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Military Reform

Closing Ranks

China plans a leaner, more professional cast of officers for a smaller, smarter army

By NewsChina Updated May.1

Ever since the Chinese leadership released the announcement of massive military reforms two years ago, the progress of reform has been a major focus of military observers around the world.  

In recent months, the ongoing military reforms have resulted in some major changes to the command structure of China’s armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in an effort to create a leaner and more efficient military. These included restructuring the PLA, such as creating the PLA Strategic Support Force and developing the Second Artillery Corps into the PLA Rocket Force, reshuffling the organizations under the Central Military Commission (CMS), China’s top military body, and reorganizing the previous seven military regions into five theater commands: Central, North, South, East and West. 

But the latest shift may be one of the most significant. On January 1, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) issued a decree to “suspend the application of relevant laws regarding the officer system,” until the officer system is reformed and new laws enacted.  


According to Deng Changyou, an NPCSC member, the decree indicates that China’s military reform is entering the next phase in 2017. “It marks the second step of the military reform, which will focus on the PLA’s size, structure and composition of forces,” Deng said in a meeting held on December 20, 2016 to discuss the decree. It is the first time the authorities have specified separate “steps” in the ongoing military reform.  

Deng said that the second step of military reforms will aim at establishing a “professional officer system,” which he stressed would be based on a more solid rank system.  

The PLA adopted its first rank system in 1955, which was then abolished in 1965. The current rank system was adopted in 1988. But unlike armed forces in Western countries, the rank system tends to play an auxiliary role, rather than being the backbone of the military hierarchy and command structure.  

In order to encourage more educated officers, PLA officers’ starting rank has often been determined by their educational background. For example, officers with a two-year college diploma will receive a starting rank of second lieutenant, while those with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees get the starting rank of first lieutenant, captain or major.  

But the PLA uses a graded hierarchy of positions that runs parallel to rank – and not always smoothly. Under this system, certain ranks are eligible for different grades of job, and promotion is based on a mixture of rank, grade, and the specific job being done – as well as seniority. On top of this, the PLA traditionally awarded high rank to a wide variety of secondary roles, such as military academics and entertainers, who rarely hold rank in conventional armies. Based on the Soviet model, the PLA also maintains political commissars, another position that sometimes confuses the chain of command. It’s not rare for a lower-ranked official to be in charge of a higher-ranking one, which analysts say has created confusion and a sense of unfairness within the army.  

According to Zhang Yang, a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and head of the Political Work Department of the CMC, who delivered a report in mid-December to the National People’s Congress (NPC) on the legal adjustments necessary for the reforms, the PLA’s future officer system will be rank-centered.  

Stressing that such a system will be “fit for the construction of a modern armed force,” Zhang said that under the reformed system, military rank will reflect officers’ “capabilities, identities and status,” and will be the basis of officers’ career development.  


Along with the rank-centered approach, there have been proposals to increase the level of professionalization of PLA officers. 

In his report delivered to the NPC, Zhang Yang said that a training and exchange system focusing on officers’ professional capabilities will be set up and an officer selection and appointment system built in a bid to choose excellent officers.  

Zhang also said that welfare guarantees and decommissioning and resettlement systems for military professionals are further important parts of the military officer system reform. 

Currently, the PLA only offers five officer career tracks – military, political, logistical, equipment and technical. According to a reform plan proposed by Hong Hengwu, a senior colonel from the General Political Department under the CMC, the role of military officers will be divided into 12 major categories and dozens of sub-categories.  

Hong also proposed establishing a three-level commission system, under which officers are commissioned for ten years, 25 years and life for different posts, with each level receiving appropriate welfare and pension benefits.  

As the PLA Daily, the PLA’s official newspaper, has published several articles in December last year written by Hong regarding the reform of the officer system, Hong is considered by many to be a major architect of the reforms. But so far, specifics of the reforms have yet to be released.  

Officer Ratio

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.