April 8, 2017:
In early 2017 Chinese TV broadcast an interesting TV show that featured one of their commando units carrying out an operation remarkably similar to the 2011 American raid on the compound of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. For the TV show China built what appeared to be a replica of the bin Laden compound and showed Chinese commandos going through many of the same moves the U.S. Navy SEALs were known to have made during the raid, plus a few additional stunts apparently added for dramatic effect. The Chinese dramatization was not described as a reenactment of the bin Laden raid but rather a hypothetical operation in Xinjiang province where about half the population is Moslem, most of them Uighurs (ethnic Turks) and generally hostile to the Chinese presence. Xinjiang is where most Chinese Islamic terrorists come from although most Uighur violence in Xinjiang is against Han (ethnic Chinese) rule, which began in the 18th century and was completed, after much bloodshed, in 1884 when the area was designated Xinjiang province. But Han Chinese did not become the majority in Xinjiang until recently and many Uighurs accuse China of trying to erase Uighur culture in order to ensure long-term control over this frontier province. The TV show was sending a message to those Uighurs, reminding them that China had to conquer Xinjiang several times in the 18th and 19th century and that Chinese military capabilities were now capable of handling anything. The TV show did not have to remind the Uighurs that Chinese commandos are now considered world class and one unit, the Show Leopards, has an international reputation, acknowledged by Western nations long known for their excellent commando units.
It was only in 2015 that China began giving its commando forces a lot of publicity. Actually it was in 2015 that China first released details of their commando units. That year Chinese publicists made much of the fact that one of the two National Police special operations units (the Snow Leopards) won the annual International Warrior Competition (the “Commando Olympics”) two years in a row (2013-14). This involved competing with troops from 17 other nations, including the United States. That said, each year the Americans were not able to send their best because most U.S. special operations troops are either in combat, getting ready for operations or recovering from their last tour. Still, the Snow Leopards did well and in other international operations (usually of a counter-terrorism nature) the Chinese operators always demonstrated a professional attitude and mastery of the skills needed to be an effective commando.
The Snow Leopards are one several commando units in the national police and are based in Beijing. Two of the four squadrons of the Snow Leopards specialize in commando operations (like hostage rescue or difficult raids), while another handles bomb disposal and exotic (nuclear, biological, complex bombs) weapons and the other squadron specializes in snipers. The Snow Leopards were formed in 2002 and trained for five years before going to work. There are several similar units in other parts of China. In general, these police commando units tend to be very secretive. Much is known about the Snow Leopards because they were the first and being in the capital are something of a showcase unit for Chinese special operations in general.
The Snow Leopards are, like many commando units, small (under 500 personnel) and very selective. The Snow Leopards are mainly a counter terrorism unit, of which there are several in the national police (called the PAP or People's Armed Police). In China, the line between the armed forces and the police is sometimes blurred, especially when it comes to paramilitary outfits like the PAP.
Later in 2015 China announced that it had changed its laws to allow Chinese military and police commandos to operate overseas. This came as a surprise to some in American naval intelligence because it was known that for several years special operations teams had been seen on Chinese warships operating off the Somali coast as part of the international anti-piracy patrol. But as far as anyone knows these commandos never saw any combat although they were observed training a lot. China is expected to use this new authority to offer commandos for sensitive peacekeeping emergencies.
China has a lot of different commando units to send overseas. China allows different services (including the paramilitary national police) and military regions to create and maintain their own special operations forces. Thus there are ten separate special operations forces (seven military regions, the navy and the national police have two). The capital (Beijing, also a military region) has the largest force with over 3,000 personnel. Since the late 1990s the total manpower was expanded from about 12,000 special operation troops nationwide to over 30,000.
Each military region has a special operations brigade with about 2,000 troops. In a few cases smaller forces of several hundred operators are organized for about half a dozen combat divisions plus a few more for some armies. The non-army special operations units tend to be smaller, with lots of them in the various provincial and special police forces. Same with the navy and two marine brigades and its equivalent of the American SEALs. The current plan is to form small (platoon or company size, that is 20-150 troops) special operations units in every division and navy squadron (unit of several warships). Thus the army actually has eleven special operations brigades or (smaller) regiments but the troops are scattered all over the army.
These variations also hide the fact that most of these troops, while elite, are more similar in capabilities to Western rangers, paratroopers or SWAT teams. There are few who are as capable as the American Special Forces or commandos (as created during World War II by the British in the SAS and SBS). After World War II there were similar but a bit different SAS variations like American SEALs and Special Forces units that focused on traditional commando ops. The Russians came up with Spetsnaz while the Germans and French and many former British colonies created quite impressive versions of SAS.
China did not get into forming special operations troops until the 1980s and each of the military regions and several major police organizations were allowed to develop their own versions of the basic idea (elite troops performing very difficult tasks). Naturally there is more emphasis on martial arts and physical conditioning, both Chinese traditions admired but not always practiced intensively by the military. Chinese special operations skills involve a lot of work on improving reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to track down and quickly kill or capture small groups of troublemakers (especially separatists or religious fanatics). In the 1990s Chinese special operations commanders began looking into using their elite troops for raiding key enemy targets to paralyze the enemy ability to move and react. Since 2000 China has been putting its commandos to work more frequently, including outside of China. After all that China now sees its commandos as scary enough to intimidate unruly populations.