The Chinese People’s Armed Police in a Time of Armed Forces Restructuring

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 6

PAP soldiers (Source China News)

When China is at peace, foreigners will submit willingly. Therefore, if one wants to repel external threats, he must first bring internal peace.

—Zhao Pu (922–992), Prime Minister of the Northern Song Dynasty

China’s People’s Armed Police, or PAP, is the world’s largest internal security force. Last reported to number 660,000, PAP units are quartered across China at every echelon of administration from the county-level up. [1] The PAP is one component of China’s armed forces (中华人民共和国武装力量), along with the army and militia, though it receives little attention from international media compared to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). But the ongoing armed forces reforms championed by President Xi Jinping have placed the PAP under the spotlight. Questions are being raised about the future of the PAP, making it a suitable moment to revisit the organization, especially when previous military reforms that aimed to reduce the size of Chinese armed forces instead increased the size of the PAP. Given the PAP’s core mission of maintaining social stability (维稳)—the elimination or containment of any genuine threat to public or state security—the PAP is likely to retain its size and develop further as an important tool in guaranteeing the Communist Party’s rule of China.

Mission and Esprit de Corps

The history of China’s internal security forces before the advent of the PAP is characterized by volatility. During the upheavals of the Mao-era, the security force’s official designation and chain of command swung according to the ever-changing political climate. [2] Yet its mission remained constant; to preserve the State against any sign of trouble. The PAP in its present form was created in 1982 with PLA personnel—two years after Deng Xiaoping’s first military reform campaign—to combat vices associated with China’s economic liberalization (Sohu News Online, September 4, 2015; Law Science Magazine, no. 7 July, 2015). Although more than 280 regulations and policy papers regarding the PAP were issued since its founding, a comprehensive, publically available law detailing the role and mission of the PAP was formulated only 27 years later during the administration of Hu Jintao to delimit the power of Zhou Yongkang—a bitter rival who headed the Political and Legal Affairs Commission (政法委) overseeing China’s public security system (公安机关). [3]

The “PAP Law” of August 2009 explicitly stated that the organization’s raison d’etre is to serve as the guardian of state security. Guo Shengkun, China’s Minister of Public Security who simultaneously holds the titles of PAP First Political Commissar and First Party Committee Secretary (武警第一政委, 党委第一书记), left nothing to the imagination, stating that the “The PAP is an armed force under the absolute leadership of the Party, so it must prioritize obedience to the Party’s command” (Ministry of Public Security, May 10, 2013). Further clarifying the PAP’s role, Xi Jinping, while touring a Beijing armed police unit, differentiated the PAP from traditional order police, calling it as “first and foremost a fighting force” that must “steadfastly follow the core demands of safeguarding state security and social stability” (Legality Vision, no. 5, May 2014).

The PAP’s Organization

“The PLA and the PAP are twin brothers.” Like the PLA, members of the PAP are active duty servicemen (CNKI, 1985). The ranking systems of the two forces are identical. During a time of war, the PAP serves as an auxiliary to the PLA. [4] But the PAP’s chain of command is much more complex given its multifaceted internal security duties; it follows a dual command system known in official Chinese parlance as “integrating the vertical and horizontal” (条块结合). The power to command the PAP is divided between the State Council, the highest State organ in China headed by the Premier, and the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military organ chaired by the Party General Secretary. Although the PAP is recognized by a 1995 regulation as part of the State Council’s order (序列), the ultimate authority, as always the case in China, rests with the Party leadership, in this instance the CMC Chairman who simultaneously holds the title of Party General Secretary. [5] The State Council and CMC are tasked with setting general policy agenda for the PAP and taking charge during a national emergency, hence their “vertical” power. For everyday affairs, local government wielding the “horizontal” power commands PAP units at the corresponding level.

The Armed Police General Headquarters (GHQ) is the highest leadership body within the PAP system. The GHQ is made up of nine organs: the command staff, the political department, the logistics department, the 14 mobile divisions, and a command center for each of the PAP’s five branches—the Internal Security Troops, the Gold Troops, Hydropower Troops, Transport Troops, and the Forestry Troops. [6] In addition, the PAP advises the Public Security Active Service Troops that are separately commanded by the Ministry of Public Security (China Public Education Online, [accessed March 1]).

Backbone of the PAP: the Internal Security Troops

The Internal Security Troops (IST; 内卫部队), constitutes about half of the PAP’s total personnel. Present in every Chinese administrative division except Hong Kong and Macau, IST zongdui (总队; equivalent to a PLA division) are stationed at the provincial-level, zhidui (支队; regiment) at the prefectural-level, dadui (大队; battalion) and zhongdui (中队; company) at the county-level. The main task of the IST is to deal with internal security contingencies ranging from hostage situations to riot control. During natural disasters, the IST, along with other PAP, army and militia units are required to participate in disaster relief missions.

Befitting a combat-focused unit, IST training is completed both on base and in field exercises. A recent exercise, conducted by the Ningxia provincial zongdui included items such as organized river-crossing, chemical warfare training, log PT, manhunt in mountainous areas, team combat, field medical training, ruck march, mountain climbing, close quarters combat in water, etc. [7] Contests, at the national and provincial-level are held periodically to increase competitiveness. The 2013 PAP national contest lasted for 11 months and pitted the IST’s best soldiers against each other in competitions that lasted well up to 14 hours a day (CNKI, 2015).

The education of PAP officers occurs at a number of colleges and academies administered by the GHQ. But PAP schools do suffer from issues that negatively influence the quality of education. An article by a staff of the Shenyang Command Academy reveals its library is underfunded and understaffed, pointing to larger deficiencies within the broader PAP education structure. A consortium system does not exist. And decision-making is entirely dictated by the will of the library manager (Caizhi, No. 4, 2011). Grassroots education of IST troopers is also lacking. Despite the law-enforcement role of PAP units, a survey of 20 zhongdui in Shandong and Shaanxi Province shows legal education is close to nonexistent. Only a few textbooks on law relate to the work of the PAP. In more than three-quarters of the time, the format of instruction remains old-fashioned monologue and note taking. [8]

The Economic Construction Corps

Four other PAP branches are dedicated primarily to economic construction in geographically challenging areas of the country. The Gold Troops (GT) is the most unique among its peers. Founded in March 1979 as part of the PLA, the GT transferred to the PAP in 1985. [9] Its duties include, conducting geological surveys for gold and other precious minerals, guarding goldmines, and mining gold in remote and difficult areas. When called upon, the GT, like all other PAP units must serve as emergency responders to deal with internal security contingencies.

The GT has its own technical school and geological research institute and is organized as three zongdui, under each there are 12 zhidui (Gold Science and Technology, no. 4, August, 2012) .Since its establishment to 2012, the GT has completed 1,600 geological surveys and discovered more than 200 gold deposits of various sizes totaling 1,851.581 tons. Although second in total known deposits, China has led the world in gold production for close to a decade, due in large part to the Gold Troops (Wall Street Information, June 7, 2014; U.S. Geological Survey, January 2015).

Guarding strategic infrastructure is an important part of PAP duties. Given that China is the world’s largest consumer of hydroelectric power, the PAP’s Hydropower Troops (HT) are tasked with building, guarding, and repairing levees, reservoirs, hydropower stations, transformer substations, and electric lines (Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering, 2013). Currently, the HT owns 3,042 pieces of equipment used in dam construction with a combined value of $220 million, and have participated in more than 60 national key projects. Two-thirds of China’s land is under threat from flood and flood-related disasters, the HT is tasked with emergency relief missions. Zhang Rongshan, a senior engineer of the HT, has lodged a series of criticisms of the HT’s limits in professional training, cutting-edge equipment, and research and development geared toward bettering its disaster relief capacity.

Connecting China’s western provinces with the rest of the country is of utmost importance to the State. Not only is infrastructure an economic project, it is equally significant in political terms. Greater integration of Xinjiang and Tibet means the State can better assert its authority. The Transport Troops (TT) exists for this purpose. Similar to its peers, the TT builds and maintains roads and bridges in geographically challenging places, especially in western China (PLA Life, March 2015).

Garrisoned in a dozen of China’s provinces, the Forestry Troops (FT) have four main tasks—to conserve forest resources, suppress wildfire, protect wildlife and disseminate information on fire prevention. [10] Currently, FT units are present in six national forests, eight virgin forests, 18 natural heritage sites, and 183 wildlife and plants protection area. While the FT’s primary focus is forestry matters; it also participates in internal security missions when called upon. The Tibet zongdui for example, assisted in securing key installations in Lhasa during the 2008 riots.

The Mobile Divisions

During the PLA reform of 1996, 14 grade-B (乙种) PLA infantry divisions were transferred to the PAP and placed under the direct command of the GHQ as mobile divisions (MD). In contrast to ISTs, the MDs are fully equipped army divisions in every aspect but name only. MDs act as rapid reaction troops in the case of a large-scale disturbance, and are enforcers of martial law. Each MD division is composed of the following combat arms: infantry, artillery, armor, engineers, chemical defense, communications, and special forces (Journal of Equipment Academy, no. 2, April, 2015). A typical MD, such as Division 63 garrisoned in Pingliang City of Gansu Province has a long combat history dating back to the Chinese Civil War. At present, Division 63 is the only MD in the Gansu-Shaanxi-Ningxia-Qinghai quad-state area, and is on standby for any signs of trouble in Xinjiang or Beijing (Tie Jun, December 2015). However, from publically available literature, it appears that MDs also participate in civil missions. Servicemen of Division 63 also assist their PAP comrades in suppressing wildfire and snow removal. Chemical defense personnel of MD Division 81, for example, participated in putting out fires during the August 2015 Tianjin explosions (Youth Journalist, September 2015).


Despite cuts to the army and militia in armed forces restructurings of the past, Chinese leaders have expressed a particular fondness for the PAP—preserving, if not augmenting its size during a time of austerity. An answer to this puzzle is as simple as the Chinese adage “keeping internal peace is required in repelling external threats” (攘外必先安内). A review of Chinese history shows internal factors brought down the vast majority of dynasties. The Chinese Communist Party, in fact, came to power at a time when a weak central government and local power vacuums created fertile ground for revolutionary activities. The history of the world communist movement only reinforced this established belief among Chinese leaders—communist states collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to domestic opposition. Thus, keeping a strong security force presence at all stratums of society is of vital importance for regime survival. As a result, Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA General and frequently quoted commentator speculated Xi Jinping will eventually integrate a large number of soldiers trimmed from the army during the present round of personnel cuts into the PAP (Takungpao, September 4, 2015).

Another concern regarding the PAP’s future is the current command system. As recently discussed in China Brief, there is a possibility the dual command of the PAP will change as part of ongoing military reforms (China Brief, February 4). The personification of the “leader as the state” has defined the Xi Jinping era; the Chinese President have so far demonstrated clear ambition in political centralization and breaking up old power blocs, made evident with the gerrymandering of PLA command theaters and purge of the officer corps under the guise of anti-corruption (The Diplomat, December 17, 2014). A fundamental reworking of the PAP’s dual command structure is probable according to General Sun Sijing, the PAP Political Commissar, who indicated in a recent speech of the need to institute the “CMC chairman responsibility system” (军委主席负责制) where all functional departments respond directly to Xi and the CMC (Caixin News Online, December 24, 2015; QQ News Online, March 7). But questions remain on how this will influence the principle of “integrating the vertical and horizontal” and the PAP’s performance in future internal security missions. Granting the GHQ total autonomy is unlikely because that would be against Xi’s goal of political centralization. Yet a complete integration of the PAP into the CMC’s chain of command means the latter must divert valued time and resources to deal with complex everyday internal security issues, which contradicts the stated goal of making the PLA a more combat-capable force (Xinhua, September 3, 2015). The rationale behind the “vertical and horizontal” system is to allow State organs maximum autonomy in exercising its governance expertise while enabling the Party a high degree of control. For example, the IST must work with officers of the local public security bureau. The local forestry bureau, specialized in forest management, is best to advise the FT. The CMC, staffed with PLA officers trained in the art of war, lacks the specialty in internal security or economic construction.

The PAP, as a favored wing of the Party, is positioned to survive another round of force reduction unscathed. Groomed to defend the Party-state from any threats, the PAP will likely be increased in size as China’s economic growth slows and the possibility of social unrest rises.

Zi Yang is a M.A. candidate at Georgetown University’s Asian Studies Program.


1. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 27.

2. Xuezhi Guo, China’s Security State: Philosophy, Evolution, and Politics (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 187.

3. Ruojin Ma, “浅谈我国武警法研究现状 [Brief Discussion on the Study of the PAP Law in Our Country],” Legality Vision, no. 2 (January 2015), p. 181; A number of PAP regulations and policy papers regarding the PAP are still classified, according to Li, p. 25. For an English translation of the “PAP law,” see: Peking University Law.

4. Blasko, p. 28.

5. Qiliang Wang, “国家安全视野下的现代武警战略——起源、职能和走向 [Modern Armed Police Force Strategy in the Perspective of National Security—Origin, Function and Direction],” Military Politics Review, no. 1 (March 2015), p. 111.

6. The latter four branches of the PAP are dually commanded by State organs and respective GHQ command centers. The Gold Troops responds to the Ministry of Land and Resources. The Hydropower Troops responds to the Ministry of Water Resources. The Transport Troops responds to the Ministry of Transport. The Forestry Troops answers to the State Forestry Administration.

7. Tiefei Lei and Dengyuan Ma, “贺兰山下大练兵——武警宁夏总队开展实战化练兵提升部队战斗力 [Field Excercise under the Helan mountains—PAP Ningxia Zongdui Raises Fighting Capability by Actual Combat Training],” Ningxia Pictorial, 1 (February 2015), pp. 50–53.

8. Yuanhai Shen, “武警基层中队法制教育研究 [Study on Legal Education at the PAP’s Grassroots Zhongdui],” Legality Vision, no. 15 (May 2015), p. 200.

9. Guo Sun, “探秘武警黄金部队 [Discover the PAP Gold Troops],” General Review of the Communist Party of China, no. 9 (September 2010), p. 36.

Delong Cong and Zheng Tie, “武警森林部队特色文化浅析 [A Brief Analysis On Characteristic Culture of The Armed Police Forest Force],” Green China, no. 7 (April 2015), p. 63.; Ibid, p. 64. Ke Wang, “翱翔雪域蓝天的雄鹰——记武警西藏森林总队副总队长徐雄光 [The Proud Eagle That Soars above the Snowy Land’s Azure Sky—on Xu Xiongguang, the Deputy Commander of the PAP Tibet Zongdui],” Ecological Culture, no. 4 (August 2014), p. 28.