Problems still persist in China’s PLA

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“Most US four-stars had achieved success as operational commanders, while almost half of PLA senior leaders were professional political commissars.”…reports Asian Lite News

Chairman Xi Jinping has unbridled control over almost everything in the world’s largest military – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. Xi has worked hard to address weaknesses and streamline this massive institution, but a lot of effort is still needed.

The PLA comprises two million personnel. This number can be broken down into the following estimates, according to the UK-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS): 965,000 in the ground forces; 260,000 in the navy (PLAN); 395,000 in the air force (PLAAF); 120,000 in the Rocket Force (PLARF); 145,000 in the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF); and 150,000 others. Over the years, the behemoth PLA has reduced in size from 4.6 million personnel to 2 million, with the most recent being the slashing of 300,000 positions as announced in 2015. It is predicted another reduction will occur later this decade or in the early 2030s, as the PLA continues to transition from quantity to quality.

IISS estimates that officers and civilians make up some 450,000 personnel (23% of the entire force); non-commissioned officers (NCO) number about 850,000 (42%); and the remaining 700,000 (35%) are conscripts. With so many thousands of conscripts, it is easily understood how disruptive the traditional yearly intake of conscripts was to the training cycle. With conscripts serving for two years, that meant 350,000 arrived and the same number departed at the same time each year. Naturally, that also meant units were undermanned for several months until the new conscripts had been “broken in” by basic training.

To help alleviate this, the PLA moved to a two-cycle annual conscription system in 2021. This change theoretically eases the disruption, although it is too soon to say whether this will work; there are already indications the PLA is struggling to adapt.

China’s military has routinely voiced concerns that its personnel are insufficiently competent, technically skilled, loyal, uncorrupted and obedient. In response, the education level of recruits is growing. In 2000, just 47 % of recruits had some post-secondary education. By 2020, nearly 57% of them had attained this level.

On behalf of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in the USA, BluePath Labs published a report entitled ‘Personnel of the People’s Liberation Army’ in November 2022. It noted: “While the PLA has been successful at recruiting a more educated volunteer force, it is unlikely to switch to a pure volunteer force in the near future. It will continue to conscript high school and ninth grade-educated personnel where it fails to fill voluntary quotas.”

The PLA is empowering its NCO corps, and these are taking up some roles formerly performed by officers. However, common personnel problems include difficulty finding marriage partners, limited leave and distance from family. Other problems are limitations on who can live on bases, having to get permission to marry, and rural family members being unable to find housing near bases in urban areas.

The PLA is offering better pay and conditions, and it has deliberately attracted more college students and graduates with technical backgrounds. However, some of the latter are improperly utilized, and this leads to retention problems. Many leave after two years, disillusioned with the discipline of military life.

The officer corps made up half the PLA’s ranks up until the late 1990s, showing just how bloated the whole organization was. It had too many chiefs and not enough Indians. This was primarily because officers could not retire until reaching the requisite age, so many just played out the clock. It is likely that up to half the 300,000 personnel slashed from the PLA in 2015’s cuts were from the officer corps.

In a report entitled ‘Gray Dragons: Assessing China’s Senior Military Leadership’, published by the National Defense University (NDU) in the USA, Joel Wuthnow studied the career paths of the top 150 or so senior PLA leaders.

His research covered the 2015-21 period, remembering that Xi’s severe reorganization of the PLA kicked off in 2015. Wuthnow reached six broad conclusions about patterns of progression through senior ranks in the PLA. The first point is that the PLA is a conservative institution, where officers typically rise patiently through the ranks and have to wait their turn for promotion over their four-decade-long careers. In fact, there are few “fast burners” who climb rapidly.

Wuthnow unequivocally stated that Xi “has not skipped over a generation of people who had waited their turn, to promote young Turks more familiar with modern conflict”. Indeed, he speculated: “Xi perhaps had the opportunity to make more radical changes, but might have concluded that the costs to party-army relations or support for his agenda would have outweighed the benefits.”

Senior officers are homogenous in terms of age, education, gender and ethnicity. Diversity is not a thing for Xi. All senior leaders are Han Chinese except for one, and every single one is male. As a point of comparison, nine of 199 three- and four-star officers in the US military were females in 2022.

Nor is joint experience with other PLA services common, despite Xi’s ambition for jointness. In fact, in 2015 some 61% of senior officers had previously held a joint assignment, while this figure had declined to 56% by 2021.

The second conclusion that Wuthnow reached is that “senior PLA leaders are drawn relatively equally from the five theatre commands and 13 group armies. Even though it is responsible for Taiwan, the Eastern Theater Command cannot be described as a ‘cradle of the generals’.” A relatively equitable system ensures that the interests of different parts of the PLA are represented at high levels.

PLAN and PLAAF officers became theatre commanders for the first time in 2017. However, by late 2021 all five theatres were once again commanded by army officers, underscoring how diversification away from the army should not just be assumed. Thirdly, the report noted that, while PLA reforms have left the army in the same dominant position, there have in fact been increased opportunities for the PLAN, PLAAF and PLARF.

The aforementioned restructuring left the ground force with 20% fewer personnel, and its share of senior leaders was reduced by about the same amount. Despite some PLAN, PLAAF or PLARF officers receiving top posts such as theatre commanders or political commissars, the army remains dominant. This is unlike the US military, where service representation is far more evenly distributed. Wuthnow thus concluded that “no service is punching above or below its weight in China’s military leadership,” with a close correlation between manpower share and representation at the apex of the hierarchy.

The fourth conclusion that Wuthnow reached in the NDU study is that PLA officers must be responsive to Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Every military officer is a CCP member, and if they wish to get ahead, they must possess the acumen to show loyalty to Xi and his policies. The top 25 or so PLA leaders also serve on the CCP’s Central Committee and in the National People’s Congress.

Xi personally gets involved in senior appointments, and his anti-graft campaign has helped increase his control over the military. To prevent cabals and patronage networks, officers are rotated geographically, changing posts every 2-3 years.

“The officers who survived the purges would have been those who were able to avoid association with Xi’s rivals, and also would have been careful to demonstrate obedience to Xi by supporting his agenda for military reform and mouthing the correct political slogans at party meetings.” However, blind political obedience is not valued above competence. Some commentators highlight the importance of personal connections with Xi. However, only a few senior personnel might owe their success to their relationship with China’s leader. One is Zhang Youxia, a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and a childhood acquaintance of Xi’s.

Members of the Hong Kong Police Force march during the ceremonial opening of the legal year at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong, China January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar – RC2ZEE945CM1

Current PLA leaders progressed through a system rife with corruption. The fact they were not snared by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is not necessarily proof that they are innocent of corruption such as buying/selling ranks and business activities, however. Yet no leader would dare step out of line with Xi. Therefore, the CMC is likely to become something of an echo chamber, which will affect decision-making in the future.

The aforementioned BluePath Labs report stated: “While the party has in recent years declared victory over military corruption and have slowed their anti-corruption campaign, it is unclear if this has actually changed the culture of pervasive corruption in the PLA.

By the time Xi Jinping had come to power in 2012, corruption in the PLA was pervasive and systemic at all levels, including amongst the senior-most leadership.” Xi declared victory over corruption in 2018, but this does not necessarily mean it is in remission. Political officers are equal part party whip, chaplain and social worker. As such they ensure ideological discipline, political and moral education, and wellbeing of personnel.

They are responsible for collectively approving operational decisions by commanders, even taking over should they be incapacitated. Interestingly, in peacetime the political officer can actually override a commander. Such a system must be a bureaucratic burden that complicates the decision-making process.

Nearly half of senior PLA officers are political commissars/officers.

Anyone hoping to be promoted must be both “red” and an expert in their field. Wuthnow posed the question: “Whether this requirement becomes a hindrance to professionalization by taking time away from military matters, or helps the party by increasing unity of thought and resolve, will be known only when the PLA leadership is put to the ultimate test, in battle.”

Fifthly, Wuthnow suggested, “Future PLA operations could be hampered by officers with narrow perspectives.” This is because senior officers tend to stay within their own services, and also remain in their assigned functional areas. As an example, an operational commander is unlikely to gain command experience in logistics or vice versa.

Commanders with little experience leading troops from other services would probably lead to them delegating authority to specialist commanders. Overall, this would contribute to low cohesion, as has occurred with Russia in the Ukraine conflict. Or they would underappreciate communications or logistics, for instance, a failing that also blights the Russian military. Wuthnow speculated: “Rigidity in PLA assignments could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts – especially those requiring a high level of jointness and adaptability, like the war that Russia launched against Ukraine in 2022 – if Chinese military leaders lack perspectives beyond their own service, specialty and department.”

The final point that Wuthnow made in his 72-page report is that “some change is inevitable over the next decade, but the PLA will find it difficult to overturn traditions to promote a new model of PLA officer”.

The current cohort of PLA leaders is very much a transitional generation. Their formative experiences were the late Cold War period, where China was primarily preparing for a confrontation with the USSR. In contrast, the next generation will have grown up in the post-Cold war era, where China focuses more on regional contingencies.

Future leaders will be more au fait with advanced technologies and operational concepts. Wuthnow also suggested, “They may also be more confident in China’s capabilities and favour more risk-acceptant approaches to the conflict” than their predecessors. Overall, however, the American academic concluded that “producing a fundamentally different type of senior PLA officer would require the kind of changes to service traditions and organizational culture that has proved difficult even for the United States”.

Comparing the top echelons of the PLA with the US armed forces, Wuthnow had this to say: “Overall, US four-stars are younger, more diverse and have more varied professional experiences than their PLA counterparts. The Chinese system, by contrast, values seniority and depth of experience in particular assignments. A final difference concerns career types: most US four-stars had achieved success as operational commanders, while almost half of PLA senior leaders were professional political commissars.”

PLA writings advocate for innovative officers able to think in new ways. However, the PLA is a centralized and hierarchal institution that does not encourage risk-taking. With Xi exerting such control over the PLA and demanding absolute fealty, there seems little chance that its deeply ingrained culture will change drastically anytime soon. (ANI)

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