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How They Think: PME in the Modern PLA

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How They Think: PME in the Modern PLA

John D. McRae


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can be thought of first and foremost as the tool by which the Communist Party of China (CPC) retains power.  As Mao Zedong succinctly put it, “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun will never be allowed to command the Party.” (Jan, 1999, p. 1241) As potentially broad as this “protection’ mission is, it defines the framework of how the Party and the PLA understand one another, and in turn how the PLA operates.  In conjunction with this core function, the PLA serves the familiar purpose of most modern armies, the defense of its borders, be they maritime, aerial, or land.  The PLA also finds itself in the midst of a new evolution in combat, the so-called “Cyber domain”.  Given this broad and evolving mission set, the accession, training, and educational system of the PLA must adapt to develop the leaders necessary to counter a variety of threats in the service of the CPC.  Although its track record has historically been spotty with regard to modernity, the PLA has undergone a transformation in the past decade aimed at keeping pace with peers; an effort that has yielded clear dividends.

In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, CPC leaders sought to decentralize control of the PLA to an extent in an effort to avoid future interference in political-civil relations.  Used as both an agent of implementation and order during the Cultural Revolution with arguably disastrous results, the PLA stood as an impotent force both internally and externally in the early 1970’s.

This de-fanging came about via the carefully orchestrated rotation of PLA units and their leaders and the exodus of PLA members from leadership roles within the CPC. (Whiting, 1974, p. 2)  Of course, this effort also had the destabilizing effect of diminishing unit cohesion and effectiveness given the traditionally localized nature of PLA units.  The destabilizing effects of this initiative were readily apparent in the lackluster Chinese showing in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. (Saghal, 2011)

A New Way Forward

The modernization of the Chinese military subsequent to the Sino-Vietnamese War was predicated on a new set of assumptions, namely that the nature of warfare that the Chinese would be most likely to face was now a “local, limited war” rather than the “early, major, and nuclear war” that Mao foresaw.  (Blasko, 2005, p.68)  The decline and breakup of the Soviet empire was one significant factor enabling the Chinese to develop a PLA more focused on quality than sheer volume of troops.  As a part of that effort, the PLA overhauled many facets of the force in an effort to further professionalize, strengthen, and streamline the organization, an effort that is still ongoing.  Among these efforts were:

• Reduction in force size.

• Changes in force structure.

• Reform of the structure and missions of the reserves and militia.

• Changes in the personnel system.

• An influx of new equipment.

• Doctrinal revision to prepare the PLA to fight and win Local Wars Under Modern High-Technology Conditions or Local Wars Under Informationalization (sic) Conditions.

• Improvements in the frequency, content, and methods of military training, with emphasis on joint operations.

• Transformation of the PLA logistics system.

• Enhancement of all soldiers’ standard of living, pay, and lifestyle.

• Modification of the professional military education system.

This last effort is among the most significant.  The PLA’s officer training program had virtually ceased to exist in the 1970’s.  (Dreyer, 1996, p. 318)  New standards implemented in the 1980’s dictated that PLA officers must now be graduates of military academies.  (ibid)  Rather than conduct a wholesale purge of currently serving officers, however, the PLA elected to gradually bring around serving officers to new educational standards by conducting part-time courses that would enable them in theory to have the benefit of the same professional education that newly accessed officers were privy to.  By raising the standard for all, the PLA hoped to ensure that the widespread and detrimental lack of formal education among its officer corps could be eradicated, and in its place a tri-tier educational system could be implemented on a permanent basis. (ibid)

First among these military schools were regional academies meant to develop a junior officer corps with a common set of military and civilian skills.  The most apt comparison with the US military’s educational system would be the handful of all-cadet Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC schools such as the Virginia Military Academy or The Citadel.  The regional military academies were similarly fashioned to provide a college education simultaneous with military training, ensuring that new officers would in fact be better trained and educated than the troops they were charged to lead.  Although a common concept in Western militaries, this was a fairly transformative step for the PLA and did much to professionalize and standardize the military almost immediately.  One factor helping the regional military academies attract promising candidates was the fact that these academies did not charge tuition like their highly competitive civilian counterparts. (ibid, p. 320)

The next tier of military education implemented in the PLA was for mid-career officers at the rank of captain and major.  This course, known as the command college, prepared select officers for positions of increased responsibility, such as the command of a regiment. (ibid)  This course serves both as an educational milestone for PLA officers and as a weeding apparatus that separates those promising few on the “command track” from those destined to remain at the lower rungs of the PLA until separation or retirement.  The course is also available in different parochial “flavors” that allowed specialized officers such as engineers the chance to hone their unique skills. (ibid)

The upper tier of military education implemented in the PLA during its period of modernization was the National Defense University (NDU), a program analogous to the various War Colleges found in the US branches of the armed services.  A yearlong course designed for only a select few officers being groomed for top positions, the NDU was formed in 1985 from the three extant senior military schools known as the Military Academy, the Political Academy, and the Logistics Academy. (ibid)  A separate two-year course at the NDU prepared officers for divisional command, and a one-year course prepared the very upper tier of PLA flag officers for command of corps and armies.

Interestingly, the final, culminating course taught at NDU known as the Capstone is not based entirely on merit.  An effort is made to diversify the rolls of the course along regional lines.  “A balance among the military regions and service headquarters is sought, with regional commanders and headquarters deciding who will represent their commands in the class. Participants are not necessarily selected for their past performance or promotion potential, nor do they necessarily have any particular insights about their regions' or headquarters' responsibilities.” (ibid)  Despite the efforts of the PLA to strengthen its officer corps from the bottom up, the pervasive influence of Chinese politics and regionalism persists.  Perhaps in a country comprised of such disparate economic, ethnic, and geographic populations, some effort to artificially create a heterogeneous pool of senior officers is to be expected.  After all, they typically return to their regional headquarters following formal schooling, and are then expected to assimilate back into the “stovepipe” reality of their regions, wherein the economic, security, and party politics of the area play the dominant role.


The structure of the PME system in the PLA is no doubt a significant step forward in the creation of a professional officer corps.  The other significant consideration in the overhaul of PME in the PLA is the curriculum by which leaders are taught both “what” and “how” to think.  This aspect of Chinese PME gives us true insight into how the Chinese military views itself, its mission, and its array of perceived threats in the world at large.  By carefully examining the content and structure of the curriculum of the military academies, command college, and National Defense University, it is readily apparent that the PLA is quite serious about creating a modern, sophisticated, and agile organization led by knowledgeable officers capable of countering the myriad threats facing the world’s fastest growing economy.

To understand the driving factors shaping the curriculum of the junior officer education system, it is useful to understand the strategic guidance that the academies are using to develop their material.  Announced by President Jiang Zemen in 1995, the so-called “Two Transformations” of the Chinese military: a force built on quality rather than quantity, and a mindset focused on modern, high-tech conditions, are the broad strategic underpinnings that drive education at all levels, beginning with newly minted company-level officers. (Snakenberg, 2011, p. 105)  One new focus area for the PLA is the education of its non-commissioned officer force (NCOs).  Traditionally known as the backbone of any military, the NCOs are the executors of the orders issued by commissioned officers.  Thus, it is striking that the PLA allowed NCO education to take a backseat to officer education for generations. 

The change in attitude toward the NCO corps of the PLA is a recent one, with the traditional role of the NCO understood to be one of “leader in rank only”, and a weak educational system to support that end.  Training was focused at the most basic level: “literacy, basic tactics, and political instruction.” (ibid)  Most crucially, the aspects of leadership training so vital to a professional NCO corps were entirely lacking.  “The army expended little effort in educating NCOs beyond minimum functional requirements, and did not intend for them to perform any meaningful leadership role.” (ibid)  This lack of leader training at the NCO level is unthinkable from a Western perspective, and essentially created a pool of followers at all echelons below commissioned officers.  As most leaders would attest, it is a more efficient and effective model to create leaders at multiple levels, thereby distributing supervisory and oversight roles in a multi-tiered way that supports accountability. 

The PLA has recently turned the corner with respect to the education of its NCOs and now mandates certain educational requirements simply to become one.  In 2005 for example, “It established a goal of raising all junior NCOs’ education levels to high school equivalency, and all senior NCOs to the level of 3-year college (the Chinese equivalent of technical school) graduates by 2008. That year, the PLA added the requirement to possess a relevant certificate of professional qualification for all types and levels of NCO.”  (ibid)  This basic threshold system has yielded dividends not only by creating a presumably brighter class of NCOs, but by creating a more aspirational culture in the PLA.  Whereas before it was commonly understood that “anyone” could rise to NCO rank, with recent changes it is now apparent to officer and soldier alike that there are indeed baseline thresholds both professional and educational that one must meet in order to take on the additional responsibilities of an NCO.  This is truly a landmark event in the professionalization of the PLA.

One drawback in the evolution of NCO PME is the seeming lack of standards common to all members of the NCO corps.  Trained and educated in varying degrees, physical locations, standards, and doctrine, the PLA’s NCOs are truly all over the map.  Although the baseline educational requirement to become an NCO persists, the method and means of education is left up to the individual, thereby producing a wide spectrum of learning among NCOs.  This is true with respect to both civilian and military education.  Shockingly, this is due to the ostensible lack of standards common to all entrants to the NCO corps, as “’no single Chinese source [outlines] the totality of the training system for conscripts and NCOs.” (ibid, p. 106)  Despite the challenge inherent in a lack of doctrinal standards for NCO education, the simple fact that the PLA has acknowledged the need for a more professional NCO class is itself a significant and positive step in the modernization of the PLA at the tactical level.

Similarly, junior officer education in the PLA has undergone a significant shift of late, with the Two Transformations readily apparent in this effort.  With respect to the first Transformation, the focus on quality rather than quantity has led to a number of reforms over the last few decades, with the PLA desiring to create a smaller number of more well-rounded officers rather than a vast cadre of specialized officers.  For example, the previous method of education at the company grade level would have called for technical officers to go off into the void of educational specialization, never to return to the parallel billets of their peers on the command track.  In the mid 1980’s, however, these tracks were merged in an effort to create more generalized officers capable of succeeding in a broader range of assignments. 

Another effort aimed at professionalizing education at the junior officer level is the leveraging of Chinese civilian institutions to train future leaders.  Despite the best efforts of the PLA, the curriculum at its junior officer military academies is still seen as somewhat less rigorous when compared with the higher education environment at large.  As such, many new PLA officers are being trained at both, receiving a traditional civilian university education followed by a tenure at the military academies wherein basic tactics and troop leading are taught. (ibid, p. 107)  This approach is particularly attractive in molding a well-rounded officer corps able to coalesce information from a variety of sources.  Additionally, the esteem with which PLA officers are increasingly seen (as the professionalization of the military improves) in turn yields dividends in recruiting desirable candidates for service.  Interestingly, this bifurcated educational model is itself a good means of implementing a “quality over quantity” officer corps, as many modern PLA lieutenants and captains are required to succeed in mastering both civilian and military educational curriculums before ever taking charge of their first platoon.

The twin effort Zemen called for in the “Two Transformations”, the ability to counter an increasingly modern and technical array of threats, has manifested itself in a number of areas, not least of which is the Cyber domain.  By most accounts, China has a fairly robust Cyber capability able to conduct both offensive and defensive operations.  Although little is known about the specific structure of the Cyber apparatus inside the PLA, it is clear that new PLA officers are being selected and trained in this domain in an effort to prepare for the seemingly inevitable clashes among state and non-state actors in the 21st Century.  The predominant organization new Chinese Cyber warriors are flowing to is known as the 3/PLA, the Signals Intelligence Agency of the People’s Liberation Army.  Interestingly, this was a conventional Signal unit until recently, when it expanded its focus beyond Chinese borders.  “Until the advent of the Internet, 3/PLA operated as a conventional military signals intelligence agency with various collection platforms within China, but with no apparent collection capabilities overseas to match those of the United States and the United Kingdom.” (Inkster, 2013, p. 49)  It seems likely that the PLA will continue to hone the external Cyber capability of 3/PLA, as it is a relatively low-cost alternative to conventional kinetic warfare.  As such, it will require a significant throughput of officers trained in Cyber skills not traditionally taught in the military academies.  It remains to be seen what alterations to the Chinese PME system will be required to support this expanding mission set.

At the command college level, Chinese officers are given intermediate level instruction at the operational level of war.  This instruction is broadly based given the myriad of domains in which so-called “new-type officers” may be called upon to operate.  “Educating ‘new-type military talent’ is necessary for the PLA mainly because effective preparation for warfare in the information age requires synthetical integration of diverse knowledge, technologies, command and control, weapons platforms, logistics, and operational units.” (Kamphausen, 2008, p. 296)  This curriculum has expanded and intensified in recent years.  As recently as 1997, the command college intermediate level curriculum was based around a single platform, specifically the utilization in combat of mechanized vehicles such as tanks.  This myopia precluded much of the art and theory of military instruction from ever intruding into the classroom.  The inevitable byproduct of this type of instruction was a detrimental focus on the tactical level of war; fine if educating lieutenants and NCOs, but frighteningly insufficient when preparing the field grade officer corps of the nation to “think bigger.”

Among the new topics taught at the command college level are those formerly the domain of flag officers alone, such as joint operations, high technology operations, and command and control theory. (ibid, p. 297)  Interestingly, the modern Chinese system of educating its promising crop of midlevel officers incorporates a heavy focus on the lessons learned by the US Army in locations like Iraq and Afghanistan. (ibid, p. 300)  The utilization of case-based study has enabled Chinese officers to take on the roles of their American counterparts in an effort to better understand the complexities of modern conflict, particularly the challenges of asymmetric warfare on a large and unwieldy Army.  These lessons are arguably far more relevant for the future course of Chinese operations than are the erstwhile lectures on tank operations that now seem like a Cold War relic.  The seriousness with which students’ academic progress is handled has undergone a similarly impressive transformation.  One example is the handling of theses submitted by command college students.  Whereas before a student’s thesis was graded by the same professor the student had for the duration of the course, potentially leading to positive bias, the current system calls for a pair of anonymous reviewers to grade the thesis, with both having to sign off on its acceptability for satisfaction of degree requirements.  (ibid, p. 302)

Additionally, the faculty themselves have undergone an impressive positive transformation.  Whereas before the educators of the command college were culled from the “available”, the current crop of teachers boast backgrounds from the highest levels of the military, diplomatic corps, Communist Party of China, and the sciences. Furthermore, they are expected to continue their learning via study abroad programs, partnerships with Chinese universities, and regular participation in exercises alongside their past and future students. Finally, instructors are “embedded” in active units in an observational role in order to glean insight into their daily operations. (ibid)  The cumulative effect is a far more effective and knowledgeable bench of educators with whom students can exchange ideas, engage in wargaming, and share past experiences; truly a living manifestation of the principles of the “Two Transformations”.

At the National Defense University level, the curriculum is increasingly focused on joint operations, those consisting of two or more elements of land, sea, and air power.  Whereas before the two latter elements were seen as of lesser importance compared to ground forces, modern Chinese doctrine calls for the combined might of all three.  To that end, the NDU seeks to educate officers headed to senior level commands on the finer points of employing the troops and technology of all services to achieve strategic objectives, though they themselves are not taught to be true “strategists”. (ibid, p. 318)  The mission sets for which these senior officers are prepared are evolving in recent years: “China’s armed forces, however, prepare for missions in addition to major combat operations, and these are becoming ever more salient as years pass. Among them are anti-terrorism, rescue and relief operations, post disaster reconstruction, and possibly noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO), all of which require the attention of senior officers.” (ibid, p. 319)  Undoubtedly, it is increasingly important for the PLA to invest “early” via the education and cultivation of agile thinkers capable of steering these diverse mission sets with ease.

The relief operations mission is an increasingly attractive one for the PLA and its leaders.  By conducting high profile relief missions, the PLA is seen in a favorable light, with positive humanitarian notices in global media, and the opportunity to showcase its expeditionary capacity and materiel systems.  In April, the PLA was able to do both when an earthquake struck the city of Ya’an.  Within hours, the PLA was fully engaged in the relief effort.  As the Washington Times noted, “what was presumed to be an earthquake relief operation led by civilians quickly became an all-out campaign by the People’s Liberation Army to show off its mobilization capability and high-tech weapons with an over-the-top propaganda theme — “The PLA Loves The People.” (Yu, 2013, p. A1)  Never one to shy away from positive publicity, PLA leaders of the various branches were soon jockeying for position in front of cameras and reporters, all eager to give a positive face to their particular piece of the operation. (ibid)  Despite the somewhat over the top nature of this particular incident, the underlying theme is an important one: the PLA of 2013 possesses the type of leadership, equipment, and acumen to conduct complex operations with quickness and relative ease.  This newfound capacity begins with the education of the officers of the PLA.

The “finishing school” of the PLA that prepares its newly minted generals and admirals for their newfound responsibilities is the Capstone course.  Modeled on the US program of the same name, Capstone is intended to serve as a master class in executive level decision making in times of crisis.  (Kamphausen, 2008, p. 322)  In the Chinese version of the course, implemented in 1986, the method of instruction was a combination of lecture, writing, role playing, intercultural study, and site visits.  This hybrid method of instruction was likely considered unorthodox to a group of Chinese officers more accustomed to rote memorization and regurgitation than holistic study and reflection.  Undoubtedly, however, this course was yet another manifestation of the upside of the “Two Transformations” concept, creating a new generation of more seasoned and well-rounded flag officers capable of orienting themselves quickly to unfamiliar scenarios.  A scan of the future assignments of Capstone graduates reveals that this training is seen as especially valuable for PLA leaders charged with important and complex jobs, from the Director of the General Logistics Department to the Deputy Commanding General of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. (ibid, p. 339)

Implications for the Future

The professionalization of leader education in the PLA has no doubt yielded dividends in the overall readiness, sophistication, agility, and capacity of the organization.  At all levels of the organization, officers are charged with increasingly diverse and complex tasks.  The technological capacity of the PLA, despite lagging behind the US significantly, is on the rise.  As such, Chinese reliance on sophisticated weapons systems is likely to increase as well.  The leaders charged with employing these weapons must be well versed in both the operational and tactical arts and the technological aspects of these systems.  There is no longer any separation between the two:  “The effective use of advanced weapons depends on a range of ‘soft’ components that are no less important than hardware in preparing an army to fight. These include training, officer and noncommissioned officer education, organization, logistics, information technology application, and political indoctrination. To the improvement of each the Chinese have devoted a great deal of attention and effort in the last few years.” (ibid, p. 383-384)

Despite the marked increase in attention to technology, the core mission sets of the PLA remain the same: defense at home (and by extension ensuring the Party’s preeminence), enabling outward economic expansion, and reacting to worldwide contingencies.  Interestingly, the first mission, particularly as it relates to ensuring the Party remains in power, may have a detrimental effect on the final two.  As stated in the Washington Quarterly, “The PLA’s top mission and highest priority for China’s communist leaders -listed first in the New Historic Missions- is to serve as the ultimate backup for other security forces to protect the ruling regime against domestic challenges. This responsibility constitutes a ‘domestic drag’ in that it inhibits the PLA’s ability to concentrate on external missions.” (Scobell, 2012, p. 137)  In essence, the perpetual Party paranoia restricts the ability of the PLA and its new breed of leaders to respond to the true array of global threats facing China.  This constraint is unlikely to be viewed favorably by a class of military officers equipped with a greater deal of independent thinking and sophistication than their forebears of the Mao generation.  It remains to be seen how this potential divergence of priorities between the CPC and the PLA will play out.

In a similar vein, the looming Taiwan situation is never far from the thoughts of the Chinese military class.  Long a stated objective of the PRC, the return of Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty is unlikely to shift to the backburner in the near future.  The effects of a more educated and skilled Chinese force are of course not clearly quantifiable or qualifiable in any potential martial scenario, but it is likely that the Chinese Army of 2013 would be far more capable than the Chinese Army of 1969 to overtake Taiwan, all other things being equal.  With a core nucleus of NCOs with at least a high school diploma and significant leadership and skill training, a junior officer corps with finely tuned civilian and military skill sets, a midlevel group of officers with a sophisticated understanding of the operational requirements of a large scale amphibious landing, and a senior group of colonels and generals ready to lead a complex joint operation, the PLA is a formidable force indeed. 

The joint, combined-arms expertise of the Chinese officer corps is particularly well suited to the Taiwan contingency.  The scenario China is likely to face is multi-faceted given the always-complex nature of maritime operations and the host of “area-denial” defenses sure to await any advancing force: “facing these obstacles, if it must attack Taiwan, the PLA has prepared itself to use a mixture of elements from three generic campaign options: a blockade of the island, missile attacks, and an amphibious landing.” (ibid, p. 141)  The whole host of PLA capability would be put to the test in a Taiwan scenario, albeit with joint commanders running the show.  Given their newfound capacity for joint operations, PLA officers at midlevel and senior ranks would no doubt prove quite effective in this operational scenario.  Clearly the curriculum developed for China’s 21st Century officers’ professional military development is rooted not only in a desire to “professionalize”, but to prepare for perceived real world needs.  As such, the officers of the PLA seem better suited now than at any point since Taiwan’s move to independence to engage in the long-simmering conflict.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of any military’s orientation is its doctrine, the set of rules, parameters, techniques, and procedures by which it aims to operate.  By reviewing both the warfighting (Kamphausen, 2008, p. 376) components of PLA doctrine, one is able to glean significant insight into the way the PLA would seek to counter threats.  The first broad area encapsulated in Chinese doctrine is the method by which it would repel a large scale ground invasion.  The fact that the PLA spends time and energy preparing its force for such a seemingly unlikely scenario is indicative of the lingering paranoia with which the Chinese view their neighbors.  It is also frighteningly optimistic in nature, as if designed more as a form of propaganda than as a legitimate military playbook.  “Although this [invasion] scenario is apocalyptic and completely unrealistic, it gives the Chinese confidence that they cannot be subdued or conquered.” (ibid, p. 378)  When contrasted with the very real strides made in the military education domain, it is disheartening to see such a fundamental disconnect with reality in another area fundamental to a professional military: its doctrine

The PLA set out on a journey toward a professional military ethic more than 25 years ago.  In that time it has not had to fight in a major conventional war.  It has also avoided the type of small localized conflicts that have by default defined the modern American military.  As such, it has had a great deal of time for reflection.  It is clear that the PLA of today is far more poised to engage in a broad spectrum of potential conflicts than any time in its history.  It is also clear that a premium has been placed on learning like never before.  Although the PLA may have a few more strides to make before being able to call itself a truly “modern and professional army”, it has already taken the most important step possible: investing in the minds of those charged with leading it.


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About the Author(s)

Major John D. McRae is the Executive Officer to the G-3 of the Army National Guard.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Management from Webster University and is a Master’s candidate in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma.  Previous publications have been featured in Armed Forces Journal, Army Engineer magazine, and The Daily Beast.