Restructuring the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
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Issue Vol. 31.1 Jan-Mar 2016 | Date : 22 Aug , 2016

If we seize this moment, reform may be accomplished in one fell swoop: if we let it pass by, we will lose a great opportunity. — PLA Daily, March 12, 2014

The one thing that caught the world’s attention besides all the impressive hardware at the 70th anniversary parade at Beijing was the announcement by President Xi Jinping on the reduction in the strength of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 300,000 personnel. This has been followed up by Chinese media reports on the impending reforms in the PLA and has attracted worldwide attention.

A lot has been going on in China and in the PLA since Xi Jinping assumed office as President of China and as Chairman of CMC in November 2012. Three years since then, it is quite clear that he has easily become the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping or maybe Mao himself. The reduction of personnel is a part of wider reforms that have been undertaken within the PLA and will have far reaching impact on the organisation and its conduct of operations. This is only the fourth time such extensive reforms are being attempted; the first one being under Marshal Peng Dehuai in 1954, second under Deng in the early 1980s and then under Jiang Zemin in 1993. Each of the previous ones was either after a conflict or domestic political upheaval. It is also worth noting that each Chinese leader since Deng has reduced PLA numbers and attempted reforms.

Background of Reform

The PLA has undergone three stages of modernisation since its founding. The first stage which lasted till the 1980s was focused on a large conventional force which was prepared to fight the ‘People’s War’ leveraging China’s advantages of space, time and manpower. This was a predominantly Army-centric force as is evident from the name PLA itself.

The second stage started in mid-1980s and resulted from the realisation that large scale conventional wars were a thing of the past and future conflicts were likely to be localised. This resulted in a reduction in troop strength by almost a million plus by 1990. Operationally the PLA moved towards creating Combined Arms-Group Armies.

The Gulf War in 1991 was the trigger for the third stage of modernisation. This was facilitated by the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the Information Age. The CMC put forth the ‘Two Transformations’ i.e. to transform into an army prepared to fight local wars under modern high-tech conditions and from an army based on quantity to one based on quality. There were further cuts in manpower in PLA reducing its strength to 2.3 million as on date.

While the reforms process in the PLA has been an ongoing one over the past many decades, this particular announcement of reform has caught attention world over, primarily because of the prominence given to it by PLA itself and also due to the relative increase in transparency on matters related to PLA.

Why Reforms?

The Party must control the gun and the gun must never control the Party             — Mao Zedong1

The changing nature of geo-politics has resulted in China focusing on its potential adversaries and as a result theatres of conflicts. These include USA, Japan, Taiwan, South China Sea, India and Russia. Except in the case of India and Russia, in all other cases, the conflicts are likely to be fought primarily in maritime, air and cyber domains. This is emphatically stated in the latest Chinese Defence White Paper issued in May 2015.2

Source: IISS Military Blance, 1985-2015. Adapted by Anthony H. Cordesman and Steve Colley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

China also feels that chances of a war on the land border (with India or Russia) are less likely. Its reform process over the past decade in terms of restructuring of the four components of the Armed Forces, policy statements through White Papers and equipment modernisation is indicative of this. The PLA Ground Forces have reduced by ten per cent in the period from 1985 to 2015 while the other three services have benefited in numbers as well as resource allocation.

Military Regions (MRs)

In December 1954, the existing five MRs were reorganised into 12, a thirteenth (Fuzhou) was added in 1956. These were reduced to 11 in the late 1960s and further reduced to the present seven in 1985-1988 and field armies were reduced too.3

These MRs were formed based on threats from three primary directions i.e. North, South and East. While the number of MRs has undergone a change and the formations contained therein have reduced in numbers and strength of troops, the location of GAs has continued to remain the same. These, therefore, do not reflect the changes in threat assessment.


As the PLA reduced its numbers, it also embarked on the twin paths of mechanisation and informatisation. This was facilitated by two factors i.e. the rapid growth in Chinese economy which allowed greater allocation of funds and secondly, the advances in Defence R&D and the indigenous defence manufacturing industry. The PLA, therefore, had the resources to modernise all the services. A major effort has gone towards services other than ground forces in the past decade.

Xi Jinping

The handing over of the reigns by Hu Jintao was noticeable in one major aspect. He did not continue as Chairman of the CMC even after he quit the other two posts of Chinese President and General Secretary of the CPC. Xi quickly asserted himself in matters concerning the PLA, getting more involved than any of his predecessors. As is the norm elsewhere, Xi also plans to carry out major reforms in the second half of his first tenure with a second tenure generally spent on building a legacy. This is because he has consolidated his power base and feels confident of asserting himself and has sufficient time to see his reforms through.

There is also a substantial shift from the ‘CMC Vice-Chairmanship responsibility system’ to that of ‘CMC Chairman’ thus re-asserting the political control over the CMC. He has called for tighter discipline of secretarial staff and an end to factions and cliques while paradoxically, he himself is a mishu and a princeling.4 A number of present generals in the PLA share the same credentials.5


Since he has taken over, Xi has carried out an intense campaign against corruption targeting both ‘Tigers’ (higher leadership) and ‘Flies’ (lower functionaries). This campaign has extended to the military where 47 Generals and equivalent officers have been taken to task in just the past year with most from Logistics and Armaments branches.6 This included the two highest military officers (Vice Chairmen of CMC) during Jiang Zemin’s presidency i.e. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. The PLA is involved in a number of non-military activities which have resulted in systemic corruption and which has assumed epidemic proportion as evidenced from the purge in higher ranks.


The PLA has had its major share of tribulations with Marshals Peng Dehuai and Zhu De purged by Marshal Lin Biao in 1959 (and who himself was purged and killed in 1971) when they opposed Mao. Still, it was surprising when 52 generals of PLA re-affirmed their loyalty to Xi in an open letter published online. (

The words “loyalty” and “following rules” figure more in Xi’s various addresses to the PLA than any other. The only probable cause for such repeated pronouncements is that Xi is not confident of the loyalty of the PLA.

Combat Effectiveness

The most prominent reason for reform, as stated by the official Chinese media, is enhancing Combat Effectiveness. The PLA (like several other armies world over) suffers from stove piping thus resulting in poor synergy between different services and vertically within the service. The highly centralised form of the PLA inhibits quick decision-making that is so essential in modern warfare. This is further accentuated by the predominance of the Army in higher leadership over the other two services. Out of 36 Generals in the PLA today, 30 are from PLA Army (PLAA). An officer other than from the PLAA became part of CMC only in 2004 and even in the present CMC out of 11 members only four are from services other than PLAA. No PLA Air Force (PLAAF) or PLA Navy (PLAN) officer has held the appointment of Director of any of the four General Staff Departments or as Commander of any MR. The PLA’s emphasis on Active Defence and Integrated Joint Operations necessitates that the four services that comprise the PLA be reformed for better cohesion.

Political Control

The PLA is unique as compared to any other major army in the world. It is an army of the party and not of the state and absolutely opposes nationalising the military, which it calls a western construct.7 Xi and his two predecessors are also acutely aware of the fact that they do not have a military background and thus their actions are designed to overcome this vital shortfall in their CV.

The PLA’s representation in the politburo has stabilised to just two since 1993 and none in the Politburo Standing Committee. The PLA’s role in the selection of civilian leadership is reduced while the reverse is also true with political representation in the CMC which is now zero. There has also been a shift from Marxist ideology to a more nationalist one as also a bifurcation of civil and military elites, with generational change from the revolutionary generals who were also prominent party functionaries.

Ongoing Reforms

The PLA like all other armies is undergoing reforms all the time. Post 3rd Plenum in 2013, the PLA has embarked on a broad set of institutional reforms, tackling training, political work, command and control and corruption among others.

Broadly, the PLA’s modernisation program can be divided into three major heads

  • The development and fielding of new weapons systems and technologies.
  • The development of new operational concepts and war fighting doctrines for their employment.
  • Institutional reforms necessary to support the first two.

Over past four years these have included:

Higher Defence Organisation

A number of changes have been done in the recent past. These include:

  • Information Security Base (Cyber Command) created in July 2010.8
  • Regulations against corrupt behaviour titled “Regulations on the Performance of Official Duties with Integrity by Leading Cadres with Party Membership in the Armed Forces” taken out in June 2011.
  • Creation of Strategic Planning Department under GSD (Nov 2011).9
  • National Security Council created in Nov 2013.10
  • Joint Operations Control Centre created in 2014.11
  • Five Leading Groups created in March 2014 to deepen reforms of National Defence, Survey of Military Infrastructure Projects and Real Estate Resources, Mass Line Education, Inspection Work and Military Training Supervision.12
  • There has been a move towards having officers from services other than the PLAA in higher leadership. Since 2004 it has become an established norm to have an officer from each of the services other than the PLAA in the CMC. This was further enhanced by the first ever appointment of General Xu Qiliang of PLAAF as Vice Chairman of the CMC in 2012.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

NP Singh

is a Serving Indian Army Officer.

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