This is Part 2 of a two-part series on women in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Part 1 examined the historical trajectory of and context for the expansion of women’s roles in the PLA. Part 2 examines the recruitment and organizational representation of the PLA’s female officers and enlisted personnel, particularly those in combat roles, in further detail.
Women are starting to have enter combat roles for the PLA in greater numbers. Despite their long history of service in the PLA, female officers (cadre) and enlisted personnel (approximately five percent of the overall force), have only recently taken on a range of new positions throughout the PLA Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and the Strategic Support Force, as well as the People’s Armed Police over the last decade (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). While the number of women joining the enlisted force and their acceptance into the PLA’s officer academic institutions remain restricted by informal and often even explicit quotas, PLA female officers and enlisted personnel have made notable contributions in a variety of roles, from aviation to special operations and missile launches. Since the PLA has never conscripted female enlisted personnel, all women in the PLA are recruited or volunteer.
While the first article in this series considered the historical trajectory of and context for the expansion of women’s roles within the PLA, this article reviews the recruitment process for women and examines in detail the multiple services, branches, and billets in which women have served throughout the PLA within the past decade or so. Such analysis not only offers an interesting comparison to the integration of women into combat roles in the U.S. and other militaries worldwide but also reveals an understudied dimension of the PLA’s efforts to recruit and retain an overall “high quality” (高素质) officer and enlisted force. This expansion of women’s roles in the PLA will likely continue, and a higher number of women might eventually advance to operational or support command positions. However, women seeking to enter the PLA often face a glass ceiling in the form of existing recruitment processes, and their opportunities for promotion have been likewise constrained. In most cases, women are part of an all-female subunit, instead of mixed subunits (e.g., squads, platoons, and companies). Looking forward, if it intends to take fuller advantage of the available human resources, the PLA might eventually alter existing restrictions on the recruitment of female officers and enlisted personnel.
As of 2016, there were approximately 115,000 female enlisted personnel and officers throughout the 1.3 million-member PLA.  Despite an expansion of roles, this total may decrease due to the ongoing 300,000-troop drawdown due to be completed by 2017 (China Brief, February 4).
Historically, the majority of women in the PLA have served in medical, communications, logistics support, and propaganda (e.g., song and dance troupe) roles. However, within the past decade or so, there has been a significant expansion in the roles of PLA females onto the battlefield. Increasingly, small, low-level female subunits often seem to have female leaders/commanders, and political officers (at the company level), but there have not yet been many instances of females leading all-female or mixed-gender organizations at higher levels.
Unlike men who are both conscripted and recruited, women are not conscripted into the PLA; however, women have been recruited in limited numbers to become enlisted personnel. According to China’s Military Service Law (兵役法), women can be recruited (征集) based on the “armed forces’ requirements” (军队需要) (全国征兵网, March 13, 2014). After the latest revision to the recruitment requirements for females, the age requirements were differentiated based on educational background, such that high school graduates aged 17–19, college students aged 17–22, the graduates of vocational schools aged 23 or younger, and college graduates aged 24 or younger were eligible to apply (MOD, October 10, 2009; MOD, November 6, 2009). Notably, when the PLA implemented its first Chief Non-commissioned Officer (士官长) system at the brigade, regiment, battalion and company levels in 2015, it included the first female (女士官长), which was characterized as an indication of the increasingly “important function” of women within the PLA’s Non-commissioned Officer (NCO, 士官) corps (People’s Daily, June 10, 2015; China Armed Forces, Vol. 1, 2015).
Female enlisted recruits apparently face a more rigorous and selective process. There are differentiated requirements for the recruitment of female enlisted personnel into the PLA. Although the PLA does not administer a standardized aptitude test to conscripts and recruits, the 2009 “Female Enlisted Personnel Recruitment Work Trial Procedures” (女兵征集工作试行办法) introduced an assessment system that involved a physical quality assessment (身体素质评定) (with 70 points as a basis and deductions for those outside of the standard height, vision, and weight parameters); an academic background assessment (学历评定) (e.g., 70 points for vocational students or 85 points for undergraduate students), and an “interview examination” (面试考查) (with between 70 and 100 points awarded). The “comprehensive assessment” and final selection process used these three components while adding points based on age and Communist Party membership. Unusually, the interview included the criteria of having a “talent” or a “special skill” (才艺专长) for which points would be awarded included in the selection process (MOD, November 6, 2009). In practice, this meant that women seeking to enlist in the PLA, unlike their male counterparts, were required to perform in a “talent show,” often involving a song or dance routine, for their recruiters. Understandably, this requirement sparked debate and criticism at the time (China News, December 1, 2009). Although the latest female recruitment procedures (女兵征集办法) don’t explicitly include those requirements, there continues to be an unspecified “comprehensive quality assessment” (综合素质考评) (National Recruitment Network, May 27).
Although there is not an official maximum for the number of women recruited as enlisted personnel, certain implicit restrictions continue to limit their numbers. For instance, only 124 of the 20,000 total personnel who were conscripted and recruited from Hainan Province in 2016 were female, accounting for less than 7 percent of the female applicants (South Sea Online, August 12).
The recruitment process for PLA officers (cadre) also appears to require higher standards from female applicants. According to the Ministry of Education, explicit “male to female admissions ratios” (男女生录取比例) are not permissible except in military, national defense, public security, and other “specialized institutes,” which presumably do establish and adhere to such set ratios (People’s Daily, September 26, 2013). The enrollment of female cadets in at least some of the PLA’s sixty plus academic institutions, including the National University of Defense Technology, appears to be limited (NUDT, August 6, 2015). Evidence suggests that there are few female cadets in officer academic institutions, and certain institutions and majors probably prohibit women’s enrollment altogether. In this regard, like unlike female students applying to China’s civilian universities, female applicants seemingly face different and often higher standards for acceptance (Caixin, October 13, 2014).
The National Defense Student (国防生) program, which was created in 1998 and is approximately equivalent to the U.S. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) similarly restricts the enrollment of women. Since a high proportion of graduates from the National Defense Student program go on to the special technical career track, the majority of female officers graduating from this program are unlikely to serve in operational or support command positions. Although there was initially a five percent maximum for the number of female students enrolled in the program, that restriction seems to be applied inconsistently across the civilian academic institutions involved in the program, or perhaps to have been relaxed somewhat since (Xinhua, December 24, 2007; China Brief, November 30, 2011). For instance, as of 2015, Peking University’s National Defense Student program limited the number of female undergraduate students to 10 percent and the number of female graduate students to 20 percent (北大, May 6, 2015).
Services, Forces, and Branches
The PLA’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and the Strategic Support Force, as well as the People’s Armed Police, all incorporate women into their officer and enlisted ranks. While the majority of female PLA officers and enlisted personnel have traditionally served primarily in medical, communications, logistics support, academic, and propaganda roles, women have increasingly taken on a variety of combat roles. In fact, as Chinese media pointed out after the U.S. officially opened all combat roles to women in 2015, the PLA considers itself to have been ahead of the U.S. by twenty years in this regard, since it established a contingent of female marines (海军女子陆战特遣队) in the late 1990s (Global Times, December 5, 2015). Since then, the PLA’s various services, forces, and branches (combat arms) have introduced a variety of female organizations.
Although PLA women have traditionally served in all-female organizations, there are several examples of mixed-gender organizations that have been established in recent years. The men and women of the PLA are increasingly training together and to the same standards, yet women may still receive differential treatment from their leaders in certain ways. The following section, while not fully comprehensive, offers an initial review of the range of combat roles that women have taken on throughout the PLA to illustrate the varied nature of their participation.
|Women in Combat Roles in the PLA|
PLA Army (Ground Forces)
|Air Defense Branch:|
|Coastal Defense Branch:|
China Military Online, April 15, 2015).
Strategic Support Force
This organizational overview illustrates that female enlisted personnel and officers have been increasingly serving in a range of combat roles throughout the PLA, in addition to more traditional roles, such as medical and communications personnel. Based on the available information, women in the PLA are only formally prohibited from serving on submarines, and there are still a small number of combat arms that do not yet seem to have established female units. While most PLA women seemingly still serve in all-female subunits, there has been some progression toward integrated training, including for the PLAAF’s female aviators. Although only a few PLA female officers have taken on operational unit command positions, there are indications that a small number of women, including in the PLAAF and PLAN, are starting to take on and could eventually advance in these roles.
Although women still constitute only about five percent of the PLA, this expansion of their roles could eventually result in an increase in their numbers and impact. However, for the time being, restrictive recruitment policies continue to limit the entrance of and often impose higher standards upon female applicants. In this regard, the PLA is presently failing to adequately take advantage of all of the available human resources. There are indications that attitudes are starting to change, and policies may eventually follow (e.g., PLA Daily, July 3). Looking forward, the PLA’s ability to integrate women effectively into the operational force and to confront attitudes that have historically imposed a glass ceiling upon their advancement also offers a metric of its ability to adapt its prevailing organizational culture in response to new conditions.
While women in the PLA continue to be characterized as “beautiful scenery in the barracks” (军营一道亮丽的风景), the PLA has gradually progressed to recognize their potential contributions and impact in future informationized warfare (China Military Online, April 15, 2015). Evidently, the PLA has also realized that changes in the nature of warfare as a result of technological trends will require a different type of force, and it has appreciably altered its approach to recruitment in an effort to attract educated, “high quality” personnel. However, the PLA’s future expansion of the recruitment of and opportunities for women—a pragmatic military imperative—might continue to be constrained by prevailing societal dynamics and attitudes.
Elsa B. Kania is a recent graduate of Harvard College and currently works as an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group.
Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at Defense Group Inc. (DGI) and concurrently a Senior China Analyst with the USAF’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs. A Chinese linguist, he holds an M.A. in international relations from Boston University.
- No detailed statistics are available. See also: Mady Wechsler Segal, Xiaolin Li, and David R. Segal, “The Role of Women in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.”
- Kenneth Allen, “PLA Air Force, Naval Aviation, and Army Aviation Aviator Recruitment, Education, and Training,” Jamestown Foundation, 2015.
- Li Faxin, The PLA Marines, China Intercontinental Press, English version, January 2013, pp. 100–112.