Given the complexity and scale of the ongoing military reforms, the changes to the officer system are far more than just technical changes. One important issue is the ratio of officers to enlisted men.
Currently, there is no official data available to the public on the ratio of officers. But it is estimated that military officers account for 30 to 40 percent of China’s 2.3 million military personnel. It has long been argued that there are too many officers within China’s armed forces, compared to those of Western countries. For example, the equivalent rate in the US military is only 16 percent.
According to Du Renhuai, a professor at the PLA Nanjing Political College, as China’s leadership now prioritizes the capabilities of the PLA, reducing the ratio of officers to enlisted men will be a major focus of the reform.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the ambitious military reforms in late 2015, one highlight was the plan to downsize the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army by 300,000.
According to an article written by Fang Yongzhi, an associate professor from the PLA Engineering Corps College, in June last year, published by the China Youth Daily, over half of the 300,000 soldiers to be laid off will be officers. In the article, Fang called for the authorities to hold honorary ceremonies for officers set to be decommissioned, to minimize the psychological impact. Analysts believe that the article indicates that the process of downsizing the PLA has been underway for several months.
According to Du, not only will the PLA lower the ratio of officers to enlisted men, it will also limit the numbers of senior officers and generals. Without offering a specific percentage of colonel-rank officers and generals within the PLA, Du said that China should draw lessons from the US military in which Du said only 0.35 percent of the officers are generals, 36 percent hold mid-level rank, and approximately 64 percent hold junior rank.
Just days after the reform of the officer system was announced, the PLA Daily released a report on January 9, featuring a senior colonel named Ma Baochuan, who was demoted from the position of regimental political commissar to a similar position as a brigade commissar during a military restructuring in 2013. Using Ma as a role model in the military reform, the paper suggests that Ma’s experience may become common for PLA officers in the coming months.
“I guess there will be more and more division commanders or political commissars being downgraded to brigade commanders or political commissars soon,” the article quoted Ma as saying.
Ma’s experience also seems to support a report made by Bowen Press in last November that China aims to convert all its army divisions to brigades with subordinate battalions, while abolishing all regiments.
With the massive shakeup of the PLA, many overseas analysts have warned that the reform may demoralize those facing lay-offs or cuts to their perks and ranks, hampering the military.
But so far, there appears to be no sign that China’s leadership under Xi Jinping has met with major challenges within the military or that the leadership is wavering on its ambitious goals of the ongoing reform. As China deepens its military reforms, they will remain a perennial topic for China watchers.