China Adopts ‘Old British Trick’ To Dominate Foes; Raises Private Militia Akin To American National Guard

In 1608, the East India Company landed in India as traders for spices. But, with its army, it grew to become a dominating global player and created an empire that could put national armies to shame. Nearly four centuries later, Chinese firms are building their own volunteer armies.

In the last year, 16 major Chinese companies, including private firms, have set up armed militias known as the People’s Armed Forces Departments. Consisting of volunteering civilians, they act as reserves for the People’s Liberation Army, the largest military in the world.

Media reports have indicated that so far, the militia operates with China and is akin to America’s National Guard. They come to the aid of the administration in times of natural disasters and are tasked with maintaining “social order” during war.

This comes at a time when China’s unbridled rise is seeing resistance abroad, and many flashpoints are waiting to erupt into full-fledged conflagration. Also, economic decline is fomenting social unrest. Some experts also see Xi Jinping tightening the reins of the Communist Party over the society.

In similarity to Mao’s slogan of “Everyone a soldier”, recruitment of civilians in militias of the state-owned enterprises could highlight that Beijing is preparing for a potential conflict over Taiwan.

According to a report by China Aerospace Studies Institute in 2022, the militia has made major reforms to improve and enhance their role in the military with focus on establishing a clear orientation for combat preparation. The idea is to, “shorten the distance between the training ground and the battlefield and let the training ground act as a ‘battlefield whetstone’”.

A recent report by BluePath Labs for the China Aerospace Studies Institute found two significant developments concerning militia. First, it is providing more critical support to PLA aviation. Secondly, China’s senior military leaders have come to believe their civilian assets will be key in a protracted conflict.

The slow economic growth has seen a spike in labor strikes and protests. In 2023, there were 1,794 protests, which is twice the protests recorded in 2022, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization.

The companies that have announced their militias are state-owned – under the direct control of central or regional governments.

In December 2023, Yili group, the world’s largest dairy producer and privately controlled Chinese company also set up a People’s Armed Forces Department Unit. But what is interesting is that the Yili’s militia is under the direct management of the PLA garrison in Inner Mongolia, where the company is based and it is the seat of the regional government’s Communist Party committee.

These militias are volunteering males. According to China’s Military Service Law, males between the ages of 18-35 years are eligible to be part of the militia. The age limit is relaxed for people with special skills. Women are also eligible to join, but their age requirements are unspecified.

China’s militia system has up to eight million personnel, a lot larger than its uniformed service. It makes heavy use of demobilized veterans and civilian organizations, which have signed cooperation agreements with their local PLA base.

During emergencies, these personnel would be deployed in support of the local PLA force. For example, in July 2023 more than 400 militia members helped PLA personnel respond to devastating floods in Chongqing.

In June 2023, an exercise took place in Hunan Province that saw members of China’s militia taking on growing responsibilities, including piloting drones, driving assault boats, and manning command-and-control vehicles.

Huang Zhiqiang, executive vice-chairman of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region said that the unit was formed to build a national defense force based at Yili, which can “serve in peacetime, cope with emergencies, and respond in wartime”.

It was said during a ceremony in the regional capital of Hohhot attended by a senior PLA military official for the region and the city’s party secretary.

This was preceded by the Shanghai Municipal Investment Group, a government-owned property development and construction firm, setting up its own People’s Armed Forces Department Unit in September 2023.

It would be controlled by the Shanghai garrison of the PLA. Liu Jie, the garrison’s commander, was quoted in Jiefang Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the city, saying that the militia would assist the army in duties such as providing jobs to demobilized veterans or recruiting soldiers for the military.

The country’s economic woes are rising with a decline in property prices and surging unemployment. In November 2022, the protest of workers at the world’s biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou turned violent as they clashed with police. They were protesting over Foxconn executing its promise to increase the pay and benefits of the workers post-pandemic.

At a press conference in October 2023, a spokesperson for the Defense Ministry said the push to set up militias at state-owned companies was to “strengthen national defense development.”

The Return Of Chinese Militia

China has a long history of militias. Chinese Revolutionary Leader Mao Zedong saw it as a way of strengthening the country against the imperial forces. But it also helps the Communist leader to consolidate power.

After 1949, the militia was embedded into governments, schools, and companies. At its peak in the late 1950s, the militia had 220 million members when military tension was high with the United States over Taiwan. According to the country’s defense law, militias play a supporting role in the PLA.

The militias ebbed in the 1970s when the country steered its focus to economic growth.

The return of the militias has come in the increasing social and political turmoil in the aftermath of the pandemic and increasing tension with the US over Taiwan.

“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.


“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.

Outside the corporate sector, militia units are often organized by local governments and universities according to rules on militia work. These units still exist in most of these places today, only on a much smaller scale than in previous decades.

Willy Lam, senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, points to a sense of déjà vu. “We are seeing the revival of Mao’s key slogans — ‘the people’s warfare’ and ‘the organic co-existence of the civilian and military sectors,’” he was quoted by CNN.

In the longer term, Xi might be preparing for an invasion of Taiwan, when “much of China will become militarized,” Lam said, adding that big cities could be turned into “militarized zones” or “ports.”

China has used militia extensively in various conflicts including the Korean War, which took place around the same time as the war against India in 1962.

The India-China war was short and intense. So, it is surmised that China might have used its militia against India as well when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed more than 80,000 troops in two main theaters, which were over 600 miles apart.

The two theaters were Aksai Chin and the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) (now part of Arunachal Pradesh). Chinese sources sometimes mention the participation of local Tibetan populations in logistical support roles during the war. This could be interpreted as a form of militia involvement.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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