Abstract. In January 2016, a new stage of reforming the command and control system of the armed forces began in China. This author examines redistribution of powers among the heads of the armed forces command and control system.

A major reform of the armed forces command and control system, which began on January 1, 2016, and was specified in Xi Jinping’s statement on January 11, is the most radical one from the time of the PRC formation. The reform envisages the liquidation (or essential reorganization) of the bodies, part of which are twenty years older than the People’s Republic of China itself; some of them were set up at the early stage of the Civil War in China in the early 1930s. The political significance of the reorganized bodies goes far beyond the bounds of the military sphere.

This concerns, above all, the abolished General Staff Department and the Political Department. These two bodies controlled a considerable part of China’s Intelligence Services and exerted serious influence on issues of foreign and domestic policies, and ideology. These bodies included departments playing a considerable role in maintaining political security of the state, in particular, the Central Security Bureau (the high officials protection service, partly subordinated to the General Office) and the Security Department of the Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) (the body which also dealt with military counterintelligence).

The current radical restructuring was preceded by years of more limited reforms of the organizational personnel structure and the system of military training of the Chinese armed forces which began in the late 2000s. These reforms took place after cautious transformations in the early 1990s following a revision by the Chinese leadership of changes in military affairs carried out on the basis of the analysis of the combat experience in the Persian Gulf in 1990.

The American Desert Storm operation, which ended with the rapid rout of the Iraqi army, which largely surpassed the PLA in equipment in the early 1990s, led to a profound reassessment by Chinese leaders of the main trends of its military policy.

This reassessment was contained in the consecutively published Three Directions of Military Strategy by the Central Military Commission, which reflected the priorities of military buildup. These documents published at the beginning of 1993, noted that “in the issues of preparations for an armed struggle it was necessary to go over from the goal to win a local war in ordinary conditions to the goal to win a local war in the conditions of using modern especially high-tech technologies; in building the armed forces to switch over from quantitative aspects to qualitative and efficient ones, from the concentration of manpower to the concentration of technologies.”1

The next change came when the Central Military Commission made a statement in July 2004 about the need to prepare for “local wars in the conditions of information-driven technologies,” which, in essence, was a specification of the previous Directions.

The issues of preparations for local wars in the conditions of information technologies were discussed at length in Chinese military publications, including White Paper on National Defense, which were quite accessible for studying, in contrast to the Directions. From the point of view of Chinese military science, this definition reflected the main essence of military buildup in China.2

However, when the White Paper on Military Strategy of China was published in 2015, this definition was additionally specified. This White Paper on Military Strategy of China is a special publication among books on issues of defense printed in China from the late 1990s, inasmuch as it contains a comprehensive definition of the Chinese leadership views on strategy, at the same time playing the function of the Directions worked out by the Central Military Commission. It changed the definition of “local war in the conditions of information technology” to “information-driven local war,” which, according to Chinese and Western experts, shows a “qualitative shift.”3

The publication of Directions each time reflected a new stage of the reforms development taking place in the Chinese army since the 1990s. Admittedly, these years have been devoted to the processes of rapid technological modernization of the PLA and the adaptation of its strategy, tactics, and the system of military training and organization to the new conditions. In the 2000s, the army began to receive modern arms in large quantities, and it is now being adapted to new possibilities.

Beginning from 2015, a more radical PLA development stage began, reflecting its new quality and new level of technological capabilities. The gigantic technological step forward made by the Chinese defense industry from the end of 1990s led to reduction of the gap between the PLA’s engineering equipment and that of the armed forces of advanced countries. The main limitations for the combat capabilities of the Chinese army are now due not to “hard,” but to “soft” factors in training, organization, recruitment, and so on.

Information about the forthcoming new stage of more radical military reforms in the PRC now appears in the Hong Kong mass media before its official publication. The news about them published in the newspaper South China Morning Post was justified,4 whereas other information proved wrong. Perhaps, more reliable news about reforms published in the Hong Kong mass media was carried out purposefully with a view to studying and preparing public opinion. Another harbinger of the forthcoming reform was Xi Jinping’s statement concerning the PLA reduction by 300,000 men made during a spectacular celebration of the anniversary of victory over Japan on September 3, 2015.5

The PLA Command and Control System before the Reform

The highest control body of the PLA PRC was the CPC Central Military Commission (CMC), whose Chairman was the Commander-in-Chief of the PRC armed forces, who also held the positions of the PRC Chairman and the CC CPC General Secretary, and among its members were, as a rule, two vice chairmen – military officers in the rank of colonel general. Commanders of the Air Force, the Navy, the Second Artillery Corps (Rocket Forces), as well as the heads of the four General Heardquarters – the General Staff Headquarters, the General Political Department, the General Logistics Department, and the General Armaments Department of the PLA – were also members of the Commission. Apart from that, the Central Military Commission also included, as a rule, the Minister of National Defense. The functions of the Ministry of National Defense are much narrower than the functions of similar agencies of other countries and boil down mainly to maintaining international military contacts and communication and coordination between military and civil agencies.

After another regular CPC congress determined the possible candidature of the next generation PRC leader (this takes place during one electoral term before transfer of power), the would-be leader is made member of the Central Military Commission, holding the post of its vice chairman. This enabled him to establish contacts with the military leadership and go deeper into military affairs. Military deputies of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, being de facto the highest PLA military commanders, were responsible for most aspects of the daily oversight over the armed forces.

General departments were of prime importance in the system; their role went beyond the framework of functions and powers of their analogues in other countries. For example, the General Staff fulfilled the functions of the command and control of the Land Forces. The General Staff also included the Top Chinese Leaders Protection service – the Central Department of Protection, which was subordinated to the General Office of the CC CPC. Apart from the Second Department in charge of intelligence and analysis of intelligence information, the General Staff had the Third Department (technical reconnaissance) and Fourth Department (cyber intelligence and electronic warfare), in charge of operations in cyberspace. The General Staff (its Second Department) was also responsible for the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS), the most important government analytical center on international problems.

The Central Department of Protection, analogue of the Russian FSS and having wider powers to ensure domestic political security, and the Central Guard Regiment similar in functions to the Russian Kremlin regiment as far as recruitment, supply, and combat training were concerned, were subordinated to the General Staff. Control over their operational activities was in the hands of the General Office of the CC CPC.6

Apart from political and ideological work in the armed forces, the General Political Department, controlled the personnel service and the Military Criminal Justice System, including the military Prosecutor’s Office and Military Court, as well as the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (specialized anticorruption body). The General Political Department also supervised the functions of two military special services. The first was the Security Department fulfilling the functions of military counterintelligence; it also engaged in investigating important cases of abuse in the civil state apparatus.

The Security Department also plays a major role in counterintelligence backing of the military industry entities work, is responsible for personal safety of military leaders (excluding members of the Central Military Commission for which there is a special small Security Service of the Central Military Commission, and controls the army penitentiary system.

Another important body was the Foreign Relations Administration of the General Political Department – an intelligence service specializing in political intelligence, hidden propaganda, and operations of influence, and in time of war – responsible for operational work among POWs. Taiwan is the priority area of this body work, as well as adjacent countries, especially those with the numerous ethnic Han population.

The General Logistics Department controlled capital construction, procurement, and the financial service of the army. The arrest of ex-General Gu Junshan, the head of the Capital Construction and Barracks Administration, General Logistics Department in 2012 heralded a great anticorruption campaign in the PLA, which is still going on. The army Audit Bureau, which inspected financial accounts of other military bodies, was an important element of the General Logistics Department.

All three General Departments are the oldest in the entire Chinese state machine: they, or their direct predecessors, were set up in the early 1930s. We, therefore, defined the organizations which are much older than the People’s Republic of China.

The fourth department, the PLA Arms Control Association, was organized in the course of the reform of the Chinese defense industry and the state defense order system of management in 1998. It was supposed at first that the Department would be a unified center evolving requirements for new armaments items and purchasing them for the PLA and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) needs. But due to red tape and bureaucratic resistance, this reform has not been carried through. The Navy and Air Forces, as well as the Second Artillery Rocket Forces (strategic missile forces) have retained their own arms control departments, and the PLA Arms Control Department played only a coordinating role. As to direct control, the latter was responsible for arming the PLA Land Forces and the People’s Armed Police. It also supervised the Chinese outer space exploration program and space launching grounds (with the status of the PLA Arms Control Association bases).

The PLA Land Forces did not have their own command organs and were subordinated to the General Staff. But the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery (Rocket Forces) had their own influential Commands which were not always ready for effective interaction. This fact, first, prevented to carry on uniform purchasing and scientific and technological policies, and second, set up obstacles for realizing the PRC leadership tasks to prepare the army for interservice operations, which are characterized by the highest level of the interaction between different arms of service and branches of the armed forces.

The Land Forces and Air Force were divided mainly between seven military regions (Beijing, Shenyang, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Lanzhou), and the Navy – between three fleets, Northern, Eastern, and Southern. Efforts have been made to turn military regions into a semblance of Joint Command, and the General Staff – into an efficient center for planning interservice operations, including at the expense of increasing number of representatives of the Air Force, the Navy, and the Second Artillery (Rocket Forces) on leading command posts. Nevertheless, the much needed PLA transformation came across difficulties and problems which were openly recognized by American experts.7

The Reform

On January 1, 2016, the Central Military Commission published The Opinions on Deepening the National Defense and Military Reform in which basic trends of the forthcoming changes were outlined. The document pointed to the need for beginning a new stage of reforms in accordance with the following basic principles: observance of correct political orientation; concentration on combat training; stimulation of innovations; systemic approach; supremacy of law; reasonable approach.

The reform envisaged a change of the role of Command of the arms of the service, military regions, and the Central Military Commission in accordance with the principle: “The Central Military Commission carries on overall leadership, military regions are responsible for combat actions, separate arms of the service are in charge of development.” The Commands of the arms of the service were to lose their former importance and concentrate on problems of combat training and working out long-term plans of their forces development.

In the course of personal contacts, Chinese military experts admit that the reform plans have been evolved on the basis of a thorough analysis of foreign experience, including the experience of Russia’s extensive military reforms effected after 2008.

Another major innovation, according to the Opinions, was the setting up of a uniform center of combat control, which made it possible to raise the level of coordination between the different arms of the service and branches of the armed forces. The reform was envisaged for a prolonged period, inasmuch as “a breakthrough in the reform of the joint armed forces command and control system was planned to be reached before 2020. The reform should also touch the numerical strength and organizational and personnel structure of the army, the personnel military training system, political work, interaction between military and civil bodies, as well as the Criminal Justice system and, what is important, the system of control and structure of the People’s Armed Police forces (PAP).”8

The People’s Armed Police, part of which fulfills similar functions as the Russian Interior Troops and special forces, was previously in double subordination – the Central Military Commission and the Ministry of Public Security. The latter is supervised by the party body – the Politics and Legal Affairs Commission. The subject of control over the People’s Armed Police has emerged during the anticorruption campaign, one of whose major figures was Zhou Yongkang, who was the secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission until November 2012.9

The first series of major organizational changes, in accordance with the Opinions, was introduced by the Central Military Commission on January 10 and published on January 11. These decisions formed a new system of China’s armed forces control. Within the framework of this system, the Central Military Commission now directly supervises fifteen different bodies, some of which have previously been part of General Departments.

Above all, there are seven new departments of the Central Military Commission, the most important of which is the Joint Staff of the Central Military Commission, or Joint Staff Department. It has been set up on the basis of the General Staff after withdrawing a number of bodies from the latter. The personal composition of the leadership remained the same, in the main – the Joint Staff had the same head, two of his deputies, and five of the six deputies of the General Staff head (the sixth deputy was Xu Fenlin, the former commander of the Guangzhou Military Region).10

The Joint Staff Department now has operational control of all services and branches of the armed forces whose control functions are now reduced to administrative and technical functions. The Joint Staff Department does not fulfill the functions of the PLA Land Forces Command for which a separate Command has been set up. A number of departments have been withdrawn from the General Staff, some of which received the status of independent departments of the Central Military Commission, and others were included in a new arm of the service – the PLA Logistic Support Forces set up at the end of 2015.

Other departments of the Central Military Commission include:

  • The Political Work Department, the successor of the PLA General Political Department. As we can judge, the General Political Department has lost a number of important functions, above all those connected with control over military justice, security service, and personnel department, having turned into an ideological section.
  • The Logistic Support Department which succeeded the General Logistics Department, but was deprived of financial auditing functions.
  • The Equipment Development Department, the successor of the General Armaments Department. But in contrast to it, this department does not directly control the Chinese space exploration program for military purposes.
  • The CMC General Office Department. Previously, the CMC had a rather small apparatus headed by an officer with the rank of major general. In the new system of management the CMC should directly control a much broader range of problems. Accordingly, the importance of its apparatus becomes greater.
  • The Training and Administration Department will evidently be in charge of planning and organization of all types of military training in the armed forces and is a broader variant of a similar section in the General Staff.
  • The National Defense Mobilization Department, a successor to a similar department of the General Staff.

Apart from that, the Central Military Commission also controls the work of three commissions:

  • The Discipline Inspection Commission has functions similar to those of the Discipline Inspection Commission in the Armed Forces. Previously, this specialized military anticorruption body had dual subordination – to the Central Military Commission (through the General Political Department) and the Discipline Inspection Commission (the latter was in charge of working out rules and standards). The head of the commission also held the posts of the deputy head of the General Political Department and deputy head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.11 Now it is an independent body subordinated to the Central Military Commission, which may have lost connection with the General Political Department.
  • The Politics and Legal Affairs Commission of the Central Military Commission is similar in its functions to the Discipline Inspection Commission and is in charge of control over the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, military prosecutor’s office, courts and, what is important, the main army law-enforcement body – the National Security Commission of the former General Political Department. The mass media favor the commission’s control over courts and the prosecutor’s office; at the end of last January the commission’s leadership headed by its secretary Major General Li Xiaofeng visited the educational institution of this service and the former head of the service Major General Liu Xunyan’s appointment deputy secretary of the commission – both these circumstances bolster up the establishment of such control.12 It can, therefore, be said that the system of political and police control over the army has been changed by removing its bodies from the General Political Department and placing them under direct control of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
  • The CMC Science and Technology Commission is, perhaps, a “remnant” of the General Armaments Department combined with the consultative scientific and technological body in existence under the former CMC.

Apart from departments and commissions, the CMC has under its direct control a number of offices: Office for Strategic Planning; Office for Reform and Organizational Structure; Office for International Military Cooperation; Agency for Offices Administration; and Audit Office. It should be noted that the latter is another control body which is directly subordinated to the Central Military Commission.

The status and powers of the Commands of the arms of the service have been reduced, but the number of Commands themselves have increased. Apart from the independent Command of the Land Forces, a new branch of the armed forces has come into being – the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLA SSF). The Chinese mass media emphasize that the PLA SSF is a full-fledged arm of the service on a par with the Land Forces, the Navy, and the Air Force.13

One may now argue that the PLA SSF have been strengthened with the PLA Rocket Force (strategic missile force), electronic and cyberintelligence, electronic warfare, communication, and aerospace reconnaissance, which were previously subordinated to the Third and Fourth departments of the General Staff, which fact is corroborated by the Chinese authorities.

Apart from that, judging by certain publications, the Strategic Support Force could be strengthened with intelligence services, which were previously under the General Staff and the General Political Department, and, perhaps, part of the Special Operations Forces. At any rate, this may follow from the interpretation of the term “strategic backing” which could previously be met in Chinese publications.14

The former Second Artillery Corps has been transformed into the Missile Forces, which have now the status of arm of the service. It is supposed that this renaming reflects the growing significance of this arm of the service in the Chinese military structure. These forces continue to control both strategic and tactical nonnuclear systems of missile weapons. It can be assumed that they are now also responsible for the outer space program.

Finally, at the beginning of last February, the next stage in the PLA reform was announced. Five unified Commands of the theaters of operations were established on the basis of the previously existing seven military regions. On February 1, the photos of the solemn ceremony of handing Colors to these Commands by Xi Jinping personally were published.15

According to the maps published, the Eastern Command was set up on the basis of the Nanjing Military Region and includes the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Jiangxi, the city of Shanghai, and also the East China Sea. The Southern Command was set up on the basis of the Guangzhou Military Region and includes the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Hainan, and the South China Sea.

The Northern Command was set up on the basis of the Shenyang Military Region and includes part of the territory of the former Beijing Military Region. It includes the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Shandong, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The Western Command unites the territories of the former Lanzhou and Chengdu military regions with the headquarters in Chengdu. It is responsible for the provinces of Yunnan, Shanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia-Hui, Xinjiang- Uyghur and Tibet Autonomous regions and Chongqing.

The Central Command was set up on the basis of the Beijing Military Region. It is in charge of the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, and the provinces of Hebei, Henan, Hubei, and Shanxi.

Each Command is in charge of control of the Land Forces and assets, the Navy, Air Force, Strategic Missile Forces, and Strategic Support Forces. The only exception is, perhaps, missile forces units and nuclear-powered deep-water craft of the Navy which are under direct command of the Central Military Commission.


In late 2015 and early 2016, China began the most radical military reform during the time of its existence. Proceeding from the essence of the reform, it can be assumed that it is directed at achieving two major goals:

  • To raise efficiency of political control over the armed forces on the part of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission appointed by the Communist party.
  • To draw the PLA command and control system closer to the level of the best foreign armies based on Western and Russian experience.

The reform will not be exhausted by measures announced to date. It is evident that such spectacular transformations will meet with major organizational difficulties, which will require time to overcome them. Chinese leaders soberly assess the complexity of the tasks facing them. This is why the Central Military Commission plans the deadline (2020) to achieve the goals set.

The reform will have far-reaching consequences for the Chinese system of adoption foreign policy decisions due to the change of control over the important and powerful military intelligence services. It will also touch the domestic political sphere due to the announced transformations in the People’s Armed Police Force system.

An entire range of the organizational decisions already adopted has not been announced so far. The fate of the Central Department of Protection, apart from ensuring safety of the first persons of the state, presents special interest, for it also fulfills a number of tasks connected with the political security of the state.  


  1. Yuan Dejin and Wang Jiafei, Review of Changes in Directions of Military Strategy from the Inception of New China,” Military History, # 4, 2007, p. 4.
  2. See, for example: Interview of Senior Colonel Chen Dan and Senior Colonel Wen Bind to Chongowang portal in connection with the publication of the White Paper on National Defense 2011. URL: http://www.china.com.cn/news2011-0401/content_22275715.htm
  3. Fravel, Taylor M., China’s New Military Strategy: Winning Informationized Local Wars. URL: http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=44072&Hash=c403ff4a87712ec43d2a11cf576f3ec1#.VtAK2_mLTeT
  4. URL: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defense/article/1854534/radical-plan-turnchinas-peoples-liberation-army
  5. URL: http://ria.ru/world/20150903/1226218019.htm
  6. URL: http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E4%B8%AD%E5%A4%AE%E8%AD%A6%E5%8D%AB%E5%B1%80
  7. See, for example: China’s Incomplete Military Transformation.Assessing Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army, RAND Corporation, 2015. URL: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR800/RR893/RAND_RR893.pdf
  8. Outline of the main content of the document by Xinhua Agency 1.01.2016. URL: http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2016-01/01/01c_1117646692.htm
  9. Lim, B., Lague, D., and Zhu Ch., The Power Struggle behind China’s Corruption Crackdown, Reuters Special Report, URL: http://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/14/05/CHINA-CORRUPTION.pdf
  10. URL: http://baike.baidu.com/view/1215459.htm
  11. URL: http://news.sohu.com/20140630/n401580524.shtml
  12. URL: http://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1420314
  13. URL: http://news.ifeng.com/a/20160103/46924745-0.SHTML
  14. URL: http://news.takungpao.com.hk/mainland/focus/2016-01/3262552_print.html
  15. URL.:http://news.ifeng.com/a/20160201/47322320_0.shtml#_zbs_baidu_bk

Translated by Yevgeny Khazanov