 Qi, Zhongdi 321 Qi, pp. 2 – 5; “Yangwei jianchujian chuzhi daguimo tufa shijian zonghe yanlian jishi,” Xiandai junshizao (CONMILIT), 2003 Niandi, 10 Qi, Zhongdi 321 Qi, pp. 6 – 8. Zou Yihong, “Zhongchan xinxing JS 12.7mm jujibingqiang zhuren shejishi,” Qing Bingqi,2005 Niandi, 6 Qi, Zhongdi 202 Qi, pp. 12 – 14; Wang Taiping, ‘‘Zhongchan xinxing JS 7.62mm jujibing zongshe jishi,” Qing Bingqi, 2005 Niandi, 8 Qi, Zhongdi 204 Qi, pp. 12 – 14.

9. “China sets up riot police units,” BBC Asia-Pacific News Online, 18 August 2005.