China’s Paramilitary Police Could Crush Hong Kong

The People’s Armed Police, not the army itself, is the sharp edge of daily repression on the mainland.

A detachment of the Chinese People's Armed Police responsible for the security of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City marches on to the square in Beijing on November 23, 2009.
A detachment of the Chinese People's Armed Police responsible for the security of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City marches on to the square in Beijing on November 23, 2009. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Monday saw the latest escalation of the Hong Kong protests that began more than 2 months ago: a day of citywide strikes, protests, and numerous clashes with the police. With the Hong Kong police unable to dampen the protests, Beijing has responded with warnings, prompting concerns of a potential intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) if the police lose control. The release of a three-minute video on July 31 showing the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison troops advancing on rioters in an urban area served to intensify these fears.

With Hong Kong now in the global spotlight, the sight of PLA soldiers moving in would be a brutal blow to Beijing’s reputation. Yet more likely, but just as worrying, is the introduction of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). Because despite the PLA being notorious for crushing the Tiananmen protesters in 1989, the PAP is often used to quell domestic unrest across China.

The paramilitary PAP actually does much of the dirty work domestically in clamping down on internal dissent. Tasked with maintaining internal security as well as counterterrorism, the PAP is very active in Xinjiang and Tibet, China’s two most rebellious regions and consequently the most repressed. In times of war, the PAP is also tasked with providing support to the PLA.

In Xinjiang, the PAP has been heavily involved over the past decade in dealing with demonstrations and conducting raids and pursuing alleged insurgents. The PAP was deployed in Urumqi the evening of the 2009 riots, with, Uighur witnesses say, a free-fire policy and easy trigger fingers. By now, Xinjiang seems to be largely controlled, with more than a million Uighurs held in detention camps there.

The PAP also has a strong presence in Tibet, where it put down a wave of protests in March 2008 also known as the “3-14 riots” in Chinese media.

Beyond these regions, the PAP has been active across China in putting down mass demonstrations on issues such as labor disputes and environmental concerns. This was especially prevalent in the 2000s when the PAP was involved in brutal incidents including crushing a power plant protest in Shanwei, Guangdong—during which the PAP reportedly killed 20 people—and blockading the village of Wukan, also in Guangdong, which famously protested over abuse of power, in 2011. If China were to actually invade and overrun Taiwan, the PAP would likely play a huge role in suppressing urban resistance.

With 1.5 million personnel stationed all over the country, the PAP is a crucial element of how the Chinese Communist Party maintains its control. So crucial that the PAP was brought under the direct control of the Central Military Commission as part of significant restructuring in 2018. Previously, the PAP was under the joint command of the military commission and the State Council, China’s cabinet.

This move removes the PAP from civilian oversight, making it basically a fully military force. Coincidentally, the PAP’s predecessor was also under solely military control during the Cultural Revolution. This latest move is said to have been done to prevent local authorities from being able to use the PAP for their own purposes as well as against the central government. At the same time, it centralizes power over the PAP directly in the hands of Xi Jinping, who heads the CMC.

In the past, the PAP was also responsible for a wide range of areas, such as forests, firefighting, hydropower, and border control. But as part of the restructuring in 2018, these units were diverted to other ministries as the PAP has been streamlined into a purely paramilitary force that is intended as backup for the PLA. The PAP has gone through several changes and used to be part of the PLA but was branched off in 1982 to become a completely separate force. The PAP is equipped with its own artillery, helicopter, and special force units as well as anti-personnel vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The coast guard now also falls under the PAP, having previously been overseen by the now defunct State Oceanic Administration. This militarization of the coast guard is in line with China’s growing naval force projection in recent years in regions like the South China Sea. It is no coincidence that Chinese coast guard ships have been involved in patrolling disputed areas and even making intrusions into the waters of countries like the Philippines.

In Hong Kong, the PLA already has a presence, with its headquarters next to the Hong Kong government and legislative buildings. The units are hardly seen during daylight as conspicuous movements and exercises are kept to a minimum to avoid intimidating or angering locals. However, the PLA forces are geared toward taking military action against foreign foes—not suppressing urban riots.

If China does decide to take the unprecedented step of imposing martial law on Hong Kong and enforcing it, the PAP would be a logical choice given its extensive experience in quelling protests in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as other parts of China.

Of course, Hong Kong has not reached that stage of mass unrest yet. Despite the many rallies across the territory and confrontations between protesters and police, there has been no loss of life, no looting, and little destruction of property other than the vandalism of several police stations and the government headquarters.

However, the general strike on Aug. 5, the first in Hong Kong in decades, represents a new stage in the ongoing protests. The movement shows no sign of abating, and the ineffectual response of despised Chief Executive Carrie Lam does not signify much hope of a quick resolution.

The strike forced China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to schedule a press conference for the following day, on Aug. 6, when it would announce “something new.” Beijing finds itself in a tough situation between doing nothing or urging Lam to give in to the protesters’ demands and appearing ineffective and giving a tough response. Ultimately, that would mean sending in armed personnel to crack down on the protesters.

On July 30, the United States noted a supposed mass buildup of Chinese armed forces near the border with Hong Kong, raising fears of an imminent move into the area. This turned out to be a ceremony in Guangzhou—a good 80 miles from Hong Kong—involving almost 20,000 police, said to be about the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party this year. But it still speaks to the numbers China can mobilize if needed.

Meanwhile, there are suspicions among some Hong Kongers that mainland personnel are already embedded in the Hong Kong Police Force. They point to video clips on social media showing Hong Kong police without any identification and unable to understand Cantonese, the implication being that they are mainlanders. At this point, there is no solid proof, and these are just allegations. But the militarization of Hong Kong’s police, with mainland assistance and training, would be one way to heighten repression without openly utilizing the military.

The Hong Kong and central authorities have so far pointedly insisted that the PLA will not be sent in and that they trust the Hong Kong police to maintain control. But it’s hard to trust them—the PLA is not China’s only armed force for dealing with civil unrest.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.