People Win Wars: The PLA Enlisted Force, and Other Related Matters
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1st Lt. Tsugi Ohashi: “Where’s all this push-button warfare we’ve been hearin’ about?”
1st Lt. Joe Clemons: “We’re the push buttons.”
–“Pork Chop Hill,” United Artists, 1959
The enlisted force has been the weakest link in China’s military modernization for decades, inhibiting unit readiness and operational capabilities. In the late 1990s, China’s senior military leadership decided to build a professional noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps. Yet, 40 years after the Chinese military began its long-term modernization process, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remains a conscription-style army. Recent and potential future adjustments to the enlisted force are intended to correct longstanding problems and increase the PLA’s capability to perform its missions of deterrence, warfighting, and military operations other than war. However, this year’s coronavirus crisis forced the postponement of the most ambitious measure in decades, designed to lessen the adverse effects of the conscription system, thus delaying an important step toward progress. Traditional social and interpersonal relationships — which the PLA is limited in its ability to modify — will further affect whether recent personnel reforms will be successful. These personnel changes will take longer than the introduction of new weapons and technology.
Though the PLA’s latest reforms have resulted in some parallels to the U.S. military structure, the Chinese military personnel system still differs greatly from its American counterpart. This is the fundamental reason why getting into the weeds of the PLA enlisted force — and understanding the developments in its personnel system and conscription and training cycles — is crucial. In the coming decade, these changes could have major implications for strengthening the Chinese military’s operational readiness and its ability to operate beyond the mainland and China’s near seas. To better understand this evolutionary process, in the following sections we address the PLA’s personnel structure, including active-duty “civil cadre,” contract civilians, and the often-overlooked category of local government civilians responsible for recruiting the young men and women who join the PLA. We then review the composition of and developments in the conscription system and the NCO corps. Most information comes from Chinese-language sources, and a significant amount has not been published in English. In an era of great-power competition with China, understanding the “people” of the PLA is essential in developing a strategy for how to compete — or fight.
PLA Personnel and the Civil Servants Who Support Them
After the completion of a 300,000-personnel reduction in 2017, the PLA currently consists of 2 million active-duty officers and civil cadres (wenzhi ganbu, 文职干部), NCOs, and conscripts. However, the Chinese government has not provided an official breakdown of the number of personnel in each category. Based on reporting that officers accounted for half of the 300,000 personnel cut, we estimate that officers and civil cadres now number approximately 450,000 personnel (23 percent), NCOs 850,000 (42 percent), and conscripts about 700,000 (35 percent).
Conscripts serve for two years — requiring that annually about 400,000 young Chinese men and women must voluntarily join the PLA or be inducted against their will. The ratio of conscripts who volunteer to serve versus those who are forced to join the military is not known and likely varies from year to year and from place to place according to local conditions and individual motivations. Volunteers may enter the military for patriotic reasons, for the challenges and lifestyle, for a stable job to improve their economic conditions, for future educational and financial benefits, for family tradition, or simply to expedite their path in becoming members of the Chinese Communist Party, which may help them secure better career opportunities after they leave the military.
After the end of induction training, conscripts are awarded the rank of private; in their second year they become privates first class. At the end of two years, conscripts may be demobilized or, if they volunteer, they may be selected to become NCOs. They can also attend a military academy to become officers after passing a test. In effect, the two-year conscription period is a probation period.
Prior to the expansion of the NCO system in 1999, conscripts served for a three- or four-year period and afterwards could volunteer to serve another 12 years or until age 35. Under the current system, NCOs may serve for 30 years or until age 55. Initially six NCO ranks were established and called NCO level 1 to NCO level 6. In 2009, the PLA added a seventh NCO rank and the names of all NCO ranks were changed, beginning with corporal, moving to sergeant and sergeant first class, then from master sergeant class four incrementally to master sergeant class one, the highest rank. This new seventh rank was necessary as NCOs entered new jobs at higher levels, because NCOs continued their service longer than ever before.
Fifteen years ago, the PLA began an experiment by creating a new category of personnel —contract civilians (wenzhi renyuan, 文职人员) — to augment and perform the same functions as civil cadres, including research, translation, engineering, medical, education, publishing, and as athletes and coaches. Official Chinese translations of the terms “wenzhi ganbu” and “wenzhi renyuan” have varied over time. The 2002 Chinese defense white paper translated “wenzhi ganbu” as “non-ranking cadres” because they do not have ranks like officers from lieutenant to general (though they do have a system of grades). Later official documents have used the term “civil cadre.” The 2006 white paper referred to “wenzhi renyuan” as “contract civilians,” which highlights their employment on multi-year contracts. More recently they have been called “civilians” or “civilian staff.” Significantly, “wenzhi renyuan” are managed by the same offices within PLA headquarters that oversee the enlisted force, known as the Enlisted Force and Contract Civilians Bureau under the Central Military Commission’s Political Work Department. The Department’s “Cadre Bureau” manages officers and “wenzhi ganbu.” For consistency, we use “civil cadre” for “wenzhi ganbu” and “contract civilians” for “wenzhi renyuan.”
In 2017, the Central Military Commission updated regulations to expand the recruitment of contract civilians. Eventually they may totally replace the civil cadre. These personnel sign individual contracts varying between three and five years and may serve until the age of 50. Both civil cadres and contract civilians wear military uniforms, but each has distinctive badges and insignia that distinguish them from active-duty officers. While the U.S. military has no analogue to the PLA’s civil cadres, contract civilians are roughly similar to civilian General Schedule positions within the Department of Defense, though the roughly 750,000 Department of Defense civilians do not wear uniforms.
Currently the PLA is expanding the contract civilian contingent beyond the 20,000 consistently reported since 2006. In 2018, 5,700 new contract civilians were hired and more than 360,000 people applied for 19,000 positions in 2019. But the total end strength remains uncertain because some of the original 20,000 civilians’ contracts will have expired in the interim. The 2020 recruitment cycle officially began in June, and many recently demobilized active-duty personnel, not eligible for retirement benefits, are expected to become new contract civilians. In addition, some new contract civilians are now assigned as military recruiters.
Recruiting the Force
People’s Armed Forces Departments at county level and below are responsible for recruitment and conscription and other tasks such as the command and training of militia units, performing national defense education activities, and responding to local emergencies. People’s Armed Force Departments are both a PLA headquarters and an office within the local government. They are manned by a small number of active-duty personnel and larger numbers of uniformed local civilian cadre called zhuanwu ganbu (专武干部), who are not part of the active-duty PLA, though many have previously served in the military. (There is no official translation for the term zhuanwu ganbu.) These local government civilian cadre perform the bulk of conscription work to register and attract young people to join the military in order to fill quotas assigned by higher headquarters. They are found in thousands of People’s Armed Forces Departments in townships, commercial enterprises, and schools throughout the country and are notoriously underpaid and overworked. Thus they are a target for bribery or “unhealthy practices,” by people hoping to either get unqualified persons into the PLA or to keep unwilling young people out. In order to ameliorate this situation, PLA contract civilians are now being assigned to People’s Armed Forces Departments to boost their personnel strength.
The distribution of officers, NCOs, and conscripts varies among types of units, and across each of the services. In general, the PLA Navy and Air Force have higher percentages of officers and NCOs than the army, the largest service. For example, NCOs comprise more than half of the total personnel in the navy and over 70 percent of the personnel billets on modern surface ships and submarines. Aviation and other advanced units also have large numbers of officers and NCOs, and relatively few conscripts. In theory, being less dependent on conscripts, ship and aviation units should be able to maintain higher levels of unit readiness for longer periods of time than the “conscript-heavy” units in most army, marines, airborne, and the Rocket Force units. Nonetheless, conscript-heavy units are estimated to comprise well over half of the PLA’s total fighting strength. A major reason for this disparity in readiness among units is directly related to the PLA’s traditional recruitment and training cycles.
Changes in the Conscript System
From the early 1990s, PLA recruitment began in November with basic training starting in December and lasting for about three months, with 40 percent of training time dedicated to political and ideological training and 60 percent to military subjects. Traditionally, induction training was not conducted at specialized training bases, but rather at many division, brigade, and regiment-level unit garrisons. It was led not by professional trainers, but by a contingent of officers and NCOs detailed from the parent unit. This system left the parent unit lacking half its conscripts (after privates first class were demobilized) as well as many important small-unit leaders during the winter months. For units that rely heavily on conscripts, such as infantry, artillery, engineer, communications, and logistics units, this resulted in personnel strength at roughly 70 percent or lower than authorized levels for an extended period of time, adversely impacting training effectiveness. To offset the disruption caused by the conscript induction cycle, NCOs often serve in the same company for 12 years or longer and officers routinely stay in the same command assignment for three years or more.
In 2013 the period of recruitment and conscription was shifted to August, with new soldiers traveling to induction training in September. The major impetus for this change was to shorten the time between graduation and enlistment, to attract more college graduates and students still in college. Over the past decade, the PLA has recruited more than 1.5 million college students.
After basic training, new soldiers were sent to their units in December. In general, units focused on building individual, squad, platoon, and company skills for four months, then increased the size and complexity of exercises during the former peak unit training season that mostly ran from May to October or November. Second-year conscripts were demobilized in September, but that date could be extended if their unit was involved in important training. The 2013 change in the induction date did not appreciably affect the decline in unit readiness in conscript-heavy units during the basic training period.
In 2017, the PLA began experimenting in some units with the consolidation of induction training organized by army, regional, or theater-level training bases. Experienced cadres were selected from multiple units to be responsible for training larger numbers of new soldiers. This helped absolve divisions and brigades of the responsibility to conduct basic training at their own facilities and potentially will result in more consistent training standards throughout the force. In 2018, the army extended new soldier training by three months for recruits to receive professional training before they are sent to their permanent units. This practice, similar to the training U.S. military servicemembers receive for their military occupational specialty, further relieves permanent units of responsibility for that type of individual training.
This January the PLA announced it would adjust the conscription and demobilization schedule from once to twice a year (with induction occurring in March and September). However, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus postponed initial implementation of the new system, effectively delaying this experiment until at least 2021. When implemented, two recruitment and demobilization cycles per year, could even out personnel strength at higher levels in conscript-heavy units. This would increase unit cohesion and readiness.
The PLA began registration this April, continuing through August 15, targeted at high school graduates or those with higher-level education, ages 18 to 24, with induction probably to begin in September. College students and graduates will receive various types of incentive packages ranging from financial compensation to future employment assistance. High school graduates entering the PLA, who have been admitted to colleges, will retain their college admissions and receive tuition cuts after they are demobilized.
This fall we should see whether the PLA expands its experiment to conduct induction training at a few consolidated bases rather than at various unit locations. Based on the PLA’s experience of experimenting with this practice over the past few years, we believe this will happen, necessitating that the training cadres themselves be permanently assigned to the bases to accommodate multiple smaller classes of new soldiers each year. This should result in units receiving better trained privates. We will have to wait until next year to learn if twice-a-year conscription — the next big step — will be implemented.
If the proposed changes eventually are implemented throughout the PLA, then conscript-heavy units should be able to train with numbers closer to full strength for most of the training cycle, potentially allowing the military to hold larger, more complex exercises throughout the year. Two annual conscription periods also would change the work pattern for People’s Armed Forces Departments, requiring them to recruit half as many people, twice as often, while giving potential soldiers more options on when to join. These changes, however, will probably take multiple years to perfect, as old habits, attitudes, and traditions may be hard to break.
Developments in the NCO Corps
Central Military Commission chairman Xi Jinping and the PLA view the NCO corps as its “backbone” force and believe improving the quality of NCOs will deepen the professionalization and modernization of the entire military. The official Chinese media frequently emphasize that future wars will be the squad leader’s or NCO’s to fight. NCO squad leaders, along with officer platoon leaders, are considered “end-point commanders” who must be tactically proficient, decisive, and capable of taking the initiative on the battlefield.
NCOs only became squad leaders in the late 1990s, when they also replaced final-year conscripts as tank commanders and weapons crew chiefs. Squad leaders now are trained not only to direct subordinates under their command, but also to coordinate with supporting units, such as artillery and aviation. Infantry squads and large weapon crews, such as those manning artillery and air defense weapons, usually are composed of eight to ten NCOs and conscripts. Tanks and smaller crew-served weapons, like machine guns and mortars, are manned by three or four NCOs and conscripts. In a typical infantry squad, a sergeant or sergeant first class squad leader and an NCO deputy squad leader are in charge of two or three more NCOs as drivers or gunners. Four or five conscripts act as riflemen and assistant drivers, gunners, or ammunition bearers, with variations in composition depending on type of unit and equipment. Similarly structured specialized squads and crews for artillery, engineering, communications and electronics, and maintenance are found in platoon- and company-level units of all types in all services.
NCOs have been assigned many other duties over the past two decades, taking over hundreds of thousands of officer billets, such as trainers, vehicle and small boat commanders, and battalion and company quartermasters in charge of supply and food service. Most key technical billets, responsible for the maintenance and support of weapons and equipment, are now occupied by NCOs assigned to companies, battalions, and higher-level units. Many NCO technicians have been directly recruited from civilian life and were not required to serve as conscripts.
In 2014 the PLA began establishing the position of unit “master chief” or “sergeant major” to retain experienced and trustworthy NCOs to assist platoon, company, battalion and higher commanders in leadership and training responsibilities. These high-level NCOs also act as representatives for the unit’s enlisted personnel. Additionally, NCOs now are assigned as staff officers and assistants at battalion headquarters and above, alongside officer counterparts in all services, including the Rocket Force.
Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA is fundamentally the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. The party’s absolute control of the military is achieved through the party committee system, with the senior unit political officer in charge. In order to be promoted, NCOs must pass a series of written and physical tests, undergo peer selection within their company, and be approved by their higher headquarters party committee. They also are required to undergo professional training and education at a number of NCO schools or NCO departments in PLA military academies or at specialized training bases, prior to being assigned to higher level positions.
To date, no NCO who entered the PLA under the new system has progressed through an entire 30-year career. More adjustments are expected over the coming decade. Finding enough jobs for the increasing number of senior NCOs likely will be a major challenge. Training them to properly perform those jobs increases the challenge. New positions for senior NCOs do not have to come at the expense of officer billets, which some officers may fear. As the officer to NCO ratio continues to shift in favor of the latter, the PLA leadership appears willing to empower NCOs with greater autonomy and flexibility. But such change does not happen quickly and requires further institutional reform, particularly in the professional education system.
Despite the efforts to professionalize the NCO corps, the social standing of the enlisted force is lower than officers due to cultural stigma and societal biases. In terms of compensation, the PLA has taken various measures during the ongoing reform to increase pay and benefits, but the gap between the enlisted force and officers remains wide while on active duty and after retirement or demobilization. Many officers and NCOs still are not accustomed to interacting with each other, with trust and issues of party loyalty as a barrier. The party committees at various levels of the PLA serve as the decision-making organization and are often filled with officers. Although PLA Political Work Regulations stipulate that NCO party members shall have a seat on party committees, the regulations only apply to units that “have a relatively large number of NCO party members.” In reality, quotas continue to be used to control the total number of NCO party members within the PLA. More than a decade after NCO party members were allowed to serve on the party committees, in contrast to officers and civil cadres, official PLA media still characterize them as “afraid to take actions, unwilling to take action, and incapable of taking actions.” Changes to the PLA education system and its curriculum will be necessary to break some of these social and cultural prejudices.
Though it is a PLA tradition for “officers to love the soldiers and soldiers respect officers,” socialization and increased top-down party control may hinder the development of effective personal interactions between officers and the NCOs in their new roles. Giving NCOs greater responsibilities supports the PLA’s emphasis on de-centralizing command to enable more dispersed, independent operations at lower levels than in the past. But recent reforms have concentrated even more authority and inspection powers in the Central Military Commission offices, sending a mixed message to the force, especially “end-point commanders,” about “big brother” looking over their shoulder and second-guessing their decisions.
The PLA has sought to modernize its enlisted force for the past two decades. Professionalization of the NCO corps is underway, but a major step in changing the conscription has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. While the PLA recently cut 300,000 officers, NCOs, and conscripts from its active-duty roster, the increase in the number of contract civilians who perform important, if non-combatant, functions in support of the force, offsets a portion of that reduction. The number of contract civilians is expected to increase considerably more over time, enhancing the capabilities of the fighting force.
The PLA’s modernization timeline, extending to 2035 and 2049, is sufficiently long to accommodate major adjustments to the personnel and training systems that may take a full generation to implement and refine. But unlike their counterparts in many modern militaries, PLA officers, NCOs, and conscripts are still working to establish effective procedures to communicate and interact with each other. Social factors, beyond the control of the PLA, have an impact on the development of relations between officers and enlisted.
Furthermore, unlike their counterparts in other militaries, as long as the traditional once-a-year conscription cycle is in effect, conscript-heavy squads, weapons crews, platoons, and companies will undergo large fluctuations in strength twice a year. In September, 40 to 50 percent of their conscripts are demobilized, and six months later, a new batch of privates enters the unit. In essence, small unit leaders must build unit proficiency and cohesion with two different sets of personnel each year, then repeat the same process every year. During the period before new soldiers enter units, training can be adjusted to compensate for lower personnel strengths, but only later will fully manned units be able to “train as they fight.” The traditional conscription cycle impacts aviation and ship units less drastically because their higher percentages of NCOs and officers. However, even in these units, conscripts perform important functions to keep the crews, ships, and aircraft operating. The proposed twice-a-year conscription cycle should allow conscript-heavy units to train all year at closer to full-strength, more like aviation and ship units, and ultimately increase operational readiness for this large segment of the PLA.
Except for numbers of personnel, reform of the enlisted force is less quantifiable and visible than new weapons and major training exercises. Much of the reporting on personnel issues will be in Chinese and not translated into English. Yet these developments deserve foreign attention and analysis: China’s ability to “fight and win wars” depends on the people in the PLA.
Dr. Marcus Clay is an analyst with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Dennis J. Blasko is a retired lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army with 23 years of service as a military intelligence officer and foreign area officer specializing in China. From 1992 to 1996 he was an Army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong. He has written numerous articles and chapters on the Chinese military, along with the book The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century.