China sets up squads to combat terrorism

By Richard McGregor in Beijing

Published: August 18 2005 21:59 | Last updated: August 18 2005 21:59

China has set up a new police force in large cities, equipped with helicopters and armoured vehicles, to combat the threat of terrorism and the rising incidence of rioting and social unrest across the country.

The squads, to be stationed in 36 large cities, reflect the need for a more professional police force amid concerns that it is currently ill-equipped to manage such issues, scholars and analysts said on Thursday.

Combating urban and rural rioting has traditionally been the preserve of the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary force formed in 1983 to relieve the military of any internal security responsibilities.

But the Public Security Bureau, the mainstream policing body, has in practice been forced to handle an increasing number of incidents of domestic unrest and under a powerful minister, Zhou Yongkang, may have been able to make a case for funds for a new force.

"The new squads are aimed at improving the ability of the police to handle terrorist crimes, riots and other emergencies," said a statement on Xinhua, the official news agency.

Mr Zhou said the authorities dealt with 74,000 protests and riots nationwide last year, involving more than 3.7m people, compared with 10,000 incidents in 1994.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics, which may make the capital and other cities a target for attacks, has also focused on China's anti-terror and anti-riot capability.

The new squads will consist of 600-strong units in large urban centres such as Beijing and Shanghai, and slightly smaller groups in second-tier cities.

They will also be well equipped, according to Xinhua, with plans to arm the squad in Zhengzhou, the capital of the poor province of Henan, with three helicopters and an armoured vehicle.

Nicolas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director for Human Rights in China, said there were many "political and institutional reasons" to establish such a force, ranging from the global war on terror to worries about increasing protests. "It is legitimate for China to have an anti-terror force but the problem is the context in which it is used and how you define terror," Mr Becquelin said.

China is also drafting a new anti-terror law, which is due to be released later this year.

Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, was sceptical about the ability of any new force to have a real impact on the root cause of unrest. "The crux of the problem lies in an unbalanced society which lacks justice and equality," he said.

Mr Zhou went on: "As the income gap widens, and off- icials become more and more corrupt, better equipped police will only be used to protect the rich people and residents of big cities.

"The only way out is to actively and steadily implement a reform of the pol- itical system."

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