Thursday, May 25, 2017, 1:35 AM CST – China


Military Reform

Battle of Wills

Xi Jinping’s Central Military Commission seems determined to overcome institutional resistance to implement a ‘revolutionary’ overhaul of the PLA

Photo by AP

In a high-profile meeting attended by more than 200 military officers held on November 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who serves concurrently as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – making him China’s commander-in-chief – elaborated on ambitious plans to reform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Despite impressive progress made in the development of weapons systems, including the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, two types of stealth jet, and various advanced missile systems and battleships, the overall command structure of the PLA has remained largely unchanged.

The Party’s latest military reform plan, which many have deemed an effort to transform the PLA from an outdated, Soviet-style, personnel-driven model to a US-style, high-tech military, is by far the most dramatic overhaul proposed by Chinese leaders in the six decades since the PLA was established.


Although details of the reform plan have yet to be unveiled, Xi made it clear in his speech that a major goal of the reform is to streamline the PLA’s outdated command structure, established in the 1950s, in order to improve its ability to conduct joint operations.

The PLA currently has separate military command headquarters in the cities of Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Lanzhou, which constitute China’s seven military regions. Established at a time when the PLA lacked the means to deploy its armed forces rapidly across a vast land area, China’s military policy has previously overwhelmingly concentrated on the country’s ground forces. The PLA’s existing command structure grants regional commanders considerable independence not just from one another, but also from the headquarters of the PLA Navy, Air Force, Armed Police Force and the Second Artillery Corps, the force responsible for China’s nuclear arsenal. This separation of commanders has made it very difficult for the various branches of the military to carry out joint operations.

Xi has now proposed the establishment of a general command center which will “integrate the administrative system and the joint battle command system.” Current regional military commands will be regrouped into new “battle zone commands,” which analysts believe will number four or five. These new commands are expected to focus on facilitating joint operations by the different branches of China’s armed forces.

The existing central command of the PLA will also be reformed. Although the CMC is the military’s top decision-making body, its orders have to run through four additional parallel general headquarters: the General Staff Department, the General Logistics Department, the General Political Department and the General Armament Department.

Under the proposed new command structure, the CMC will be able to directly administer and command military departments, with the four central general headquarters restructured and further integrated.

The eventual goal is to establish a three-tier command structure, giving the CMC direct control over PLA troops via the new battle zone commands.


To a certain extent, the recently announced military reform is a continuation of the grand domestic, foreign and defensive policy reform plan envisioned by the Xi administration. Anti-graft investigations in the PLA have already brought down 44 senior generals, including former CMC vice chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

Describing the reform plan as “revolutionary,” Xi has pledged to ensure that “decision-making, enforcement and supervision powers [will] be separated and distributed in a manner that ensures they serve as checks and balances on each other, but also run in parallel,” concepts that in many ways mirror those adopted as part of the judicial reform initiative launched in the civilian sector in late 2014.

According to the proposed reform plan, not only will the role of military courts and procuratorates be enhanced, but the PLA’s existing supervisory bodies, the PLA Committee for Discipline Inspection, the PLA Political and Legal Commission, and the PLA Audit Office, will be re-established to be granted more powers within the military.

Although many of the plan’s details remain undisclosed, Xi has made it clear that the reform will not only aim to tackle technical problems, such as China’s disjointed command structure, but also facilitate the systematic institutional restructuring of the PLA in a bid to build a modern military.


For many military analysts, meaningful reform has been a long time coming. A streamlined command system that allows for joint command and control has long been considered an inevitable necessity if the PLA is to catch up with global security trends, especially when China has been advocating a more assertive military and defense policy in an evolving international security environment.

 In his speech, Xi promised a “breakthrough” by 2020, but observers have warned that resistance from those with a vested interest in maintaining the current system will be inevitable.

Although military reform became a stated policy objective shortly after Xi assumed power, particularly after the National Security Commission was established during the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee in 2013, it has taken Xi more than two years to set out his reform plan.

Just as anti-graft efforts within the military have taken longer and proven more difficult to implement than in China’s civilian sector, the military establishment’s resistance to reform is expected to be much stronger than that seen among civilian officials.

In the past two years, Xi's CMC has been laying the groundwork for reform, establishing six central working groups devoted to the issue and convening numerous meetings in a bid to sway public opinion in favor of a more ambitious military overhaul.

When Xi announced the decision to cut the size of the PLA by 300,000 personnel earlier in September, leaders of all seven military regions immediately voiced their support, but the fact that it took another three months to formally launch the subsequent reform package indicates a more recalcitrant PLA establishment than the leadership was perhaps expecting to have to deal with.

According to a source close to the CMC, the reform plan, despite being approved  almost one year ago, was only recently announced because it “caused a stir” among senior officers, especially those serving in the CMC’s four general headquarters, many of whom are potentially facing demotion or even redundancy under the new policy.

During a CMC meeting held on November 27, one day after the plan was announced, Xi stated that those “who oppose the reform” will have to “step down.” The PLA Daily, official newspaper of the military, also published a series of strongly worded editorials from October to December, advocating military reform and damning those opposed to the overhaul.

As Xi’s authority within the Party and the PLA appears unchallenged, all major PLA offices, including the four general departments, are said to have voiced their support for the reform. However, given the scale of the plan and its potential impact on those involved, the battle to build the PLA into a modern military force may have just begun.


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