The phrase “military political work” (军队政治工作, jundui zhengzhi gongzuo) is an overarching term that describes all the efforts and activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aimed at managing human capital and influencing the civilian environment in order to achieve the political and military objectives accorded to it by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Military political work focuses on the human dimensions of the PLA as an institution, the human dimensions of warfare, and civil-military relations in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It broadly includes:
- Party functions that help cement the relationship between the PLA and the party, such as establishing and directing party organizations in the PLA, conducting political values and ethics training for all PLA personnel, and enforcing party discipline.
- Operational functions that support the PLA as warfighters, such as handling military public affairs, conducting and supporting information operations, and defending against adversary intelligence or psychological warfare operations directed against enemy forces through cooptation, coercion, and other activities aimed at degrading the enemy’s “will to fight.
- Administrative functions necessary for day-to-day operations, such as personnel management, officer selection and professional military education.
PLA approaches to military political work have shifted over time in response to political and military developments both within China and around the world. When reflecting on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, it is useful to examine how CCP thinking on how the nature and importance of political work has evolved over time, with an eye to seeing how it might continue to change in the new age of great power competition.
The Beginnings of Military Political Work
The term “political work” was first used by Zhou Enlai (周恩来) at a Whampoa Military Academy speech in 1925, called, “Political Work in the Military” (军队中的政治工作, jundui zhong de zhengzhi gongzuo) It was first used by Mao in an essay on “Military Issues” (军事问题, junshi wenti), authored in 1928. When discussing the origins of PLA political work, Chinese authors often point to the 1929 Gutian Conference (古田会议, gutian huiyi), which formally articulated the principles of building a military under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It was at Guitian that Mao wrote the resolution on “Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party” ([关于纠正党内的错误思想], guanyu jiuzheng dangnei de cuowu sixiang) naming a series of troubling attitudes and behaviors that had emerged among the ranks of the Red Army, arguing that these mistakes would undermine military progress, and laying out a series of steps that the party leadership would take to address these problems. The steps to correct “errors” in thinking among the ranks included increased political education at all levels of the military, greater involvement of party officials in military decision-making, more frequent party meetings at all levels, clarifying and formalizing the roles and responsibilities of party officials and party organs within the military, and writing up a set of regulations that clearly defined the relationship between the military and the party (Marxists.org, accessed June 15).
Military Political Work Regulations
Shortly after Gutian, the “Draft Interim Regulations on the Political Work of the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army” ([中国工农红军政治工作暂行条例草案], zhongguo gongnong hongjun zhengzhi gongzuo zhanxing tiaoli cao’an) was first formulated. It served both as party and internal military regulations that provided overarching guidance on the conduct of political work in the Chinese military. The regulations clarify the roles and responsibilities of CCP positions within the military and provide standardized guidance on the management of all human-centric tasks within the PLA.
Originally short on detail, CCP guidance on the conduct of political work expanded over time, and the regulations have been revised at least ten times. Known versions of Chinese military political work regulations include:
- 1930: “Draft Interim Regulations on the Political Work of the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army” [中国工农红军政治工作暂行条例草案]
- 1938: “Draft Interim Regulations on the Political Work of the 18th Group Army” [ 第十八集团红军政治工作暂行条例草案]
- 1942: “Draft Political Work Regulations of the Eighth Route Army [八路军政治工作条例草案
- 1954: “Political Work Regulations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army” [中国人民解放军政治工作条例]
- “Newly Revised ‘Political Work Regulations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’” (新修订的 [军队会政治工作条例], hereafter referred to as the “PLA Political Work Regulations”), promulgated in: 1963, 1978, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2010, and 2020 (Xinhua, September 13, 2010; Xinhua, February 19).
Overall, changes to CCP guidance on military political work have been driven by a need to respond to domestic political developments, support the needs of PLA modernization, or adapt to the changing nature of modern warfare. Over time, the PLA Political Work Regulations have sought to do the following.
- Reaffirm the Party’s Absolute Leadership Over the Military
First and foremost, each iteration of Chinese military political work regulations has reaffirmed the military’s subservience to the party. The PLA has historically held a tension between the need to develop the specialized skills of a professional military and the need to ensure that the military sees itself as an armed body charged with carrying out the political tasks of CCP. In 1929, Mao warned against the dangers of allowing military leaders to prioritize military accomplishments over political competencies: “If allowed to develop.… it would be to take the path of warlordism like the Kuomintang army” (Marxists.org, accessed June 15).
The establishment of party preeminence over the military at Gutian was regarded as a critical development. According to one PRC scholar, it represented “the military’s transformation from a violent tool for protecting the interests of a few people to defending the fundamental interests of the majority of the people” (Study Times, May 30). Affirmation of party control over the military is consistently listed as one of the first principles of any revision to military political work regulations or any discussion of political work in the PLA.
- Establish Systems and Promote Increased Standardization Over Time
Increased standardization is a common refrain when describing the rationale for adjusting political work regulations, with each iteration attempting to standardize the roles and responsibilities of the key political work “systems” (Xinhua, February 19; Study Times, May 30).
Three main “systems” are charged with the execution of political work in the PLA. These are the party committee system (党委制, dang wei zhi), which establishes a mechanism for ensuring that all decisions are made under the unified collective leadership of the party; the political commissar system (政治委员制, zhengzhi weiyuan zhi), which establishes political commissars in specific units to exercise joint decision-making and dual leadership in partnership with the military commander; and the political organ system (政治机关制, zhengzhi jiguan zhi), which establishes specific organizations within units at the regimental level and above that are responsible for managing, organizing, and implementing political work. Their roles and responsibilities are laid out in the PLA Political Work Regulations and have changed over time.
For example, the role of PLA political commissar has not remained static. Party regulations have sometimes sought to solidify the role of the commissar in military decision-making—this was especially true during the early days of the PRC—and at other times to limit their authority and curb abuses. The latter applied particularly following the Cultural Revolution. The roles played by political commissars were clarified and adjusted in the revisions to the political work regulations in 1954, 1964, and 1978.
The revision of political work regulations has at times lagged behind larger organizational military reforms. For example, the recently promulgated 2020 PLA Political Work Regulations described organization changes necessitated by the abolishment of the General Political Department almost half a decade earlier. Additionally, the 2020 regulations consolidated some political work supervision and inspection responsibilities and refined the duties of political officers and leaders of certain political organs in order to keep up with larger organizational changes taking place within the PLA (Xinhua, February 19).
- Emphasize the Decisive Role of the Human Dimension in Warfare
Since its earliest days, the PLA has viewed the human dimensions of warfare as a key to achieving military superiority and frequently comment on this when discussing the value of military political work. A recent article published by the Joint Operations College of the National Defense University discussing the release of the 2020 military political work regulations stated, “No matter how the form of war changes and how the style of combat is updated, the rule that people are the decisive factor for victory or defeat in war will not change” (PLA Daily, June 9).
It is important to note that PLA authors do not portray the types of activities comprising “political work” as unique to the PLA. Rather, they see political work as an effort to imbue a set of tasks that all militaries must undertake with a purpose and approach that supports broader CCP objectives and philosophies. As one scholar described it, “Any military is comprised of people who deal with military activities and have the abilities to think and act on their own, thus there needs to be ideological and organizational work to ensure that these individuals cohesively form a whole entity.”
- Promote Increased Combat Efficiency
Each iteration of the PLA Political Work Regulations has asserted that the purpose of political work was to build a stronger military by increasing combat efficiency. The CCP asserted as early as 1930 that purpose of military political work was to strengthen combat efficiency. Although approaches to key aspects of political work have changed over the years, the perceived relationship between successful political work and a more capable military has remained constant.
As the PLA has begun implementing the 2020 “newly revised” PLA Political Work Regulations, training materials describing the new regulations emphasize that one of the principles of the 2020 revision was, “to focus on the main responsibility and main business of preparing for war.” Public comments by the CMC Political Work Department state that “combat effectiveness,” should be the metric used for assessing political work efforts (Xinhua, February 19).
Of note, PLA writings discussing the newly released outline on joint operations, “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Joint Operations Outline (Trial)” ([中国人民解放军联合作战纲要(试行)], zhongguo renmin jiefangjun lianhe zuozhan gangyao (shixing)) often discuss the importance of aligning political work reforms with reforms to military operational doctrine. Updating historic themes, current thinking in the PLA is that political work has the potential to serve as an enabler of integrated joint operations.
- Respond to Changing Nature of Warfare & Incorporate Lessons Learned From Foreign Wars
PLA perceptions of political work have also evolved in response to changes in the international security environment and the nature of warfare. One issue that has particularly shaped the PLA’s perception of modern warfare over the past 30 years is the role that the management of information and perceptions can play in military victory or defeat.
Since the days of the Chinese civil war, the CCP has been sensitive to the court of international public opinion and the need to manipulate it to achieve advantage. Starting in the 1990s, the PLA has demonstrated renewed interest in the role that information and perceptions—key areas for political work—play in conflict.
PLA thinkers drew many lessons from their observations of the U.S. Gulf War in 1991 and Iraq war in 2003. They assessed that the U.S. had set conditions for victory through the effective, coordinated employment of global media, international law, and other actions that they considered to be psychological warfare techniques, and predicted that these tools—media, law, and psychological warfare—would only increase in importance as the world became more dependent on information technology. PLA thinkers referred to these tools collectively as “the three warfares” (三种战法, sanzhong zhanfa or 三战, sanzhan) and sought ways to incorporate them into political work planning for future conflicts. News and public opinion became seen as a “second battlefield.” As one PLA expert wrote:
“It can be imagined that in future battlefields, our side, through legal war, can find the basis for launching an attack; build, through media war, an atmosphere for the illegitimacy of our adversaries; and directly dampen the morale of adversaries through psychological war.”
This assessment informed the CCP and PLA’s decision to incorporate the “three warfares” into the 2003 iteration of the PLA Political Work Regulations. Since then, a virtual cottage industry in the military has sprung up seeking ways to improve understanding of the use of media, international law, and psychological warfare techniques in pursuit of strategic objectives, with an eye towards weakening the will of enemy troops, strengthening the morale of Chinese citizens, and gaining international support for PLA actions. Chinese thinking has increasingly recognized that “three warfares” activities require close coordination between military and state actors will likely be most effective prior to the start of a conflict. For this reason, there is increased civil-military integration in political work and a blurring of the divide between wartime and peace. One initial report suggest that new guidance on these activities is provided in the 2020 iteration of PLA Political Work Regulations, but few additional details are available to date (Xinhua, February 19).
Conclusion: Implications for Great Power Competition
Looking into the future, how is the PLA’s military political work likely to evolve in an age of great power competition? U.S. analysts and policymakers should be prepared for the following:
Expect to compete with all elements of national power. Military political work is a means to synchronize military activities with larger CCP efforts, and the most recent guidance on political work reportedly calls for increased civil-military integration (Xinhua, February 19). We should expect to see a continued integration of civilian and military activities across a range of areas to include the information, economic, and scientific domains. We should also expect to see a continued blurring of the divide between war and peace as PRC leaders leverage all elements of national power to shape the international environment in support of national security objects.
Anticipate intense competition in the “battle for the narrative.” Much has been written about the PRC’s techniques and increasing capacity to shape the information environment in recent years. As the U.S. and the PRC vie for influence around the world, one should expect to see more rapid and complex information campaigns that integrate military, civilian, traditional, and non-traditional media. Such campaigns could coordinate rhetorical statements with other military activities including exercises, PLA involvement with humanitarian assistance, or military diplomacy. China’s recent efforts to shape global narratives surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may be a sign of what is to come in this arena.
Prepare for a competition in human capital. Many in the PLA have described military political work as a source of strength or secret weapon. Despite the CCP’s focus on managing the human dimensions of warfare, few would dispute that the PLA lags behind the U.S. in the area of human capital. One of the stated objectives of the 2020 revision to the PLA Political Work Regulations was to support the development of human capital in order to build a military that is better positioned to conduct joint operations. With this in mind, we can expect to see the CCP continue to prioritize PLA efforts to develop personnel equipped to meet the demands of modern warfare. For U.S. military leaders, the challenge will be to continue reinvesting in the force and ensure that we do not lose our comparative advantage.
Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise is director of the China Studies Program at CNA. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the position of CNA or any institution with which she is associated.
 Bellacqua, James & Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise, Examining the Functions and Missions of Political Work in the PLA, Alexandria, VA, The CNA Corporation, December 2006. CIM D0014286.A1/Final.
 See: Li Yunzhi, “General Political Department,” Chinese Military Encyclopedia [中国军事百科全书], Beijing AMS Publishing House, 1997, pp. 398-400. See also: Bellacqua and Kivlehan-Wise, December 2006.
 See: Jiang Siyi, ed. Political Work Dictionary (zhengzhi gongzuo dacidian; 政治工作大辞典), Beijing, Military Sciences Publishing House (junshi kexue chubanshe; 军事科学出版社), April 1991, pp. 51-102.
 Also known as the Gutian Congress or as the 9th Party Congress of the Fourth Army of the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (中国工农红军第四军第九次党代表大会). For examples, see: Zhang Mingcang (张明仓), “Historical Enlightenment of Building a Powerful People’s Liberation Army by a Centennial Party [百年大党建设强大人民军队的历史启示],” Study Times, May, 30 2021, http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2021/0530/c40531-32117130.html; and Cheng Baoshan (程宝山), ed., Fundamental Laws and Regulations of Military Political Work in the New Century and New Era—Study the Newly Revised ‘Regulations on Chinese PLA Political Work,’ [新世纪新阶段军队政治工作的根本法规—学习新修订颁布的《中国人民解放军政治工作条例》], Beijing: Academy of Military Science (AMS) Publishing House, May 2004, p. 5-17.
 The “errors” included the persistence of a “purely military viewpoint” which failed to recognize that “military affairs are only one means of accomplishing political tasks;” erroneous calls for “ultra-democracy” requiring that all decisions be made from the bottom up; disregard of organizational discipline; calls for “absolute egalitarianism” that attack any form of preferential treatment regardless of whether there is a military necessity; “subjectivism;” “individualism;” persistence of an “ideology of roving bands” and “the remnants of putschism.”
 For examples, see: Lin Zhangqing, “Regular Ideological Work,” in Chinese Military Encyclopedia, Beijing: AMS Publishing House, 1997, p. 148; Cheng Baoshan, ed., May 2004; Zhang Mingcang, May 30, 2021, http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2021/0530/c40531-32117130.html; and An Sihan, ed., February 19, 2021, http://www.81.cn/xue-xi/2021-02/19/content_9988500.htm.
 Cheng Baoshan, ed., Fundamental Laws and Regulations of Military Political Work in the New Century and New Era, May 2004, p. 71-73.
 Cheng Baoshan, ed., Fundamental Laws and Regulations of Military Political Work in the New Century and New Era, May 2004, p 19.
 Cheng Baoshan, ed., Fundamental Laws and Regulations of Military Political Work in the New Century and New Era, May 2004, p 5.
 For more on this, see: David M. Finkelstein, “Initial Thoughts on the PLA’s New Joint Doctrine Gangyao” CNA, forthcoming.
 DuMont, Malia & Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise, PLA Political Work and the “Three Warfares”: A Preliminary Exploration, Alexandria, VA, The CNA Corporation, December 2006. CIM D0014287.A1/Final.
 Cai Huifu et al, “Research into News and Public Opinion Warfare During the Iraq War,” China Military Science, August 20 2003, Issue No. 4, pp 28-34.
 Li Jian, Li Xuehong, and Bao Guojun, “Military Transformation With Chinese Characteristics Is Underway,” China Youth Daily, April 11, 2004.
 For more on China’s efforts to leverage international and scientific engagements in pursuit of national security objectives, see: Tenyotkin, Rose, April Herlevi, et al, Economic Statecraft: How China Legally Accesses Foreign Technologies to Build Military Capabilities, CNA, Arlington VA, June 2020, DRM-2020-U-027240-1Rev, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DRM-2020-U-027240-1Rev%20(002).pdf.
 Some examples include: Holz, Heidi & Tony Miller, China’s Playbook for Shaping the Global Media Environment, CNA, Arlington VA, February 2020 IRM-2020-U-024710-Final, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/pdf/IRM-2020-U-024710-Final.pdf and Bachman, Elizabeth, Black and White and Read All Over: China’s Improving Foreign-Directed Media, CNA, Arlington VA August 2020, DRM-2020-U-027331-1Rev, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/pdf/DRM-2020-U-027331-1Rev.pdf.
 For more, see: Case, Josiah, Telling China’s COVID-19 Story Well: Beijing’s Efforts to Control Information and Shape Public Narratives Regarding the 2020 Global Pandemic, CNA, Arlington VA, December 2020, DRM-2020-U-028558-Final, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DRM-2020-U-028558-Final.pdf .
 See: U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020: Annual Report to Congress, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF, Finkelstein, David, Get Ready for the Second Phase of Chinese Military Reform, CNA, Arlington VA, January 2017, DOP-2017-U-014677-Final, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/PDF/DOP-2017-U-014677-Final.pdf .