China’s Military Intelligence System is Changing


As American families dined on turkey and stuffing, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) was hard at work in Beijing hammering out military reforms. These reforms were then announced to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by President Xi Jinping, who also serves as the CMC chairman. The proposed organizational changes may make this round of reform the most significant since those of the 1950s, when the PLA transitioned from a revolutionary army to the arm of a party-state. First impressions of the proposals provide mostly descriptive analyses at what Xi Jinping proposed for the PLA, but what the PLA publicized does not tell the whole story. The proposed creation of a separate headquarters for PLA ground forces and reorganization of the military regions will reverberate throughout military intelligence — a subject omitted entirely in Beijing’s propaganda blitz. Once the PLA moves beyond the inevitable organizational growing pains, the Chinese military intelligence system will be better positioned to manage its responsibilities for informing policymakers and supporting military operations.

Current Organization

The PLA’s basic organization of intelligence includes the General Staff Department (GSD), the military regions, and intelligence departments within the PLA’s two services and one autonomous branch — respectively, the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF).

The focal point of the PLA’s intelligence effort lies within the GSD, giving any substantial change to the general staff potential to shake up the military intelligence system. The GSD’s Second Department (2PLA) manages clandestine and overt human intelligence operations (HUMINT), the latter of which includes defense attachés and at least one think tank, the China Institute for International and Strategic Studies. This department also has some responsibility for China’s satellite imagery and possibly other overhead intelligence assets, but the organizational structure of Chinese space operations is difficult to understand. The GSD Third Department (3PLA) is the national signals intelligence (SIGINT) authority, roughly comparable to the U.S. National Security Agency or the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters. Like its Anglo-American counterparts, the Third Department also has responsibilities for defending Chinese computer networks and securing government communications. The GSD Fourth Department (4PLA) is responsible for electronic intelligence (ELINT) and electronic warfare (EW), and remains the youngest GSD element, dating to sometime between 1977 and 1990, depending on the source.

Most tactical and operational intelligence probably is conducted by the services and the military regions — which are joint organizations responsible for campaign-level command and control. The military regions and the services divide their intelligence functions between a headquarters intelligence department supported by at least one technical reconnaissance bureau: the PLAAF has three, the PLAN two. Judging from PLA intelligence literature, such as the Science of Military Intelligence and Military Informatics, the intelligence department may process, analyze, and synthesize intelligence reporting to support headquarters’ decision-making; however, little is known about what materials the intelligence departments can draw upon for their reports. The technical reconnaissance bureaus collect information through technical means, presumably tactical SIGINT, tactical ELINT, and, according to some reports, computer network operations.

The most senior Chinese intelligence officer — the GSD deputy chief with responsibility for foreign affairs and intelligence — participates in national policymaking outside the PLA command structure. This officer, alongside a uniformed CMC deputy chairman, sits on at least the central leading small groups for foreign affairs, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and Macao. Because this GSD deputy is the only person in the Chinese government in a position able to offer an all-source intelligence perspective, the PLA holds an important role in foreign affairs decision-making that cannot be readily replaced without an even more dramatic civilian and military overhaul.

Potential Effects of PLA Reform

Every level of the Chinese military intelligence system will change with the creation of an independent headquarters for the ground forces, the resulting changes to the GSD, and the restructuring of the military region system. Contrary to what its name suggests, the GSD is both the PLA’s general staff and the current headquarters for the ground forces — without clear distinctions drawn between the two functions. The ground forces’ domination of the GSD and the other three general departments (armament, logistics, and political) stems in part from a lack of separation between the ground forces and these departments that are supposed to serve the entire Chinese military. Without a separate headquarters, the ground forces developed a stranglehold on these departments (and the military regions) becoming the “entrenched interests” at which President Xi obliquely hinted.

First, the ground forces’ new headquarters will probably have its own intelligence department and possibly even a technical reconnaissance bureau. The intelligence department will likely need to be created from scratch, but personnel can be drawn from the possible changes elsewhere in the system outlined below.

Second, to the extent that the GSD intelligence departments support the ground forces, observers should expect to see elements of these departments transferred to the ground forces’ intelligence department and technical reconnaissance bureau. For example, in 2PLA, the most likely elements to shift are the technical reconnaissance elements connected to its second bureau. 2PLA’s second bureau and related elements oversee and develop the department’s scientific and technical collection systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles and overhead imagery satellites. The other principal bureaus of 2PLA either oversee HUMINT operations against foreign countries or analyze foreign developments — a set of resources that do not translate well into operational support.

Third, in the imminent reorganization of the military regions into “battle zone commands,” their intelligence departments and possibly their technical reconnaissance bureaus must be reorganized accordingly. Reorganizing the intelligence departments will be relatively straightforward, either through congealing or disbanding the existing departments into the new headquarters.

The technical reconnaissance bureaus may continue to function as they do now or may also be reorganized under the new system. These bureaus essentially were left alone in the last major round of structural and organizational reforms between 1985 and 1988. In that reorganization, when the PLA cut one million troops and pared back the number of military regions from 11 to the current seven, the PLA did not disband the technical reconnaissance bureaus of the defunct military regions. Instead, the PLA simply moved the bureaus into newly created military regions. Consequently, the Chengdu, Lanzhou, and Nanjing military regions have two such bureaus.

The biggest question about the reorganization of intelligence is how the PLA will do within the intelligence apparatus to increase jointness — one of the stated goals of the reforms. Plenty of evidence suggests the Chinese military wants intelligence more connected to operational decision-making. The selection of PLAAF and PLAN officers as the GSD deputies responsible for intelligence — respectively, General Ma Xiaotian (2007–2012) and Admiral Sun Jianguo (2014–present) — suggests a willingness to diversify away from the ground forces at top levels of leadership. Almost any change will impose costs on the expertise and organizational processes built up over the last three decades. Reorganizing the services’ technical reconnaissance bureaus away from their internal service orientation would likely come at the expense of meeting service-specific requirements and preparing intelligence for service decision-makers.

Looking Ahead

The ground forces’ headquarters and military region reorganization probably will mostly involve large-scale movement of lines, boxes, and personnel, but should actually improve the PLA’s ability to support the intelligence needs of senior policymakers and operational commanders. Though the latter had become an important concern in the last decade, weaknesses elsewhere in the Chinese intelligence system prevented the redirection of PLA intelligence resources from policy support. Moving GSD tactical intelligence resources in 2PLA, 3PLA, and 4PLA down to the ground forces’ headquarters (or wherever else might be appropriate) should help the PLA leadership draw sharper distinctions between priorities at different levels of the military and civilian command structure. These changes also should help the PLA develop clearer career tracks in intelligence that devote education and training to the specific tactical requirements (like bomb damage assessment and targeting) rather than assuming a general background in foreign affairs will suffice to serve increasingly technical military intelligence requirements.

The wide-ranging scope of the new PLA reforms will have many unforeseen second- and third-order consequences. If the Chinese military implements every single one of the announced proposals, this round of reform could wind up being as significant as the reforms undertaken in the early 1950s. That round of reform reorganized the PLA from a military fighting a revolution and a civil war into one capable of protecting China and its ruling party. Although no specific announcements have thus far been made about the intelligence apparatus (and this analyst would not expect any), it seems unreasonable to think the PLA’s intelligence system will go untouched.


Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army.


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