China forms huge army of vigilantes to fight terrorism

Beijing: Ahead of the APEC summit here next month, China has mobilised an army of over 850,000 vigilantes to be on the look out for "terrorists", adding teeth to the country's war on terror, specially against militants from the restive Xinjiang province.

At first sight, they are just cobblers, grocers, deliverymen and garbage collectors, nothing special, but in China's nascent people's war on terror, these "men in the street" are on front line, part of what President Xi Jinping called a "wall of copper and iron", a state-run Xinhua news agency report said.

The vigilante system is not new and has existed for long.

They are all part of the "People's Army", the old Maoist-style mobilisation of masses to counter threats to the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) or the state.

The mobilisation of the vigilantes, mostly retired men and women, went up to improve security in Beijing, which last year witnessed a major suicide attack by militants from Xinjiang at the historic Forbidden City.

Three Uygurs, the native Muslim community from Xinjiang, consisting of a mother, her son and daughter-in-law, drove an SUV at high speed to the entrance of the Forbidden City at the sprawling Tiananmen Square.

Five people were killed and 39 injured in the attack.

Since then security in Beijing, which has a population of 21 million, has been stepped up further in view of the summit of the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to be attended by US President Barack Obama among others.

Liu Yanhua, a retired factory worker and member of the people's army patrols Tiananmen Square, and reports anything suspicious.

"I question strangers whenever I meet them," he said. His neighbourhood of 3,500 has some 150 vigilantes, most of whom are retired elderly people. When patrolling the community, they wear red waistcoats and armbands.

Although they have been trained to deal with emergencies, Liu said they will not get directly involved in any situation, but only serve as the eyes and ears of the police.

If something bad does happen, Beijing has bought them insurance with cover of up to 400,000 yuan (USD 65,000), Wang Jie, a neighbourhood official said. The insurance programme covers more than 850,000 volunteers, the Xinhua report said.

Anti-terrorism has been a mainstay in volunteer training for major global events since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Zhao Guoqiang has served his community as a public security volunteer for 14 years, mainly keeping an eye out for burglars, thieves and minor offenders.

Lately he has been on the lookout for terrorists.

Mei Jianming, director of the counter-terrorism research centre at the People's Public Security University of China, believes the masses play an important role in fighting terror. "The key to defeating terrorists lies in early warnings, which require the public to contribute intelligence," he said.

With 276 subway stations security is paramount to Beijing.

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