People's Liberation Army Reforms and Their Ramifications


Sep 23, 2016

People's Liberation Army soldiers take part in a march at a naval base in Hong Kong July 1, 2016

Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared in Defense Dossier on September 22, 2016.

At the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013, the Communist Party of China formally announced a series of major reforms[1] to the People's Liberation Army (PLA). So far, those reforms have included a reduction of 300,000 personnel, a reorganization of the former seven Military Regions into five “theater commands,” and the restructuring of the former four General Departments into 15 smaller organizations that all report directly to the Central Military Commission (CMC). Official media coverage has also detailed an extensive anti-corruption campaign that has led to disciplinary action against dozens of high-ranking PLA officers, as well as plans for an end to fee-based services that had been run by PLA personnel as secondary sources of income.

This newest round of reforms has been portrayed as a far-reaching process for both the PLA and Chinese society as a whole. It is expected to last until 2020, and will improve the military's efficiency, warfighting capability, and—most importantly, from the Party's perspective—its political loyalty. However, the reforms also challenge entrenched interests within the PLA, and could lead to reluctance within the military to adjust to new realities. Nevertheless, the reforms will likely succeed due both to recognition within the PLA of continued weakness in operational capabilities and to the senior Party leadership's ability to co-opt support from various groups within the institution.

The Rationale for Reform

The main goals of the reforms are to guide the PLA toward the “correct political direction” of Communist Party control and to improve the PLA's ability to fight and win wars.

On January 1, 2016, the CMC released a document explaining the rationale for undertaking the reforms as well as the priority areas for reforming the PLA.[2] According to the “Opinion on Deepening the Reform of National Defense and the Armed Forces,” the reforms are necessary both for the PLA and for China as a whole. In addition to being the only path forward to transform the military into a modern fighting force, they are also one component of policies designed to help China reach broader national-level goals, which official policy statements have detailed as becoming a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 and becoming a “modern socialist country” by 2049.

The main goals of the reforms as described in the “Opinion” are twofold. The first is to guide the PLA toward the “correct political direction” of Communist Party control and away from the perceived laxness of the pre-reform PLA, which was seen as corrupt and too opaque for Party leadership to administer. The second is to improve the PLA's ability to fight and win wars.

Which Reforms Do We Know About So Far?

Organizational. The reforms that have been publicly announced have already had far-ranging effects on the PLA. The main set of reforms includes changes to the relationships among the major bureaucratic organizations within the PLA, which have been newly defined in the “Opinion” as “the CMC manages, the theater commands focus on warfighting, and the services focus on building [the forces].”

Several organizational changes have occurred to date. First, the CMC's oversight over the four old General Departments has grown, as their functions were reorganized into 15 bodies that are under its direct control. Previously, many of these organizations reported directly to the General Departments and were thus less visible to the highest level of military leadership.

Second, the seven military regions have been renamed and consolidated into five theater commands. These commands have been tasked with developing a more joint command structure, called a “joint operations command system,” to be used during wartime operations. This contrasts with the former military regions, which were largely ground force-dominated and focused on peacetime administration.

Third, the relationships among the services are changing. Prior to the reforms, the PLA Army did not have its own service headquarters, and its administrative functions were carried out by the four General Departments. Partially because of this, and because of the historical dominance of the PLA Army within the PLA over the other services, the General Departments were largely ground force-dominated. In December 2015, however, an Army headquarters was established for the first time, putting the service on an equal footing with others in terms of organizational structure. The Second Artillery Force, which controls China's nuclear and conventional missile forces, was additionally elevated to a service and renamed the Rocket Force (PLARF). Including the Navy and the Air Force, this brings the current number of services to four (the newly created Strategic Support Force, although not a service, will focus on cyber, information and electromagnetic warfare, and likely some areas of space operations).

Theoretically, the roles of the services will be changing as well. Although their leadership has traditionally played a role in commanding operations, pursuant to the new guidance the services are supposed to focus on force “building,” or manning, training, and equipping the armed forces, while the theaters themselves focus on warfighting.

Personnel. In recent decades, the PLA has embarked on multiple rounds of personnel reductions, most recently with a 200,000 personnel cut that left roughly 2.3 million troops remaining as of mid-2000s.[3] This latest reduction of 300,000, over half of which will come from demobilizing officers, is expected to be completed by 2017.[4] Although no major reductions have been announced yet, a significant portion of these cuts will likely take place within the PLA Army. A China Daily article on changing trends in military recruitment noted that 24 percent fewer students would be admitted to ground force-related programs of study in military schools in 2016 compared to 2015, while students focusing on aviation, missile, and maritime topics would increase by 14 percent. The number of students focusing on space-, radar-, and drone-related topics was expected to grow by 16 percent.[5]

As personnel reductions get underway, reintegrating hundreds of thousands of PLA officers and soldiers into the civilian workforce is a concern for the CPC leadership.

As personnel reductions get underway, reintegrating hundreds of thousands of PLA officers and soldiers into the civilian workforce is a concern for the CPC leadership. During a senior leadership meeting earlier this summer, President Xi Jinping noted that finding employment for demobilizing officers is a “political task” that is closely tied to the PLA's reforms.[6] At a June conference, Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), stated that performance criteria for evaluating and promoting government officials, which typically include metrics such as economic growth, should also include their success in finding employment for demobilized officers in their respective jurisdictions.[7]

Anti-corruption. The “Opinion” discusses improvements to PLA regulatory systems that would reduce the corrupt practices publicized in recent years, including bribery and position-buying. In addition, an anti-corruption campaign, primarily focusing on mid- to high-ranking officers within the PLA, has resulted in disciplinary action and/or jail time for dozens of officers.[8] In May 2016, the PLA and the People's Armed Police Force held a meeting in Tianjin where they outlined a pilot plan to shut down fee-based services in non-military fields, such as real estate leasing, medical treatment, publishing, and hospitality services.[9]

Lingering Questions

As the reforms continue to unfold, the extent to which they have impacted the PLA in some areas remains unknown to outside observers. For most of these, key developments could arise as a result of the 19th Party Congress in late 2017 and the Central Committee plenums leading up to it.

Some areas where key questions still remain include trends in the jointness of the theater commands, if any; the relationship between the new commands and supporting organizations; and the role of the CMC as the PLA evolves. First, although the services are now more equal in terms of organizational structure and hierarchy, the new commanders and political commissars of the five theater commands still all come from the ground forces. This implies continued Army dominance within the system. After the current “transition” leadership of the new theater commands eventually retires, one area to watch will be how Navy and Air Force officers are integrated into the leadership of the commands.

Second, the relationship between the theater commands and the Strategic Support Force is also unclear. If the force has operational control of troops, it is not yet known how it will coordinate those operations with the theater commands during wartime.

Third, the composition and role of the CMC itself may change as the PLA continues to reform. The CMC's portfolio of organizations over which it has direct oversight has expanded from four to 15, increasing its workload during a period in which it is also developing and enacting major reforms within the PLA. Will the CMC's support staff be augmented to increase its ability to monitor all these organizations? Prior to the reforms, membership of the CMC generally included two vice chairmen, the defense minister, the leaders of the four General Departments, and (since 2004) the PLAN, PLAAF, and PLASAF (now PLARF) commanders. As the relationship among the services, theater commands, and other organizations evolves, the CMC's membership is likely to shift as well.[10]


The wide scope of initiatives included in the reforms raises questions about how long they will take to implement, how likely they are to succeed, and their overall impact on the PLA's capabilities. The timeline the PLA set to complete the reforms by 2020 is ambitious, and though formal structures and procedures are likely to be in place by then, efforts to improve warfighting capabilities and dismantle corruption networks will likely continue beyond that date.

The reforms challenge a number of entrenched interests within the PLA, which may incentivize members of the military to resist them or find loopholes to blunt the changes already underway.

The reforms additionally challenge a number of entrenched interests (both corrupt and bureaucratic) within the PLA, which may incentivize members of the military to resist them or find loopholes to blunt the changes already underway. PLA officers who personally benefited from running fee-based services or engaging in other corrupt practices may oppose efforts to clean up the system. On the bureaucratic front, resistance to change may stem from inertia or power struggles within a large government organization, but may also reflect concerns about how the new system will work in practice. For example, the service headquarters will be focused on manning, training, and equipping their respective services, while the five new theater commands have been tasked with leading military operations. It is unclear, however, how decision-making that affects both the service and the theater commands will be coordinated with respect to acquisitions, training, and resource allocations. One commentary by a PLA officer expressed concern that the services may pursue force modernization that is not relevant to warfighting requirements, while the theater commands may not understand restrictions placed on the services due to personnel or costs. These concerns may indicate that the process for negotiating interactions between the theater commands and the services on these issues has not yet been developed.[11]

Despite these incentives to push back, however, the reforms will likely succeed overall due to recognition within the PLA of continued weakness in operational capabilities and the senior Party leadership's ability to co-opt various groups within the PLA. In the first group are officers who either want to play a role in creating a more capable fighting force, or hope to advance their careers by implementing new policies—or a mix of the two. In the second are senior officers who have benefited from the pre-reform system and have been placated by being allowed to hold on to their current privileged status until they retire.[12] In the third group, influential senior officers who might otherwise resist the reforms, the threat of investigations, trials, or even worse fates that have befallen disgraced colleagues may prove persuasive enough for a majority to fall in line.

Both PLA sources and senior Party leadership, including President Xi, have emphasized the importance of PLA reforms for carrying out military modernization and realizing broader goals for the Chinese nation. Whether or not the reform program meets the stated goal of 2020, Western observers' understanding of the success and implications of many of the proposed changes will depend on close examination of them, particularly as the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress gets underway. Successful, substantive reforms, ones which go beyond official propaganda, will be those that show significant progress not only in traditional benchmarks (such as the development and fielding of new systems), but also in how the PLA approaches joint operations, and in the training, personnel recruitment and retention, and professionalization required of a modern military.


  • [1] Portions of this article were adapted from earlier research published in Cristina Garafola, “Will the PLA Reforms Succeed? (PDF)” European Council on Foreign Relations China Analysis, March 30, 2016.
  • [2] People's Republic of China, Central Military Commission, “Central Military Commission Opinion on Deepening the Reform of National Defense and the Armed Forces” [中央军委关于深化国防和军队 改革的意见], January 1, 2016.
  • [3] Dave Finkelstein, “Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA (PDF),” CNA Occasional Paper, January 15, 2016, 1.
  • [4] Fang Yongzhi, “Ceremonies Do Need for Retired Military Officers,” China Military Online, June 13, 2016; “China's 300,000 Troop Reduction Plan is Unlikely to Increase Civil Unrest Risks or Hamper Political Stability,” IHS Jane's, September 7, 2015.
  • [5]PLA Restructuring Changes Focus at Military Schools,” China Daily, April 28, 2016.
  • [6]Xi Stresses Employment of Demobilized Military Officers,” Xinhua, June 7, 2016. It is unclear if the article quotes Xi Jinping directly or paraphrases him.
  • [7] “Xi Stresses Employment of Demobilized Military Officers,” Xinhua, June 7, 2016.
  • [8] Fan Xiaozhou, “PLA Says Two More Senior Officers Probed for Corruption,” Caixin Online, June 1, 2015.
  • [9] Xu Xieqing and Liu Changyu [徐叶青、刘长宇], “Armed Forces and Armed Police Convene Meeting on Pilot Scheme to Comprehensively End Paid Services; Zhao Keshi Attends and Gives Speech” [军队和武警部队全面停止有偿服务试点任务部署 会议召开赵克石出席并讲话], PLA Daily, May 8, 2016; See also “Military Leadership Meets to Hash Out End to Paid Services,” Global Times, May 9, 2016.
  • [10] Allen, Blasko, and Corbette list eight options for possible compositions of the CMC in the feature. A ninth and tenth option could include the defense minister, the heads of the Joint Staff Department and the Political Work Department; and either the five theater commanders or the four service commanders. See Kenneth W. Allen, Dennis J. Blasko, and John F. Corbett, Jr., “The PLA's New Organizational Structure: What is Known, Unknown and Speculation, Parts 1 & 2,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, n.d.
  • [11] Xu Debin, “Military Reforms Recognize Inconsistencies: Worries That the Theater Commands Do Not Care about the Influence of Personnel or Financial Powers on Combat” [军改认识误区:担 心战区不管人权财权影响作战], China National Defense Daily, January 7, 2016. Xu worked in the former Guangzhou Military Region's Political Department Office as of August 2014.
  • [12] Though there have been some exceptions to the rule. On these cases, see Jérôme Doyon, “Personnel Reshuffle in the PLA: The Two Promotions That Did Not Happen (PDF),” European Council on Foreign Relations China Analysis, March 30, 2016.

Cristina Garafola is a project associate at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She contributed a chapter to China’s Evolving Military Strategy (2016) and has also published in the Journal of Strategic Studies, the European Council on Foreign Relations’ China Analysis and the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. She holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a certificate from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.