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volunteer armies: Prompted by social unrest and foreign threat, Chinese companies revive 1970s practice of corporate militias

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Chinese companies are re-establishing a practice not seen since the 1970s: setting up their own volunteer armies, a ‘legacy of the Mao Zedong era’. At least 16 major Chinese firms, including a privately-owned dairy giant, have established fighting forces over the past year, according to a CNN analysis of state media reports.

People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFDs)

These units, known as the People’s Armed Forces Departments, are composed of civilians who retain their regular jobs. They act as a reserve and auxiliary force for China’s military, the world’s largest, and are available for missions ranging from responding to natural disasters and helping maintain “social order” to providing support during wartime.

The establishment of corporate brigades highlights Beijing’s growing concerns about potential conflict abroad as well as social unrest at home as the economy stumbles, analysts say.

Background and Significance

The revival of these militias is seen as a response to the pandemic and part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s efforts to tighten Communist Party control over society, including the corporate sector. This move reflects Xi’s focus on integrating economic development with national security amidst slower growth and rising geopolitical competition.Economic Challenges and Social UnrestChina’s economy grew 5.2% in 2023, slightly better than the official target. However, the country faces challenges including a record property downturn, surging youth unemployment, and rising corporate defaults, leading to protests and demonstrations.

Establishment of PAFDs

Most companies announcing militias have been state-owned enterprises, but in December, Yili Group, a major dairy producer, became the first major privately-controlled Chinese company in recent history to set up a PAFD. Other entities that announced the creation of PAFDs include the Shanghai Municipal Investment Group, Wuhan Urban Construction Investment & Development Group, PowerChina Equipment Group, and Wuhan Metro, among others.

Expert Opinions

Analysts view the resurgence of corporate militias as indicative of the leadership’s concern about internal social stability. They also suggest that Xi Jinping’s focus on ‘security’ above ‘development’ is a key factor in this resurgence.

“The return of corporate militias reflects Xi’s rising focus on the need to better integrate economic development with national security as the country faces a more difficult future of slower growth and rising geopolitical competition,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese politics at Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, in an TOI report.

“Corporate militias under military leadership could help the Communist Party more effectively quell incidents of social unrest such as consumer protests and employee strikes,” he said.

China’s corporate militias are a sign of the times, reflecting the country’s growing uncertainty and challenges at home and abroad, as well as the increasing influence of the Communist Party and the military in all aspects of Chinese society.

(With inputs from Agencies)

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