Paramilitary: China Loses Control

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December 28, 2015: Despite millions of police, even more paid informers and several large censorship bureaucracies, China has not been able to keep people from protesting. The most embarrassing example of this is protests resulting from rapidly growing labor problems. Workers want more money and job security. Independent (of government control) labor unions are illegal in China and workers have been creative in finding ways around that restriction to make their point. China does have labor unions but these are government controlled and intended to keep workers in line and prevent strikes (unless the government wants them).

None of the angry workers wants to risk jail by openly participating in what the government could call “illegal union activities. So there have been more and more “spontaneous” and “leaderless” work stoppages and walkouts. In some cases workers will threaten management, without using a representative or “workers’ committee” to deliver the threat. All this is of great concern to the government. After all, China is still, in theory and practice, a communist police state. So it is embarrassing, and scary, when all that power proves incapable to keeping workers in line and on the job. The workers use cell phones and the Internet in creative ways, getting around government electronic surveillance to keep workers informed and maintain morale, and the labor actions. There are often repercussions anyway. Strike leaders will be sought more aggressively and punished. Efforts to block use of cell phones and the internet to support such forbidden activities (strikes) will accelerate. But despite all this additional effort the state security agencies still tend to come up empty.

Billions of dollars a year are spent on controlling Internet use in China. This is the Golden Shield effort and similar, but far less successful, efforts have been made to control cell phone use. Users find ways around censorship, especially the computerized systems that check texting for forbidden or suspicious words. Shutting down cell phone access to areas works, but forces the government to rely on military communications, which is far less effective than cell phones. Thus cell phone network shutdowns are only practical for short periods.

The government is not discouraged, and is investigating new solutions like special government cell phones that still operate when everyone else is shut down during an emergency. Chinese officials believe that while the Internet and cell phones have caused them to lose control of the flow of information, it is a temporary situation, which will be fixed once the right control (filtering and censorship) technology is found. However, technology is a moving target. The growing popularity of smart phones (more personal-computer-like devices built into a cell phone) in China creates a device that is more capable of evading censorship and government control.

When there is a public demonstration the government is well prepared to deal with it. The national police, PAP or People's Armed Police, has nearly two million personnel. In China, the line between the armed forces and the police is sometimes blurred, especially when it comes to paramilitary outfits like the PAP. Nearly a third of the PAP (660,000 personnel) exist to take care of emergencies and they tend to be kept busy with the thousands of demonstrations and “labor actions” that occur each year. Many of these are without a permit and involve a lot of angry Chinese. Technically, the PAP is an armed force that undertakes public security duties as well as the enforcement of law and order within the country. In practice it's not that simple. While there are about 1.4 million local police, for emergencies (a frequent event in Tibet and Xinjiang) you call the PAP. This paramilitary force will quickly smother the unrest but it won't solve the underlying problems.

The history of the PAP is a confusing one. The PAPs ancestor was the Peoples Public Security Force, established in 1949 after the creation of the communist government in China. However, it was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution (1960s) and its duties transferred to the PLA (People's Liberation Army or "the army"). After the Cultural Revolution the government decided that the PLAs primary duties should be the defense of the country against foreign threats. So frontier police units were moved to the Ministry of Public Security, the same ministry that oversees the civilian Chinese police.

The People's Armed Police were created in 1982. A lot of demobilized PLA troops have been incorporated into the PAP since its creation. The PAP is rigidly organized, like most of Communist China's military and police organizations, with a national headquarters in Beijing and local headquarters in every province of the country. Another confusing aspect of the PAP is that it is under the authority of two different bodies; the Central Military Commission and the Ministry of Public Security, which also manages the regular police forces. Within the PAP, a number of different types of units exist each with their own distinct missions, some of them military oriented and some law enforcement-oriented. These units are internal defense units, frontier defense units, fire brigade units, mobilized divisions, commandos, and forest police units. The PAP tries to be ready for anything they might encounter.

Labor unrest is now recognized by Chinese leadership as a growing problem. Moreover time is not on China’s side. This is especially true when it comes to the shrinking Chinese work force. While overall population increased 7.1 million in 2014 (to 1.37 billion) the working age population declined 3.7 million (to 915 million). The number of Chinese over 60 increased 10 million to 212 million. All this began in 2014 and will continue for decades. The biggest problem, though, is the growing shortage of workers. As the population ages, all those one child families means there will be more elderly than the economy (and the shrinking workforce) can effectively support. Currently there are 11 working age Chinese for every retiree. By 2050, there will only be two for each retiree. At that point, retirees will comprise 30 percent of the population (versus 13 percent now.) Traditionally, children cared for their parents in multi-generation households. That model is dying out, and China is faced with huge pension cost increases at the same time they expect their economy to be the mightiest on the planet. But at that point, the largest single government expense will be the care of the elderly, and this will impose crushing taxes on those of working age. Many working age Chinese are worried about this, for there is no easy solution in sight. China finally relaxed the one-child policy but the newly affluent Chinese are less eager than earlier generations to have a lot of kids. To make matters worse there is not much in the way of pensions or health care for most of the elderly to begin with. The government recognizes this is a real problem but does not, and will not have the cash to deal with it. The young workers think otherwise and are angry.

The population shrinkage is accompanied by another problem. Since the 1980s many of those couples forced to have only one child aborted a child if it was a female, because much more importance is attached to having a male heir. Thus there are 38 million more males than females in China, and the disparity is growing. These surplus males are coming of age, and the competition for wives is causing problems. Women are taking advantage of their scarcity, but men are also going to neighboring countries to buy, or even kidnap, young women to be wives. This is causing ill will with neighbors, where females are enticed or coerced (kidnapped by criminal gangs) to become wives of Chinese men who have no other options. It’s not just brides who are moving to China, eight million workers moved to China in 2014. It’s these migrants that will become increasingly important in the next few decades for dealing with the labor shortage and growing demands from young workers for better treatment while facing an uncertain future. .

 


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