August 21, 2012:
Chinese SOF (special operations forces including commandos and troops similar to American rangers and special forces) are a relatively recent development. While the first units were formed in the late 1980s, in the last decade China has let its SOF troops get out more, sending them to participate in international operations and even a NATO sponsored International Competition of Special Forces. Chinese commandos who participated in the 2009 competition walked away with the largest number of wins and broke several records.
The Chinese term for the SOF is Quantou Budui (fist units), an allusion to martial arts where a powerful blow in the right spot can quickly bring down a foe. Chinese SOF remains small, well equipped, and well trained. There are fewer than 5,000 troops in the Chinese SOF, organized into 6th Special Warfare Group, 8th Special Warfare Group, 12th Special Warfare Detachment, and Naval Commando Unit. The 15th Airborne Corps is used as a major source of recruits. Thus Chinese soldiers know that if they want to become commandos they have to get into an airborne unit first.
At the time of the 1991 Gulf War, the Chinese only had a few hundred commando type troops and they were intended mainly for long range recon missions. But after seeing what American SOF soldiers did in the Persian Gulf, the Chinese began forming units similar to American Rangers. By the time the 2001 war in Afghanistan came along, the Chinese decided to develop more commandos along the lines of American Special Forces, Delta Force, and British SAS.
For a long time Chinese SOF units mainly trained and planned for operations against Taiwan. This included attacks on key targets, as well as kidnapping or killing senior military and political leaders. Some of this would involve Chinese SOF operators who snuck on to the island as tourists or commercial travelers beforehand.
China has been recruiting and training SOF personnel heavily for two decades now. That means they have hundreds of very experienced operators, each with over a decade of SOF experience. Taiwan is aware of the threat and apparently knows a lot more about Chinese SOF capabilities than the general public. Taiwan has a pretty large espionage operation on the mainland, and a substantial part of it is directed at Chinese SOF. Taiwan has plans for dealing with the Chinese commando threat. But Taiwan is not sharing those plans with anyone.
China has also been sending SOF personnel around to train troops in foreign nations. For example, six years ago several hundred instructors from the Chinese special forces were in in Venezuela for about six months training Venezuelan troops in recon techniques and counter-terrorism tactics. The Chinese spoke good Spanish. The Chinese were apparently very interested in finding out about the training techniques used by the American Special Forces instructors (who had trained Venezuelan troops until 2003) and the Venezuelans told all they knew. Since then, a lot more of these training/intelligence missions have been conducted, finding that this half century old American technique is very useful.