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Organizational Changes of the PLA, 1985–1997

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


At the 15th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress held in September 1997, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin announced that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would reduce its manpower by 500,000 in the next three years. This is apparently a new step to deepen the military reform that Deng Xiaoping had initiated in early 1980s. Such reform aims to transform the PLA from a manpower-based military geared toward fighting a major defensive “people's war” to a technology-based military capable of forward deployment to deal with more variegated local contingencies. While substantial research has been done on major aspects of this reform, changes within major PLA organizations, such as the Central Military Commission (CMC), the higher command structure, the research and learning institutions, and the force structure, have not been adequately and systematically analysed. This study intends to shed light on these changes. Such a study is necessary and significant also because it helps towards an understanding of the extent, direction and problems of China's defence modernization drive, which may have important implications for Asian security. Finally, it provides an analytical framework for research regarding further organizational changes of the PLA.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1999

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7. Interview with officials of the China Institute for International and Strategic Studies, Beijing, February 1998.

8. For a recent account that stresses the corrosive effects, see Karmel, Solomon M., “The Chinese military's hunt for profit,” Foreign Policy, No. 107 (Summer 1997).Google Scholar For a more cautious view, see Li, Nan, “Political-military changes,” p. 441.Google Scholar

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10. Since the future CMC chair is likely to be a civilian leader (usually the CCP general secretary) who may have no military experience, whether authority can be successfully consolidated may largely depend on how well the new chair utilizes the position (which renders some degree of legitimacy) to mediate PLA institutional interests. For how Jiang Zemin had cleverly mediated these interests as the new CMC chair, see Shambaugh, , “China's military in transition,” pp. 270–72.Google Scholar

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12. Zhao Ziyang was removed from the CMC in 1989 as a result of the loss of his position as CCP general secretary, and the primary reason was his “ineffectiveness” in handling the Beijing student demonstration. Though there are divergent explanations of the retirement of Yang Shangkun and removal of Yang Baibing from the CMC in 1992, the more plausible reason might be that both were overly active in the military suppression of the Tiananmen student demonstration and took the opportunity to intensify the political activities of the PLA, which was reflected in Yang Baibing's post-Tiananmen militant rhetoric as the GSD (General Political Department) director. Both therefore might be suspected of developing a factional clique, considering that they are relatives and that militant verbiage is usually strategy for factional mobilization and attacks in CCP history. For Yang Baibing's overt political activism, see Shambaugh, , “The soldier and the state in China,” pp. 553567.Google Scholar

13. This is unabashedly stated in Yanjin, Yao et al. (eds.), Junshi zuzhi tizhi yanjiu (Research on the System of Military Organization) (Beijing: Guofang daxue chubanshe, 1997, junnei faxing), p. 372.Google Scholar

14. Many PLA officers, for instance, had accused the MFA as the “sellout” ministry (maiguo bu) for advocating negotiations during the heated internal debates over ways to resolve the Nansha (Spratly) Islands crisis in 1988. Interview with faculty of the National Defence University, Beijing, February 1998. See also Shambaugh, , “China's military in transition,” p. 273Google Scholar, Swaine, , “The PLA in China's national security policy,” p. 375.Google Scholar

15. “China's Military Says ‘No!’” Asiaweek on line, week of 20 06 1998.Google Scholar

16. In the provincial military district (MD) headquarters, however, both commander and commissar are the secretaries but the first secretary of the provincial Party committee is the first secretary of the MD Party committee. Yanjin, Yao et al. , Research on the System, p. 407.Google Scholar

17. Higher command structure refers to the so-called gaoji zhihui jiguan (higher command organs). Those who lead these organs are known as jundui gaoji ganbu (military higher-ranking cadres). This structure is defined by four major but somewhat nuanced level distinctions. The first is the general department level (zhongbu ji), which includes GSD and GPD. The second is military region (MR) level (dajunqu ji), which includes MR and service arms headquarters, GLD, Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), National Defence University (NDU), COSTIND and PAP. The third is army group level (bingtuan ji), which includes first-level departments such as command and political departments in MR-level headquarters, and fleet and MR air force headquarters. And the fourth is army level (jun ji), which includes group army and provincial MD headquarters, logistics departments in MR-level headquarters, naval base and fleet aviation headquarters, air force aviation corps headquarters and command posts, and Second Artillery base headquarters. A PLA deputy chief of staff is equivalent to a full MR commanding officer (dajunqu zheng zhi) in level distinction. An MR chief of staff is equivalent to a full army group commanding officer (zheng bingtuan zhi). A deputy MR chief of staff, however, is equivalent to a full army commanding officer (zheng jun zhi).

18. These are chief of staff of the command department, director of the political department, director and commissar of the logistics department, and their deputies.

19. By the end of 1958, 5, 175 militia divisions were established, totalling 220 million men. These militia units were then reduced in the early 1960s. Beginning in 1969, however, the militia was again expanded, with almost every county in China having one armed core militia (wuzhuang jigan minbing) regiment. By 1979, there were 270 million militiamen. See Junting, Li et al. (eds.), Zhongguo wuzhuang liliang tanglan 1949–1989 (An Overview of China's Armed Forces 1949–1989) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1990), pp. 7374.Google Scholar

20. A typical example is the attempt by the Maoist radicals known as the Gang of Four to mobilize Shanghai militia in their power struggle with Deng Xiaoping, who allegedly commanded the loyalty of most PLA officers, over the succession to Mao in 1976. See MacFarquhar, Roderick, “The succession to Mao and the end of Maoism, 1969–82,” in MacFarquhar, (ed.), The Politics of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 309.Google Scholar

21. See GPD Cadre Department and AMS Military Organization Research Department, Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun ganbu zhidu gaiyao (An Outline of the Cadre System of the Chinese People's Liberation Army) (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 1988, neibu faxing), pp. 131–34.Google Scholar

22. Ibid. pp. 90, 110–11, 275, 283. Cheng, Li et al. (eds.), Jianguo junshi baizhuan dashi (One Hundred Major Events in Military History since the Founding of the State) (Beijing: Zhishi chubanshe, 1992), p. 294.Google Scholar

23. Those who benefited from such practice were known as “rocket cadres.” A noted example is the rapid promotion of Sun Yuguo, a company commander-level officer who fought in the 1969 border skirmishes with the Soviet military, to the position of deputy Shenyang MR commander. Sun was demoted and discharged from the PLA at the end of the Cultural Revolution, and later became a businessman.

24. Junting, Li, An Overview, p. 90Google Scholar; Godwin, Paul, “Changing concepts of doctrine, strategy and operation in the Chinese People's Liberation Army 1978–87,” The China Quarterly, No. 112 (12 1987), p. 581.Google Scholar

25. The total manpower lost amounted to 510,000. Junting, Li, An Overview, p. 90.Google Scholar

26. Ibid. p. 91; Godwin, , “Changing concepts,” p. 581.Google Scholar

27. These changes began as early as 1976 and were completed by 1982. See Junting, Li, An Overview, pp. 8890.Google Scholar

28. Militia reform, which was carried out between 1980 and 1981, led to an 80% reduction of manpower, 88% reduction of training programmes, removal of 80% of the arms (to be destroyed or stored away), and elimination of the “armed core militia” (wuzhuang jigan minbing) category. New militia forces now concentrate in border and maritime regions and key civil defence cities, and their development stresses technology and mobility. Also, the recruitment age range was narrowed from 16–45 to 18–35 for common militia (putong minbing, or category II reserve), and 18–28 for women and core militia (jigan minbing, or Category I reserve). Ibid. pp. 75–77; Qingshan, Lei, Guofang houbeijun gailun (General Theory on National Defence Reserve) (Beijing: Guofang daxue chubanshe, 1989), pp. 65, 91.Google Scholar

29. A navy air defence reserve division, which was established in the city of Dalian in 1984 and boasts 3,500 members, for instance, is operationally linked to the North Sea Fleet. Official reasons given for tying reserve forces to regular forces are to stabilize sources of instructors for reserve training, and to explore methods and procedures for shifting from reserve to active status during crises and for wartime mobilization and expansion. See Siyi, Jiang et al. (eds.), Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun dashidian, xia (Dictionary of the Major Events of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, Book Two) (Tianjin: Tianjin renmin chubanshe, 1992), pp. 1866–67, 2091.Google Scholar

30. GPD Cadre Department, An Outline, pp. 134–35.Google Scholar

31. The 1982 level was based on a 20.6% to 30.6% reduction of the 1980 level. The CMC Standards on the Number of Leading Cadres at Various Levels issued in 1985 required the maintenance of an equilibrium between the number of appointment and promotion, and number of vacancies through routine attrition such as discharge and retirement. Each major institution, however, was allowed the discretionary authority to retain 2.5% officers beyond the mandatory limit. Junting, Li, An Overview, p. 91Google Scholar; GPD Cadre Department, An Outline, pp. 134, 140–41.Google Scholar

32. The appropriate ratio between generals and lower ranks was set at 1:250. Also, as specified, appointment of officers at and above full division commander level, or of the ranks of general, lieutenant general, major general, senior colonel and colonel can only be authorized by the CMC chair; appointment of officers at deputy division and full regiment commander levels, or of the ranks of lieutenant colonel and major, by the PLA chief of staff, GPD and OLD directors, and MR and service arms commanding officers or equivalent; appointment of officers at deputy regiment and full battalion commander levels, or of the ranks of captain, first and second lieutenants, by group army level commanding officers; and appointment of officers at and below deputy battalion commander level, by division level commanding officers. For ratio, see Cheng, Li, One Hundred Major Events, p. 360.Google Scholar For authorization levels, see GPD Cadre Department, An Outline, pp. 557, 578.Google Scholar

33. As specified, during peacetime, the minimum length of service before promotion to the next level is three years for platoon, battalion and division commanding officers, and four for company and regiment commanding officers. For military ranks, except for promotion from second to first lieutenant (which is three years) and from senior colonel to major general (which is selective promotion), four years is the minimum length of service for all ranks before promotion. For age, in combat forces, the maximum age limits are 65 for MR level commanding officers, 55 for army, 50 for division, 45 for regiment, 40 for battalion, 35 for company and 30 for platoon commanders. In principle, one has to be either promoted, discharged or retired when the maximum age is reached. GPD Cadre Department, An Outline, pp. 558, 559, 578–79.Google Scholar

34. The 1986 CMC Decision on Reform of Military School Education, which was codified in the 1988 Service Regulations for Active Officers, stipulated that primary military academy education is a prerequisite for the commissioning of commanding officers below the battalion level; intermediate command college education a prerequisite for promotion to regiment and division level commanding positions; and advanced military education through NDU as prerequisite for promotion to commanding positions at and above group army level. Cheng, Li, One Hundred Major Events, pp. 300301.Google Scholar

35. GPD Cadre Department, An Outline, pp. 168171.Google Scholar

36. The PLA General Armament Department (GAD, or zhong zhuangbei bu) was established as the fourth general department in April 1998. If GAD absorbs the GSD Equipment and Technology Department and the military component of COSTIND, it may help to streamline central bureaucracies. Otherwise, it may exacerbate the bureaucratic problems by adding a new set of departments that run from the top to the bottom of the PLA, GAD deserves separate analysis since it is part of the post-1997 reorganization.

37. Interview with the AMS analysts, Beijing, February 1998.

38. It is not surprising for one Western analyst to observe that “it is as if Chinese military thought stagnated in the 1960s and 1970s, and only since the late 1970s have the Chinese begun to think systematically about what they can do to make the most effective use efforces they have already deployed.” Godwin, Paul, “People's war revised: military doctrine, strategy, and operations,” in Lovejoy, Charles D. Jr et al. , (eds.), China's Military Reforms (Boulder: Westview, 1986), p. 10.Google Scholar

39. For definition, see Yingtian, Ji et al. , “Lingdao gaige yu gaishan lingdao” (“Leadership reform and improving leadership”), Jiefangjun bao (Liberation Army Daily), 27 11 1987Google Scholar, collected in Guangjun, Zheng (ed.), Guofang sibian lu (Chronicle of Reflections and Debates on National Defence) (Beijing: Changzheng chubanshe, 1992), pp. 235–38.Google Scholar By 1991, the NDU had reportedly conducted “more than a thousand valuable research projects for the CMC and the general departments on strategy and defence modernization.” Liaowang (Outlook), 21 12 1992, p. 15.Google Scholar

40. The First and Second Aviation Academies, for instance, regularly send professors and analysts to aviation units, resolving operational and technical problems and organizing crash classes so that the translation of new type aircraft into combat capabilities can be accelerated. Similarly, navy school professors have applied their research results such as “new type frigate over-horizon missile strike system” and “computerized fire control system” to combat ships, and “grafted” electronic warfare and automation technologies on to older ships. Jiefangjun bao, 29 05 1995, p. 2, 14 06 1995, p. 2.Google Scholar

41. For military schools, there are five levels of degree programme: zhongzhuan (two years technical education), dazhuan (three years college education), benke (four years or bachelor's degree), shuoshi (master's degree), and boshi (doctoral degree). These programmes are dispersed in about 600 specialities. At present, there are 21 authorized PLA institutions and 138 authorized programmes (shouquan dian) that confer doctoral degrees, and 54 institutions and 523 programmes that award master's degrees. Cheng, Li, One Hundred Major Events, pp. 300301Google Scholar; GPD Cadre Department, An Outline, pp. 190–95.Google Scholar

42. For definition, emphasis, and foreign military research, see Lu, Lin, “Shenhua junshi lilun yanjiu” (“Deepen research on military theory”), Jiefangjun bao, 30 05 1995, p. 2.Google Scholar

43. Li, Nan, “The PLA's evolving warfighting doctrine,” p. 459.Google Scholar

44. Functional arms forces such as heavy artillery, engineering and armour units were separated from infantry so that the latter, being lightly armed, can disperse quickly to reduce casualties if confronted with overwhelmingly superior enemy forces, and then to organize a tactical offensive. On the other hand, heavier weapons can be separately deployed for longer-term, more strategic purposes.

45. For civilian personnel system, see Liaowang, 20 04 1992, p. 15.Google Scholar

46. The constitution of an air defence brigade, for instance, is based on an integration of AAAs and SAMs that encompasses low, medium and high altitude and short, medium and long range. An engineering regiment specializes at the battalion and company levels in fortification construction, camouflage, barrier laying and removal, water supply facilities construction, road construction, and bridge laying. Junting, Li, An Overview, pp. 33, 39.Google Scholar

47. Chunchang, Yang, Deng Xiaoping xin shiqi jianjun sixiang yanjiu (Research on Deng Xiaoping's Thought on Army Building in the New Period) (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 1989), p. 323.Google Scholar

48. Chinese military planners believe that the traditional pyramid shape force structure would gradually surrender to the more flat, horizontal configuration with more vague level distinctions, where battalion or smaller force is the primary unit of operation (sometimes as target observers) and reports directly to group army headquarters. Peng Feng (who is a staff officer of the GSD Intelligence Department), “Zhanchang xingtai jiang fasheng jubian” (“There will be tremendous change to the battlefield pattern”), Jiefangjun bao, 9 01 1996, p. 6.Google Scholar

49. For changes in naval hardware, see Goldstein, Avery, “Great expectations, interpreting China's arrival,” International Security, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Winter 1997/1998), pp. 4749.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

50. Dangdai Zhongguo jundui de junshi gongzuo, xia (The Military Work of Contemporary China's Armed Forces, Book Two) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1989), p. 123.Google Scholar

51. Ibid.

52. For changes in air force hardware, see Goldstein, , “Great expectations,” pp. 4547.Google Scholar

53. The 1975 CMC enlarged conference decided to streamline headquarters, to eliminate railway and capital construction troops, and to transfer “local forces” to civilian authorities and integrate functional arms forces into infantry divisions. The programme was however aborted, since Deng Xiaoping was removed from his CMC vice-chairman position in early 1976, as he was criticized by the Maoist radicals as a rightist attempting to “reverse the verdict” of the Cultural Revolution. Junting, Li, An Overview, pp. 8890.Google Scholar

54. If one assumes the dominant influence of diffused and localized interests over military policy, one may need to show a CMC that remains or becomes more heterogeneous, bloated and divided; a higher command structure that remains or becomes more fragmented, with proliferation of more independent and regional entities; the dominance of non-functional (ideological or factional) consideration over research and learning agenda and personal policy, but not that of functional and technical consideration; and substantial existence of “local forces,” which in turn reduces the proportion of regular forces associated with the central authority. Also, if one assumes family connection and personal loyalty as dominant considerations for reorganization, one may need to show that a significant proportion of new higher officers are relatives of CCP “elders,” or have Second Field Army (a pre-1949 legacy alleged to be the power base of Deng Xiaoping) affiliation, and among retained group armies, those that have Second Field Army affiliation outnumber those from either of the other four field armies. For the first assumption, this study shows otherwise. For the second, one may have to recognize that being a relative of higher-ranking officials may sometimes be a liability since they are always suspected of benefiting from nepotism even though some can be quite competent. This explains why their number tends to be rather small and few are promoted beyond the MR deputy commander level, and they can be discharged for neglect of duty (in the case of He Ping, former chief of GSD Equipment and Technology Department, alleged son-in-law of Deng) or for reaching retirement age (in the case of Deng Xianqun, former chief of GPD Mass Work Department, alleged sister of Deng). Also, one may have to recognize that pre-1949 field armies are becoming a rather weak indicator of PLA factional alliance and struggle, since the experiences of newer, younger officers are less identified with that wartime hardship-forged solidarity. But even if one accepts that affiliation as an indicator, one may find that key PLA officers do not have Second Field Army affiliation. Both CMC vice-chair Zhang Wannian and GPD director Yu Yongbo have Fourth Field Army affiliation, while CMC vice-chair Chi Haotian and OLD Director Wang Ke have Third Field Army affiliation, and PLA chief of staff Fu Quanyou has First Field Army affiliation. Furthermore, among retained group armies, those that have Third (20th, 21 st, 23rd, 24th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 31st) and Fourth Field Armies (38th, 39th, 40th, 41th, 42nd, 47th, 54th) affiliation dominate, but not those that have Second (12th, 13th, 14th, 15th Airborne, 16th). It appears that appointment of newer officers and retaining of group armies are based more on competence of officers, and experience and performance of group armies in historical PLA campaigns, than on family or personal connections.

55. A glance at the background of higher officers appointed since the mid-1980s shows that a majority have held positions in more than two different major institutions since then, affirming a higher level of mobility and lower probability of localism. In 1996, one admiral and four generals, including navy commander Zhang Lianzhong, air force commander Yu Zhenwu, COSTIND director Ding Henggao, Beijing MR commissar Gu Shanqing and Ji'nan MR commander Zhang Taiheng, were retired largely because they had reached the retirement age of 65 (all being born in 1931). Most of the new appointees, including new navy commander Shi Yunsheng (formerly a deputy navy commander with navy pilot background), air force commander Liu Sunrao (formerly a deputy air force commander with pilot background), COSTIND director Cao Gangchuan (formerly deputy PLA chief of staff), Beijing MR commissar Du Tiehuan (formerly Ji'nan MR commissar with artillery officer background), and Ji'nan MR commander Qian Guoliang (formerly Ji'nan MR chief of staff), are in their 50s, showing no irregularity in their promotion. Appointment of a navy pilot to the navy commander position for the first time in history, for instance, reflects more functional consideration (navy aviation enjoying a higher priority in navy development) than personal connections. For mobility, see China News Analysis, No. 1563–64, pp. 1720.Google Scholar For retirement and promotion, see Shijie ribao (World Journal), 3 12 1996, p. A1, 6 12 1996, p. A2.Google Scholar

56. Godwin, , “Changing concepts of doctrine”Google Scholar; Li, Nan, “The PLA's evolving doctrine.”Google Scholar

57. The proportion of commanding officers at division and regimental levels who have earned college or higher degrees today is respectively 90% and 75%. Compared to 1978, when only 8% of PLA officers had some sort of college education, the recent proportion is 54%. Formal command or engineering education now becomes a central criterion for retaining and promoting officers simply because new equipment, with higher technological content, cannot be operationalized without functional and technical competence. This in tum reduces the influence of non-functional considerations over personnel policy. Jiefangjun bao, 27 06 1995, p. 3Google Scholar; Beijing Review, 29 07-4 08 1996, p. 12.Google Scholar

58. “Just playing?” The Economist, 23 06 1996, p. 32.Google Scholar