China’s Military Political Commissar System in Comparative Perspective
Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 5
In October 2012, most Western analysts of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were surprised when the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Military Commission (CMC) appointed General Tian Xiusi—who had served since 1968 as an Army enlisted member and political officer—as the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) political commissar (PC). Furthermore, in February 2008, the CMC had appointed Vice Admiral Liu Xiaojiang, who had served from 1970 until 1998 as an Army enlisted member and political officer, as the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) PC. Given their grade of military region leader, they will be replaced when they are required to retire at age 65 in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Although it is not possible to predict exactly who will replace them, there are certain positions that the past four PLAAF and PLAN PCs (who joined the PLA after 1949) have held, and have not held, that will help narrow down the possible candidates. When providing these assessments, however, it is important to first understand how the PLA’s PC system has evolved and how it roughly compares to the Soviet/Russian and Taiwan/Republic of China (ROC) political officer system since their beginnings in the 1920s.
Therefore, this article provides a brief overview of all three PC systems to include where the PCs receive their political officer education.
PLA Political Officer Overview
The PLA’s predecessor, the Red Army, assigned its first PCs to units in 1929 (China Military Encyclopedia 1997, Vol. 4, p. 377), which was a year before it created the General Political Department (GPD, zong zhengzhi bu) (China Military Encyclopedia 2007: China PLA Military History, Vol. 1, p. 63).
The PLA’s political work system consists of three component systems: party committee (dangwei), political commissar (zhengwei), and administrative and functional (jiguan) (China Military Encyclopedia 2007: China PLA Military Political Work Overview, Vol. 2, p. 497).
Since the 1930s, the PLA’s political work system has consisted of political officers at every level in the chain of command, from the company level up to the four General Departments—General Staff (GSD), GPD, General Logistics (GLD) and General Armament (GAD). Squads, which consist of enlisted personnel, and platoons do not have political officers. The three levels of political officers who serve as unit leaders (zhuguan) and deputy leaders are as follows (People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010, Chapter 6, NASIC; China’s National Defense 2002):
Political commissars (zhengwei) are assigned to all organizations at the regiment level and above;
Political directors (jiaodaoyuan) are assigned to all battalion-level organizations;
Political instructors (zhidaoyuan) are assigned to all company-level organizations.
The three levels of political officers above have basically the same key responsibilities:
Implementing decisions made by the party committee;
Instilling party discipline among party members;
Providing political education to the troops within their organization;
Working with other components of the political work system.
A high percentage of political officers who serve as unit leaders and deputies, as well as some of the directors in first-level Political Divisions (zhengzhi chu) at the regiment level and Political Departments (zhengzhi bu) above the regiment level, are selected from company-grade officers who have been Communist Party members since they were cadets and are already serving in the military/command track; however, some political officers also come from the logistics, equipment, and special technical track. As a result, the new political officers already have some operational experience at the grassroots level (e.g., battalion and below). They continue to build on this experience as members of the unit’s party committee and standing committee throughout the rest of their career.
As a general rule, the unit’s political officer serves as the secretary for the party committee (regiment and above), grassroots party committee (battalion), or party branch (company), while the unit’s military track leader (e.g., commander, director, or commandant/president), serve as the deputy secretary. In addition, the GLD and GAD, as well as their counterpart organizations in the Military Regions, Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery down to the regiment level have both a director and PC, where the PC usually serves as the party secretary. The exception is when the commander, such as former PLAAF commander Qiao Qingchen and former PLAN commander Ye Fei, or the GLD/GAD director previously served as a political officer. Under those circumstances, the commander/director then serves as the party secretary.
Besides the political officers who serve as unit political leaders and directors of the first-level Political Division/Department, other political officers include the directors of the various second-level administrative and functional political departments, bureaus, divisions, offices and branches down to the regiment level, including the organization, cadre (officer personnel), propaganda, security, cultural activities, mass work and party discipline departments. There are also political staff officers (ganshi) and secretaries (mishu), who support the leaders and first- and second-level department directors (PLAAF 2010).
Finally, every PLA organization has more than one deputy PC. In some cases, one of the deputies also serves concurrently as the director of the Political Department. This is possible because both billets are the same grade at every level. As a result, some PCs have been selected from either a deputy PC or the director of the Political Department.
PLA Political Officer Education
Prior to 1985, the PLA Political College in Beijing was the primary academic institution for mid-level and senior political officers. In 1985, it merged with the PLA Military College and PLA Logistics College to form the National Defense University (NDU). Since then, the PLA’s two primary political academic institutions have been the PLA Xi’an Political College and the PLA Nanjing Political College. In 1999, the PLAAF’s Political College in Shanghai was subordinated to the Nanjing Political College as a branch college, and the PLAN’s Political College was merged into the Dalian Naval Ship Academy (China Military Encyclopedia 2007: Military Organizational Structure, Vol. 1, pp. 138-140 and China PLA Military History, Vol. 3, pp. 661–668, 702–704).
As a general rule, political officers who become unit political leaders or deputies at the company level have not received any formal education or training to become a political officer. Based on a review of biographic information for the PLAN and PLAAF PCs who joined the PLA after 1949, the only formal political officer professional military education (PME) they receive occurs through either an in-residence course at one of the political colleges or an in-residence or correspondence course from the Central Party School for regiment-level and above officers. They also attend a short or long in-residence course at NDU for division and above officers, but the focus is not on political work. Meanwhile, second-level political department directors and deputy directors, as well as political staff officers, begin as cadets at the Xi’an or Nanjing political colleges and then receive their intermediate-level PME there as well. The Air Force Command College and Naval Command College also have undergraduate cadet programs for political staff officers (China Military Encyclopedia 2007: China PLA Military History, Vol. 3, pp. 734, 748).
Soviet and Russian Military Political Officer Overview
The organization of the Soviet military underwent a series of transformations since its inception in 1917, including introductions of at least two specialized political officer positions—the politruk, also called political director, and the pompolit, also called deputy commander for political affairs. In historic and cultural contexts, these positions collectively are referred to as commissars, though this phrase often refers only to the politruk. These positions existed at various times during the Soviet Union’s existence and were granted varying levels of authority over their corresponding units. Politruks slowly were phased out under the “single-command” doctrine of the late 1920s and 1930s, after which a commander could opt to join the Communist Party, or be assigned a pompolit as a commissioned representative of the party to serve as his assistant (www.apn.ru, November 2007).
The Soviet Revolutionary Military Council—in conjunction with the Eighth Congress of the Republic of Poland—established the organ of leadership for political-party work in the Red Army and Navy in April 1919. In May 1919, the department was named the Political Directorate of the Revolutionary Military Council (PUR). In September 1920, this was imbued with the authority to oversee all “political-propaganda” works in the military establishment. It’s constituent departments governed administration, news, agitprop, education, literature publication and procurement. In 1924, the PUR was renamed the Political Department of the People’s Commissariat of the Red Army, and it oversaw Army and Navy affairs .
During efforts to modernize the Soviet military during the 1930s, a new generation of political officers began to be assigned to more technical roles in the Army and Navy, including mobilization training, personnel management as well as overseeing the spread and accessibility of technical writing. It was during this time that political officers were introduced into the Air Force of the Red Army.
Specifically, Politruks were re-instituted preceding World War II as arms of decentralized “military councils,” and they were required to be represented in all units at the regiment level and above starting in May 1937. According to some military historians, it was during this period that political officers within the Soviet Army and Navy gained a negative reputation among officers and enlisted men due to a perceived lack of valor or an overemphasis on protocol over pragmatism (“Gold Stars of Political Workers,” avia.lib.ru/bibl/1023/title.html, 1984).
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and abolition of political officers in 1991, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation began training Assistant Commanders for Education Work, or Zampolit, primarily constituting chaplains and counselors. They are not considered political officers, as their functions are limited in comparison to their predecessors and they do not undergo specialized officer training (nvo.ng.ru, May 22, 2009; www.apn.ru, November 2007).
Soviet Military Political Officer Education
The V. I. Lenin Military-Political Academy was founded in 1919 to prepare political leaders of the Red Army and Navy with higher military education. Its graduates were expected to excel technically and provide policy guidance and political organizing in their units. However, the Academy was not exclusive to political officers, as it included in its classes members of labor forces, internal and border troops and future teaching staff of other military schools. The school also conducted humanities research, and constituted the central authority for all other higher military-political education, including for political officers and non-PCs alike.
By 1934, the school had established four separate areas of focus to reflect the modernizing military of the Soviet Union: combined arms, air, naval, and military-pedagogical. While the areas of training remained constant, the organization of the institution and the terms of study remained in flux throughout its history. During World War II, for example, training was significantly accelerated for political officers, requiring only one year of study.
A number of early leaders of the Red Army graduated from the V. I. Lenin Military-Political Academy during its first years. These first graduating classes comprised both political officers and pure military officers in high levels of command.
In 1994, following the abolition of Russia’s military-political establishment, the Academy was renamed the Military Institute of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, and it is primarily a military and pedagogical institute.
Taiwan/ROC Military Political Officer Overview 
Taiwan’s Armed Forces has a political commissar system known organizationally as the Political Warfare Bureau (zhengzhi zuozhan ju), which is an agency within the Ministry of National Defense (MND) . It traces its legacy back to the Whampoa Military Academy in the early years of both the Republic of China (ROC) and the Nationalist Party of China (Kuomintang/KMT), though it did not live through the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. The system was reestablished in April 1950 as the Political Department (zhengzhi bu) by Chiang Ching-kuo, son of and future successor to President Chiang Kai-shek. The impetus for this was the ROC Government’s defeat and evacuation to Taiwan in 1949, as a lack of military discipline and loyalty to the KMT were “two factors blamed in part for the loss to the communists on the mainland” . For much of the next thirty years and through two further name changes, the political commissar system exercised tremendous influence in Taiwan’s Armed Forces, maintaining service members’ loyalty to not only the country, but to the president, as well as to Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People. Indeed, the Three Principles and the Presidents Chiang were placed above the Republic in order of importance.
Through this system, the KMT ensured that only service members reliably loyal to the party-state could advance in their military careers. Its importance did not begin to decline again until the lifting of martial law in 1987 by Chiang Ching-kuo, who had created and overseen the system in the first place. Thus began the slow de-politicization of the military and of the KMT’s hold on the armed forces through the political commissar system.
Since then, members of opposition parties have been allowed into the military; the Political Warfare Bureau has lost formal power and influence in the military, as has the KMT; the bureau itself was demoted from a department level in the early years of the Chen Shui-bian administration (2000–2008); and the National Defense Law of 2000 inserted the Minister of National Defense into the military’s chain of command, fitting in between the Commander-in-Chief (the president) and the Chief of the General Staff. Today, the Political Warfare Bureau’s mission is to ensure loyalty to the state and not to any political party and to address any personal issues that service members may have .
The three services (Army, Navy and Air Force) each has its own Political Warfare Department (zhengzhan shi) and each unit within each service undergoes political education on a weekly basis, which takes the form of two hours’ audio-visual instruction on national, as opposed to political party, issues known as Juguang Day (a reference to “wuwang zaiju”). Otherwise, political commissars’ powers today are greatly limited, such that they only attend meetings that pertain to their area of responsibility and, unlike their counterparts in the PLA, are not allowed to interfere with operational matters.
Taiwan Military Political Officer Education
The Army and Navy political commissars enter their field as cadets in the National Defense University (NDU)’s Department of Political Science and remain political commissars for the duration of their military service. The Air Force, however, selects its political commissars from its pilots, who attend the NDU’s specialized political warfare college, Fu Hsing Kang College. Unlike in the Army and Navy, Air Force political commissar selectees are expected to move between political warfare officer and operations officer billets in their careers—indeed, political officer experience is a key factor in a pilot’s promotion. Whereas the other services’ political warfare officers are full-time political warfare officers, the Air Force’s political warfare officers must shoulder both operational and political warfare responsibilities. In the past, women political commissars were restricted to cultural billets (song-and-dance troupes, media presenters, etc.); today, women fill all billets in political warfare.
- This paragraph is based on an analysis of a series of Soviet military orders, namely Order RVSR No. 674, Order RVSR No. 912, Order RVSR No. 1912 and Order RVS USSR No. 446/96 as well as the Central State Archive of the Soviet Army.
- Unless otherwise cited, information from this section on Taiwan’s political warfare system was gained from correspondence and interviews with knowledgeable personnel.
- As of January 1, 2013, the word “general” (zong) was dropped from the bureau’s name, per an amendment to the Ministry of National Defense Organization Act on November 23, 2012, see <https://www.mnd.gov.tw/Publish.aspx?cnid=127&p=55860>.
- M. Taylor Fravel, “Towards Civilian Supremacy: Civil-Military Relations in Taiwan’s Democratization,” Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1, Fall 2002, p. 62.
- Fravel, “Towards Civilian Supremacy,” pp. 68, 70; Authors’ correspondence.