National Defense Mobilization: Toward A Clear Division of Labor between the PLA and Civilian Bureaucracies

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 6

Insignia of the National Defense Mobilization Commission. (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • As the result of the ongoing military reform, the military’s guiding and leadership role over civilian bureaucracies seems to be strengthened. Meanwhile, the responsibilities of the State Council and local governments on NDM have been substantiated, and the administrative work which the PLA used to undertake has been transferred to local governments.
  • A clearer division of labor between the military and civilian bureaucracies allows the PLA to focus on the development of combat capabilities without being distracted by administrative work, while more attention and resources devoted to national defense projects by civilian bureaucracies are likely to improve NDM work.
  • National defense mobilization is an area where the PLA and civilian bureaucracies need to cooperate closely during peacetime to allow an effective generation and mobilization of national resources during wartime.
  • The national defense mobilization system (NDM system), composed of civilian bureaucracies and the PLA bureaucracies, used to be characterized by a bureaucratic structure in which the military sat above local governments and both guided and administered a significant portion of administrative work related to national defense development.


On March 5 in his report to the National People’s Congress (NPC), Premier Li Qiang of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) said that governments at different administrative levels are to fully support national defense (ND) development this year (People’s Daily, March 6). ND development is an area where cooperation between civilian bureaucracies and the military is required during peacetime to ensure that effective generation and mobilization of national resources is possible to sustain the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during wartime. However, developments at this year’s Two Sessions meetings further underlined the civilian governments’ diminished role in designing policies, including on matters related to national development and governance. For instance, a revision (Art. 3) to the extant Organic Law of the State Council placing the State Council under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (PLA Daily, March 12; PLA Daily, March 6; Lianghui, March 4). This emerging power structure is likely to produce a dynamic in which the State Council and local governments simply execute policies devised by Xi so that the PLA can concentrate on the development of combat capabilities.

The PLA’s involvement in matters of national defense mobilization (NDM) distracts from developing its combat abilities. Much peacetime administrative work needs to be conducted to allow resources provided by civilian economic sectors to be used by the military during wartime. The ongoing military reforms, begun in 2015, have ushered in institutional and legal changes to further professionalize the military by removing its NDM administrative duties and substantiating civilian bureaucracies’ responsibilities.

Fig. 1: Schema showing the structure of NDM Organizations. (Source: the author) [10]

  • Solid thin black arrows show the structure that applies to situations before and following the reforms.
  • Dotted black arrows show the structure before the reforms.
  • Blue thick arrows reflect the current structure following the reforms

The Structure of NDM Organizations

The National Defense Mobilization Commission (NDM Commission), established in 1994, is co-led by the State Council and the Central Military Commission (CMC). The Commission has six Offices: The People’s Armed Forces Mobilization Office (人民武装动员办公室), the Economic Mobilization Office (经济动员办公室), the Civil Air Defense Office (人民防空办公室), the Traffic and Transport Readiness Office (交通战备办公室), the National Defense Education Office (国防教育办公室), and the General and Coordination Office (综合办公室). Both the NDM Commission and these six working offices have branches in local governments and each of the PLA’s military regions (State Council, 1994; State Council, 1998; People’s Daily, March 22, 2013; Yazhou Zhoukan, August, 2004). Each NDM organization is separated into two systems: civilian bureaucracies (State Council agencies and local governments) and PLA bureaucracies (the CMC and the four general departments at the central level; and the military regions, provincial military regions, and military districts at the subnational level). The capacity for peacetime collaboration by these two is indicative of the ability of the PRC to mobilize for war. In an ideal scenario for the PLA, peacetime preparations would allow domestic industries to generate supplies of ammunition, hardware, and subsistence provisions by using energy reserves, which would then be safely delivered through protected air, rail, road, and/or riverine or marine transport to the front lines.

The NDM Commission and its local branches (known as NDM Committees) are designed to bridge communication between bureaucracies so that civilian sectors know what the military needs and can plan and implement national defense projects accordingly. Its enforcement authority, however, is limited. Its responsibilities are mainly confined to research and coordination matters (State Council, 1994). Instead, it is the civilian and military bureaucracies which have the authority to decide whether and how to execute ND development. In reality, however, the military sits above the civilian bureaucracies and undertakes a significant portion of ND administration (国防行政), rather than leaving it to civilian bureaucracies.

Pre-Reforms: PLA Administration and Guidance of NDM

The NDM’s institutional setup departed from the standard civilian administrative hierarchy. Five of the six NDM working offices were established within the PLA’s general staff and general logistics departments (the Economic Mobilization Office is subordinated to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)). Military regions also had their own working offices. At the province level and below, only the People’s Armed Forces Mobilization and General and Coordination Offices were established within provincial military regions, while the others formed part of local governments. This created a situation where only economic mobilization had its civilian supervisory administrative office at the national level, whereas the other civilian NDM working offices at the level of the provinces and below were supervised by the military (the military regions, general departments, and the CMC). In effect, the PLA presided over civilian local agencies—a structure referred to as “the military above, the people below (上军下民).” [1] This technically violates the PRC’s Constitution, under which the PLA has no legal authority over civilian bureaucracies.

The CMC and its working agencies often drafted relevant ND development regulations rather than the State Council, even though both entities then jointly issue regulations. [2] Much additional NDM work that civilian governments should have been responsible for was undertaken by the provincial military regions, a phenomenon the PLA describes as “the army handles national defense (军队办国防).” This was based on the erroneous notion that ND is the exclusive preserve of the military establishment (PLA Daily, February 24, 2023).

Local governments had more autonomy and were less inclined to prioritize ND projects because they did not contribute to GDP growth—the key criterion for officials’ promotion. [3] [4] Their less active role is evidenced in NDM institutions’ structure. At the provincial level and below, many working offices were not set up to have their formal local agencies and were instead created under certain local PLA or civilian departments. Because these hosting departments are more likely to be occupied with their own regulated administrative responsibilities, local NDM matters would receive less attention from local governments. (This contrasts with the People’s Armed Forces Office and in some cases the Civil Air Defense Office, which are formal working institutions at the local level.) [5] A single NDM working office can be subject to various local agencies. [6]

Decentralized authority created coordination and implementation problems. Different working offices’ host agencies are likely to make different decisions. Furthermore, many local civilian working offices at the city and county levels were understaffed and/or had staff who only worked on NDM matters on a part-time basis. [7] Accordingly, although local governments were supposed to provide instrumental support for the realization of NDM projects, the weak institutional foundation at the local level impacted the implementation of NDM projects.

Without cooperation from local governments, the results of the military’s NDM work have been unsatisfactory. Many places still do not have the required equipment, platforms, and facilities to pull off a swift transfer of heavy cargo from one mode of transport to another. [8] Incompatibility between the military’s needs and civilian technical standards for transport, specifically as regards the capacity, size, and weight of railways, highways, ports, and tunnels, is a further issue. [9]

Ongoing Reforms Provide Legal Enforcement and Strengthen PLA Guidance

The reforms initiated in 2015 have substantiated the responsibilities of the State Council and local governments on NDM through legal means. Changes to the structure and functions of PLA organizations have strengthened the military’s guidance and leadership over civilian bureaucracies, while administrative work which the PLA previously undertook has now been transferred to local governments. These changes, conducted based on the differentiated functions of the military and civilian governments, indicate a likely increase in the PLA’s professionalism if institutionalization efforts continue.

Civilian Bureaucracies’ Substantiated Administration Responsibilities

Part of the reforms affirmed that civilian bureaucracies should shoulder more responsibilities for peacetime NDM preparation work. The 2020 revisions to the National Defense Law (NDL) exemplify this. In its description of the responsibilities of the State Council, the updated version replaces “directs and administers” NDM-related work with “develops, organizes, and implements” (NPC, December 26, 2020; Art. 14). In other words, the State Council cannot nominally direct NDM matters without making sure that policies and plans are carried out to meet military purposes. Another revision concerns the use of national resources for defense development. It specifies the need to establish a “coordination mechanism” on “major” issues of national defense between the CMC and the State Council (Art. 17).

At the end of 2022, NDM Offices based on the Civil Air Defense Office (CADO) were established within local governments at the provincial and city levels. These Offices have taken over administrative matters from the provincial military region system. During peacetime, they conduct administrative work based on requirements detailed by the PLA and in such a way that allows the military to mobilize resources in the event of a conflict (MOD, December 15, 2023; The People’s Forum, October 18, 2023; CPC News, February 5, 2023; MOD, April 14, 2023; PLA Daily, February 24, 2023). Establishing NDM Offices in local governments addresses the problem that the military have hitherto conducted most tasks related to NDM (PLA Daily, February 24, 2023). Previously, it was difficult for local General and Coordination Offices, which were mostly established within local PLA units and had a lower bureaucratic status, to coordinate with many different civilian superiors who had authority over these local NDM working offices. This was because of the dispersion of NDM working offices across different local civilian agencies. [11] The transfer of administrative work from provincial military regions to NDM Offices within local governments will therefore likely mitigate coordination problems, as these Offices constitute a single authority on NDM matters within civilian bureaucracies. Local NDM Offices are now directly subject to the NDRC, emphasizing state agencies’ responsibilities in ensuring that national economic development addresses military needs (Shanghai City Government, February 9, 2023).

Legal measures bind the State Council’s agencies and local governments’ responsibilities. The National Defense Transport Act (NDTA), passed in 2017, stipulates these entities’ responsibilities for realizing defense needs (People’s Daily, January 12, 2017). Owing to its status as a law, it has more binding authority on enforcement than the previous Regulation on National Defense Transport (RNDT), which was an executive order (行政命令) (State Council, January 2011). The RNDT merely stated that transport projects for national defense needed to meet economic needs (Art. 17). The new act preserves this principle (Art. 14) but also requires that local governments at the county level and above incorporate defense transport needs into their economic and social plans—including their industrial policies (Art. 15). In the RNDT, the State Council’s transport departments were responsible for national defense transport planning and technical standards for the construction of facilities and infrastructure (Art. 8). But it did not specify how this would be carried out. The Act now stipulates that for these two tasks state agencies need to consult with the military (Art. 15). In addition, although there has been communication and coordination between local governments and local military units (at the levels of military regions and county governments and above), sustained effort in this regard is lacking. Without legal endorsement their work outcomes are not binding on the local governments (NPC, October 12, 2016). The Act addresses this by specifying that consultation mechanisms are to be established between governments and military units at the provincial level and above (i.e. each theater command that has more than one province answering to its military order). These mechanisms entail reporting any plans for transport projects and ND needs to each other (Art. 4).

The Military’s Strengthened Guidance Role

The PLA’s organizational makeover appears to have enhanced the military’s guiding role while reducing its administrative burden. After the system of four general departments and military regions was dismantled, five of the NDM working offices which were under the general staff and general logistics departments are now subject to the CMC’s functional organizations (the NDM Department and perhaps the Logistic Support Department). NDM matters that used to fall under the scope of military regions’ duties were also transferred to the CMC’s NDM Department (State Council, July 24, 2019). Provincial military regions still maintain the two NDM working offices as mentioned above, and are no longer subjugated to theater commands (previously military regions) (Sina, November 22, 2016; NetEase, December 8, 2022). (The only exceptions to this are the Beijing Garrison, Xinjiang, and Tibet, which are subject to ground forces.) The elevation of the PLA’s NDM leadership from general departments and military regions up to the CMC—which answers directly to Xi Jinping—reinforces the CMC’s leadership on NDM. The PLA’s role in providing guidance to civilian bureaucracies on ND projects is likely to be strengthened, since the military is the beneficiary of these projects.

The revisions to the NDL, the passage of the NDTA, and the transfer of administrative work from provincial military regions to local governments have not made the State Council the highest authority on NDM. They substantiate the State Council’s administrative role in leading civilian bureaucracies to faithfully execute projects to meet the military’s needs. This is further confirmed by the revision to the extant Organic Law of the State Council in the annual meeting of the NPC on March 5 this year. Article 15 now states that the State Council “exercises unified leadership over the work of local state administrative organs at all levels nationwide” (PLA Daily, March 12; PLA Daily March 6). Local governments are also local state administrative organizations. However, it is the military which will guide and perhaps oversee the planning, coordination, and implementation of NDM work performed by the civilian bureaucracies (PLA Daily, February 24, 2023; The People’s Forum, October 18, 2023). In other words, successful administration of NDM by civilian bureaucracies requires close cooperation with the military to understand the latter’s needs. The CMC acts as a primary contact for the State Council, and provincial military regions for provincial governments. Civilian bureaucracies are therefore functioning as the working institutions of the CMC and the PLA. They may also provide recommendations, as they have more expertise on the national economic situation and technological development.


The ongoing reforms substantiate civilian bureaucracies’ duties, remove the military’s administrative responsibilities, and strengthen the PLA’s role in providing guidance for national defense development. A clear division of labor along the lines of different sectors’ capacities and functionalities is a step toward professionalizing the PLA. With civilian bureaucratic efforts dedicated to ND development, improvements on NDM projects are likely. While Xi Jinping’s personalized and concentrated power provides top-level leadership to both the PLA and civilian bureaucracies, the functions of the state and military bureaucracies have become more institutionalized. Further refinement is a possibility, as reforms are not yet complete (NPC, October 23, 2021). Revisions to and passage of NDM-relevant laws, transfer of administrative work from provincial military regions to local governments, and institutional changes to the PLA organization are simply the first moves of many. Continued observation is thus necessary to draw accurate conclusions about the new pattern of civil-military relations and their effects on the PLA’s combat capabilities.


[1] Xu Zhanghui, “guofang dongyuan zuzhi jigou jianshe yao jinkuai shixian  wuge zhuanbian,” National Defense, No. 1, 2003, pp. 28-29; Qi Zhangsheng and Zhang Jianlong, 2010; Liu Guojing, “woguo guofang dongyuan tizhi wenti tantao.” Military Economics Research (MER), No. 3, 2012, pp. 30-31; Du Jiahao, “anzhao neng dazhang zhiyuan baozhang dashengzhang yaoqiu  diaozheng jiaqiang guofang dongyuan tizhi jizhi jianshe,” National Defense, No. 1, 2014, pp. 9-12; Kou Zhanying & Shi Lihui, “shenru guanche junmin ronghe fazhan zhanlue jianquan wanshan guofang dongyuan lingdao zhihui tizhi,” National Defense, No.10, 2015, pp. 38-40; Su Wei and Fan Kaixue, “jiaqiang yanhai chengshi renmin fangkong nengli jianshe qianxi,” National Defense, No. 5, 2016, pp. 64-65.

[2] Fu Dalin, “guowuyuan yu zhongyang junwei guofang junshi quan de huafen,” Law Science, No. 9, 2015, pp. 16-25.

[3] Fu Dalin, “guofang dongyuan tizhi de queli yu fazhan,” Journal of Xi’an Politics Institute, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2010, pp. 82-84.

[4] Weijie Luo & Shikun Qin, “China’s Local Political Turnover in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Chinese Political Science, 26, 2021, pp. 651–674; Zhou Qiyao and Zeng Jiangnan, “Promotion Incentives, GDP Manipulation and Economic Growth in China: How Does Sub-National Officials Behave When They Have Performance Pressure?,” 19 October 2018,

[5] Yu Wending and Jin Ou, “dangqian guofang dongyuan jigou mianlin de zhuyao wenti yu duice,” National Defense, No. 1, 2003, pp. 30-31; Qi Zhangsheng and Zhang Jianlong, 2010; Liu Guojing, “woguo guofang dongyuan tizhi wenti tantao,” MER No. 3, 2012, pp. 30-31; Li Wutian, “wanshan guofang dongyuan tizhi ying shixian sige zhuanbian,” National Defense, No. 5, 2004, pp. 35-37.

[6] Li Yuanxing, Mei Qianghua, and He Guoben, “guofang jiaotong junmin ronghe fazhan tizhi jizhi de jianshe,” Journal of Military Transportation University (JMTU), Vol. 17, No. 8, 2015, pp. 26-30.

[7] Xu Zhanghui, 2003; Yan Feng, “weirao pojie maodun wenti gaige guofang dongyuan jigou,” National DefenSe, No. 2015, pp. 15-16; Wang Zuosen, “jiaqiang guomin jingji dongyuan jianshe wenti yanjiu,” National Defense, No. 9, 2018, pp. 36-38.

[8] Wang Jingtao, Hai Jun, and Xu Yuexian, “yiju guofang jiaotong fa tuijin xinshiqi guofang jiaotong jianshe fazhan,” JMTU, Vol. 19, No. 9, 2017, pp. 1-5.

[9] Chang Chunwei, Li Suiru, and Zhang Yanping, “jiaotong jianshe guanche guofang yaoqiu cunzai de wenti yu duice,” JMTU, Vol. 18, No. 12, 2016, pp. 9-13; Hubeisheng jiaotong zhanbei bangongshi, 2017; Yu Chao, “zai shenhua junmin ronghe zhong tisheng lianhe tousong nengli,” National Defense, No. 3, 2019, pp. 37-41.

[10] Lin Chuming, “guofang dongyuan weiyuanhui jianshe shang cunzai de wenti yu duice,” National Defense, No. 11, 1999, 8-9; State Council, National Defense Mobilization Act, 2010,; Fu Dalin, 2010, 84; State Council, Regulations on National Defense Transport, 1995 and 2011,; Guojia Guofang Dongyuan Weiyuanhui Zonghebangongshi, “youguan guofang dongyuan weiyuanhui de zhiquan ji qi banshi jigou de zhize guiding,” National Defense, No. 5, 2011, 70-71; Zhou Jingjing, Li Zuxian, Liu Shitong, and Wang Kaiyong, “shengang diqu junmin yitihua jiaotong yunshu dongyuan tixi goujian,” JMTU, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2017, 15-9; Chen Yongjiang, “jiaqiang guofang dongyuan tizhi jianshe xu jiejuehao de jige wenti,” National Defense, No. 3, 2005, 45-6; Hu Shaoping, “shenhua guofang dongyuan zhuanxing jianshe sikao,” National Defense, No. 11, 2015, 38-42;Yu Wending and Jin Ou, “dangqian guofang dongyuan jigou mianlin de zhuyao wenti yu duice,” National Defense, No. 1, 2003, 30-1; Qi Zhangsheng and Zhang Jianlong, “guodongwei banshijigou shezhi cunzai de zhuyao wenti ji duice jianyi,” National Defense, No. 1, 2010, 34; also see note 1.

[11] Yu Wending and Jin Ou, “dangqian guofang dongyuan jigou mianlin de zhuyao wenti yu duice,” National Defense, No. 1, 2003, pp. 30-31; Yan Feng, “weirao pojie maodun wenti gaige guofang dongyuan jigou,” National Defense, No. 2015, pp. 15-16.