Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:44 PM CST – China


Military Downsizing

Fewer, Fast-er, Stronger

President Xi Jinping has announced that China will downsize its total number of military personnel in order to streamline and modernize its armed forces. What does that mean for the People’s Liberation Army?

Photo by IC

"The People’s Liberation Army of China [PLA] is the people’s army. All its officers, men and women must bear in mind their responsibility of serving the people wholeheartedly, faithfully fulfill[ing] the sacred duty of protecting the nation’s security and people’s well-being, and carry[ing] out the noble mission of upholding world peace,” announced Chinese President Xi Jinping during the September 3 parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. “Here, I announce that China will cut the number of its troops by 300,000.”

Following Xi’s surprise public announcement, China’s Ministry of National Defense (MoND) convened a press conference, declaring that the promised “disarmament” would be completed by the end of 2017. Spokesman Yang Yujun elaborated on the details of the project, stating that cuts would principally hit old and obsolete equipment, non-combatant personnel and administrative positions.

While this announcement was sudden, downsizing the total number of China’s military personnel is widely believed to be a key aim of ongoing military reforms agreed upon, according to State media, by the top decision-makers in the Central Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, a body chaired by Xi. While details of the program remain unknown, its content and ultimate effect upon China’s military has provoked widespread speculation.


The People’s Republic of China has already conducted 10 rounds of military downsizing since its founding in 1949, shrinking the total number of PLA personnel from 6.27 million to today’s 2.3 million. The 2015 project, as emphasized by the MoND, aims to further “strengthen the army” by eliminating waste.

“The [planned] demobilization shows China’s strong determination to maintain world peace... But the current security environment has led to dramatic changes, with territorial disputes and information wars on the rise,” Chen Zhou, an expert in military strategy employed by the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, told military mouthpiece PLA Daily. “We have to concentrate more effort on [military] quality,” he continued. “Since the 1990s, the PLA has been shifting from a labor-intensive to a tech-intensive [force].The [2015] disarmament has the purpose of adjusting the army to allow for greater multitasking.”

“This disarmament will not weaken our military capacity, but rather enhance it by renewing and upgrading weaponry,” a PLA officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NewsChina. “Numbers in some [military] branches will not be reduced, but will in fact increase.”

Such official reassurances prove what analysts have generally agreed upon – that China’s “disarmament” is in fact a means to “trade personnel for firepower,” and divert more funding towards R&D and new weapons technology.

“Judging by previous demobilizations, the 2015 disarmament is sure to [allow China to] better respond to the international situation and follow the high-tech trend,” commented retired PLA colonel Zhou Antao on his microblog.


China’s ground forces, still by far the most heavily populated branch of the PLA, look set to bear the brunt of the cuts. According to China’s 2013 Military Strategy, a white paper on national defense issued annually by the MoND, China currently has 235,000 naval personnel and 398,000 air personnel on active duty. The PLA ground forces’ mobile operational units, meanwhile, excluding border defense units, garrison units and support staff, number around 850,000, indicating a possible 1.6 million personnel assigned to the PLA ground forces, nearly four times the number of personnel currently in the air force and nearly seven times the number of        Chinese naval personnel. By contrast, the land/air/sea service ratio in the US military is reportedly 4:3:3.

“Given China’s vast territory, huge population and number of international borders, we cannot maintain a ground force [ratio] as small as that of the US. I think a more rational ratio would be [2:1:1],” Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA major general now working for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said in an interview with news web portal

Were Xu’s suggested ratio to be adopted, China would retain a million personnel in its ground forces, and half a million in the air force and navy, respectively.

As China’s principal military challenges are currently disputes over maritime territory, increasing the size and efficacy of its navy and air force, possibly at the expense of a vast ground force arrayed against a very unlikely overland invasion from a neighboring state, seems inevitable. China’s 2015 white paper on military strategy highlighted the “provocations” of neighboring countries over maritime interests and warned against “some foreign nations’” aerial reconnaissance missions over what China claims as sovereign territory.

Our anonymous military source also stressed the importance of upgrading China’s ability to fight in cyberspace, something which, he said, “the current military structure and hierarchy have not adapted to.”

Xu Guangyu has already revealed that the PLA also plans to overhaul its unwieldy command structure by cutting unnecessary personnel loose.

“The current command structure has a large head and stumpy legs, slowing down military response times – which would have fatal consequences in wartime,” said Xu. “I suggest the PLA sets up a cross-service command center that could coordinate actions across all branches, just as the US military does.” Xu’s comments led to speculation that senior military figures might find themselves redundant or relocated to the navy or air force.


Along with China’s combat force, or at least its ground forces, cuts to the number of support personnel are also widely anticipated. Perhaps most commonly placed in the firing line by commentators is the PLA’s lavish song-and-dance troupe, which has been slammed again and again for the frequent involvement of its members in military sex scandals, with many other members commanding huge fees for commercial performances.

According to media reports, there are about 16 song-and-dance troupes funded by the PLA budget, responsible for a total of 2,000 “art soldiers” – professional performers with official military ranks whose sole function is to serve as delivery vehicles for PLA propaganda. Including those working in production for China’s military propaganda organs, such as the PLA’s film studios, the PLA’s “art division” is bankrolling some 10,000 personnel, increasingly seen as a waste of money, particularly in peacetime.

“Unlike in wartime, when art soldiers come to the battlefield to encourage the troops, today’s art soldiers enjoy status similar to that of regular soldiers simply for performing, which has bred public discontent,” Zhou Peng’an, a member of the China Democratic League, wrote on his blog at “Will China follow the example of South Korea and disband its controversial art troupe?” He asked after South Korea eliminated its own expensive performing arts division in 2013 under mounting public pressure.

Retired PLA major general Luo Yuan told Chinese media in 2013 that “it is unfair that some art troupe members enjoy the kind of special treatment usually reserved for a battalion commander, while an ordinary soldier can’t even become a platoon leader without years of hard work.”

Although other observers, such as Han Xudong, a professor with China’s National Defense University, believe that the country’s art troupe serves as a vital part of the army even during peacetime, calls to further downsize or even disband the art troupe have grown in the wake of Xi’s September 3 announcement.

During his interview with, Xu Guangyu voiced support for cutting down the PLA art troupe, arguing that, if necessary, the PLA could “outsource entertainment services.”


No matter where the Central Military Commission’s axe falls, some are calling attention to the fact that at least 300,000 families currently dependent on the military for their livelihoods will be affected by the cuts. When Deng Xiaoping announced that China’s standing army would be cut by one million personnel in 1985, he is reported to have said: “It will offend many people. Let me do it.”

Although the 2015 cuts are not as broad as those made in 1985, they take place against a far more complicated backdrop combining military and industrial special interests, intractable opinions in sections of the leadership and overlapping jurisdictions in both military and civilian departments. They will also take place under scrutiny from a vocal community of opinionated observers on social media.

Some international media sources, such as Reuters, have reported that anxiety spread among soldiers and officers due to the suddenness of Xi’s announcement. On September 21, the PLA Daily published a commentary, instructing soldiers and officers “not to be impacted by outside rumors and gossip,” and calling on all military personnel to “submit to and engage in reform” for a “stronger army.”

However, even the PLA Daily has acknowledged that any large-scale downsizing of China’s military, which is crisscrossed by a complex network of vested interests, carries “some risk.” According to relevant regulations, armed servicemen and women facing redundancy can choose to be transferred to a civilian industry either independently or with help from PLA personnel departments. How this process will happen in practice, and on such a large scale, however, remains unclear.

While Xi’s rapid consolidation of power and “strongman” reputation, bolstered by the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, is expected to cow naysayers into silence, the PLA remains the military wing of the Party – not the civilian government – and thus any attempt to overhaul it will be challenging.

Immediately after Xi’s declaration, all seven of China’s military regions and numerous personnel voiced public support for downsizing, giving public statements that they “will absolutely obey and fulfill their orders.” This speedy reaction, analysts claim, shows that Xi “holds military power tightly in his hands.”

However, as details of the disarmament program and the broader bid to reform the PLA have yet to be published, it appears China’s military authorities are still discussing the minutiae of slimming down the world’s single largest military force.


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