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Military Power of the People's Republic of China

Special Topic:
Human Capital in PLA Force Modernization

. In one to two decades, the PLA will possess a contingent of command officers capable of directing informatized wars and of building informatized armed forces, a contingent of staff officers proficient in planning armed forces building and military operations, a contingent of scientists capable of planning and organizing the innovative development of weaponry and equipment and the exploration of key technologies, a contingent of technical specialists with thorough knowledge of new- and high-tech weaponry performance, and a contingent of NCOs with expertise in using weapons and equipment at hand.
- China's National Defense in 2004


The PLA’s ongoing military reforms emphasize building a qualified officer and NCO corps. Many of the PLA’s investments in human capital are described in the 2004 Defense White Paper as elements of the “Strategic Project for Talented People,” which focuses on personnel management, education, and training reforms. The 2006 Defense White Paper reiterated the importance of training and educational reforms in addition to improving morale and welfare in the military. Improvements in the quality of personnel will continue to parallel broader force structure, doctrine, and training reforms across the PLA as it seeks to build a force able to fight and win “local wars under conditions of informatization.”

Emphasizing Reform

China is attempting to transform its military from a force dependent upon mass to a streamlined information-based military with highly-qualified officers and soldiers. To meet these new requirements, the PLA has implemented programs to rejuvenate its officer corps, enhance professional military education, reform its NCO program, establish new guidelines for training and exercises, and improve the quality of life for its officers and soldiers. While the CMC began discussing the implementation of human capital programs almost 10 years ago, improvements in the PLA personnel system have only recently become evident.

Guidance identified in recent Defense White Papers reflects the PLA's focus since the late 1990s on increased integration of domestic and foreign training as well as of military and civilian education to support defense needs. The PLA has also begun focusing more attention on morale and welfare within its officer and NCO corps, and has implemented a series of measures to strengthen and modernize its personnel system, to include reforms to streamline the force, improve quality of life, strengthen political work, increase the education levels of members, and address corruption.

Development of NCOs. In 2005, the CMC approved the "Opinions on Strengthening the Noncommissioned Officer Corps," which stipulated that as of 2005 candidates for the NCO corps must at least have a high school education, specialized skills, and must take continuing education and training courses. Some of the NCOs will also take over technical and administrative positions customarily held by officers, within the PLA.

Conscription in the PRC

The system of conscription used by the PLA differs from Western practices. Instead of a general requirement of service for citizens of a certain age, the PLA’s conscription system functions more as a “levy,” in which the PLA establishes the number of conscripts needed, which produces quotas that are imposed on local governments which are charged with providing a set number of soldiers or sailors. If the number of volunteers fails to meet quota despite efforts to cajole or convince candidates, local government officials may compel unwilling individuals to enter service. China does not release data on what share of recruits are compelled rather than volunteers. Annual quota numbers for both the PLA and PAP are estimated to be 500,000. The vast majority of NCOs come from conscripts who then elect to continue service in the PLA.

Revisions in the NCO corps structure are intended to compensate for the recent decision to decrease the length of conscription service to two years for all services, and will replace the earlier system which had allowed conscripts to voluntarily extend their service obligation. Enlisted personnel can now potentially serve for up to 30 years, which would establish a continuously available core of soldiers from which the PLA could draw expertise and experience.

Officer Accession & Development. To create a professional and technically proficient officer corps, the PLA is reforming its officer accession and promotion standards, areas historically prone to corruption. Bribery and nepotism not only breed discontent, but can lead to the promotion of unqualified officers. China’s 2006 Defense White Paper highlights PLA efforts to reform the evaluation, selection, and appointment process for commanding officers. These reforms are likely intended to increase professionalism, establish standard practices, and decrease corruption-based promotion.

Expanding Education. China’s rapid military build-up has necessitated a parallel effort to improve the education and training of its officers and soldiers responsible for operating its sophisticated equipment. Continued education through NCO schools and academies as well as unit training and distance learning have also been implemented, and night schools in barracks have grown rapidly. NCO education will take time to develop as many of the NCOs were previously conscripts with at most an 8th grade education. PLA reforms in education are underway to improve the computer-based military training, and the PLA has built virtual laboratories, digital libraries, and digital campuses.

China has expressed concerns that low education levels in the PLA negatively affect its operating capability and professionalism. The CMC-directed program “Strategic Project for Talented People” that began in 2003 is an attempt to develop a welleducated and technically capable officer corps by 2020. The project aims to train and retain highly qualified individuals from the military academies as well as to attract graduates of civilian universities. To do this, the PLA is implementing improved training programs, increasing cooperation with civilian universities, and increasing military pay to be more competitive with private sector salaries.

In addition to recruiting from the civilian sector, the PLA is attempting to supplement modernization and reforms of the curricula in its professional military education system by organizing programs for continuing education at civilian universities. In 2007, a representative from the General Political Department’s personnel department stated that, “more than 1,000 officers are studying for doctorate or master’s degrees in top-notch universities.” Although this number may seem insignificant compared to the overall size of the PLA, the program’s potential for growth when coupled with civilian graduate recruitment, is noteworthy.

Realistic Training. An equally important aspect of the PLA’s modernization is enhancing the realism and quality of military training. During the Army- Wide Military Training Conference in 2006, the CMC announced training would be more robust and information-intensive to better prepare the PLA to face technologically advanced adversaries.

The PLA General Staff Department (GSD) 2007 training guidelines indicate the PLA expects training scenarios to resemble actual combat conditions as closely as possible. The PLA is attempting to enhance the level of realism by incorporating opposing forces into its exercises and, in some cases, by designing training that compels officers to deviate from the scripted exercise plan. The PLA is also conducting more joint service exercises. Although these efforts tend to be based more on de-confliction than truly joint operations, they do signify that the PLA is attempting to prepare its officers and soldiers for the demands of the future battlefield. In addition, the PLA is utilizing simulators to increase training time and conducting more command post exercises to improve its officers’ planning and decisionmaking skills.

Quality of Life. China’s defense expenditures reflect in part increased salaries for military personnel and improved living conditions. The PLA has also focused on quality of life in the barracks, including improving the nutritional quality of service members’ meals, providing new uniforms and equipment, constructing more ecologically friendly barracks, and sustaining remote areas with better medical support. In addition, the PLA has made improvements in its benefits program, which includes insurance, medical needs, housing, and increasing pensions for retired officers.

Civilian Personnel. The PLA has focused on developing a modernized civilian personnel recruitment system, giving priority to the recruitment and retention of science and technology professionals and other technical experts. The PLA has also implemented an incentive mechanism to reward professional skill and performance, including budget increases for the employment of contract civilians. Early promotions, honorary medals, and extended leave programs have also been created for those individuals who make significant contributions to their field.

Streamlining the Force. As part of the effort to streamline the forces, the PLA has reduced the overall officer corps while increasing the number of NCOs and contract civilians. The PLA has also streamlined the educational system by cutting departments and closing some training organizations, while adjusting headquarters and regional command posts.

Political Work. The PLA places priority on political work, particularly regarding education in its historical missions, combined with a “combat spirit” along with the concepts of “honor and disgrace.” The PLA has emphasized improving the competence of political instructors and discipline within the force for accomplishing PLA tasks. Expected wartime tasks of the PLA’s political work system are not well understood among outside observers.

Addressing Corruption. The PLA does not publish specific data on corruption, but claims to target corrupt activity aggressively. The PLA claims that its audits during the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) saved the PLA $840 million, some of which probably resulted from corruption investigations. Of the approximately 1,000 officers at regiment-level and above audited in 2004, 5.2 percent were determined to have unspecified irregularities. According to PRC literature, the majority of these missing funds are attributed to unauthorized contracts and projects. Another major source of corruption is bribery for advancement. These problems probably contributed to the strengthening of the PLA’s audit program for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), with which the PLA intends to audit 4,000 officers under an “anti-graft” campaign. Other official investigations range from corruption in the selection of noncommissioned officers, to construction project bidding and weapons procurement.

Looking to the Future

China’s reforms are intended to satisfy the PLA’s need to staff the armed forces with competent officers and NCOs better able to use the modern equipment, weapon systems, and platforms being developed and acquired. A significant portion of the reforms focus on developing a modernized recruitment system that targets individuals with skill sets to fill the need for highly competent and qualified individuals. However, the PLA is likely to continue to face several problems as reforms are implemented. For example, the PLA itself acknowledges that military training continues to suffer from units “going through the motions,” heavy scripting, and a lack of realism. The PLA will need to address these deficiencies if the human capital reforms are to achieve any longterm improvements across the military.

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