Party absorbs paramilitary police force in fear of coups
The armed police units at the command of regional governments could be used as quasi-armies in rebellions against the party's top leadership
President Xi Jinping’s sweeping reforms of the Chinese military since taking the helm of the nation have culminated in the shift of allegiance of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police force to the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, which has turned a state apparatus of 1.52 million cops into a party police force that is in effect at Xi’s beck and call.
Now China’s paramilitary police force will only take orders from the top party leadership, just like the People’s Liberation Army, rather than from state and local governments.
Subsequently, up to 14 paramilitary corps and divisions will be dissolved, meaning some 400,000 frontline servicemen and women will be dismissed, according to Chinese media.
These 14 infantry divisions, the marrow of the People’s Armed Police, were released from the PLA and transferred to the Ministry of Public Security and local governments in nationalization reforms in the 1990s – part of the late party patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s disarmament drive – as a vital reinforcement to the nation’s internal security and policing efforts to quash social unrest and riots.
It could be said that since then the public security minister became the top commander of the paramilitary police force and, correspondingly, regional party chiefs and heads of government could also marshal units of the force via local public-security bureaus.
Over the ensuing years, the consequences of letting regional governments maintain parallel quasi-armies under their command have perturbed the party’s top leadership, since ancient Chinese dynasties all saw coups mounted by local insurgents.
As well, during the tenure of Xi’s immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, who was viewed as a meek, timid leader, feuding factions and local officials had amassed power and dared to challenge the authority of the top party echelons.
It is said that Zhou Yongkang, a disgraced member of the Politburo Standing Committee and security czar who once served as China’s public security minister, dispatched armed police and laid siege to Zhongnanhai, the party headquarters in Beijing, on March 19, 2012, in a showdown to pressure Hu after Zhou’s accomplice, Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, fell foul of corruption charges in a power grab.
Hu reportedly had to summon emergency rescue troops from the PLA’s 38th Group Army stationed in neighboring Hebei province, and the precarious face-off ended with the surrender of Zhou’s policemen, after rounds of scuffles in which multiple bullets were fired into the air.
Only a month before the rare Zhongnanhai putsch, Bo had also sent a regiment of Chongqing armed police to Chengdu in an attempt to capture his former henchman turned foe Wang Lijun, after the then Chongqing deputy mayor in charge of public security defected to the US Consulate in Chengdu.
The incident deteriorated into a row between Beijing and Washington when Bo’s security personnel surrounded the office of the US diplomatic mission, and was only resolved after National Security Ministry officials stepped in and escorted Wang to Beijing. The fracas ultimately led to Bo’s demise that year.
Hu and his successor Xi both realized in the aftermath of the political turmoil that rattled the entire nation that had it not been for the delegated powers to deploy regional armed police, neither Zhou nor Bo would have been able to lay bare such infighting and discordance or wreak havoc on the party’s succession plan and its legitimacy to rule.