The Urban Management Bureau in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, has ordered the formation of a militia unit comprising 40 of its urban management officers, more commonly known as chengguan, China's Global Times reported Aug. 3. According to the report, the chengguan will be given military training to enhance their capabilities for use during times of crisis and natural disasters in particular and to maintain social stability in general. The city also announced that other local government departments could receive military training in the future to share the duties.As I have mentioned before there is growing unrest and fractionalization within China. Now the fact that a semi-official police force in China is militarizing isn't that unusual. Many municipalities in the US have done so as well, and it has caused problems; however, but that fact this is happening in China is unusual.
Though the size of the proposed militia unit is small, the move is an abrupt policy departure in China. The central government typically has held a monopoly on military power, whereas the chengguan is a locally administered security force with loosely defined responsibilities -- none of which has been military in nature until this point. The central government has already voiced concerns through state media organs about the precedent set by a local government unilaterally militarizing its chengguan, and the decision could set up a confrontation between Beijing and local governments in the future.
The chengguan was created in the early 2000s as a tool for social management at a local level in urban areas, particularly in resolving street vendor and merchant disputes that fall outside law enforcement's transitional responsibilities. But because the group's role has never been formalized, it has taken on duties that overlap with those of local police. In recent years, the chengguan has become an increasingly powerful force in Chinese society, extending their activities to land seizures and other unpopular actions. Additionally, the group is notorious for a violent management style, all of which has led to growing public frustration and resentment toward the chengguan.
Wuhan, a city with a vibrant informal economy, relies on the chengguan to maintain order, and it is not surprising the government has moved to enhance the group's capabilities. The city is likely hoping that the military training will professionalize the chengguan, reining in some of the group's egregious behavior and reducing the public animosity toward it that can lead to instability. However, the move has already sparked intense speculation that military training will merely enable the group to more effectively abuse its power.
While Beijing wants to enhance local social management, a local government deciding on its own to militarize an informal security force of uncertain reliability does not appear to be consistent with the central government's interests. An editorial carried in the state-run China Daily voiced serious concerns over the move, and official disapproval from a government newspaper could further exacerbate public unease over the plan.
More important, by saying that the decision "violates" the Chinese Constitution and central authority, Beijing seems to be warning that Wuhan's plan is a dangerous albeit small step on a path that could eventually lead to regional warlordism. While this is an extremely unlikely prospect in the near term, Beijing will not tolerate even the remote possibility that a localized armed militia beyond central control could develop into a significant force capable of challenging central power, a persistent problem throughout China's history.
Read more: A Chinese City Militarizes its Local Security Force | Stratfor
China has taken great pains to try and maintain central tenants of power within their sphere, namely military power. This is precisely because of regionalism that has pervaded throughout the Middle Kingdom since its creation. The idea of state militias, known in the US as the National Guard with the addition of State Defense Forces in some US states, is terrifying to the central government. The fact that a municipality is undertaking an action that is obviously so controversial shows that the river crab society (a pun used by some Chinese netzins created from the Mandarin characters that spell out harmonious society) is anything but harmonious at the moment.