New Quality Combat Forces: More Than Meets The Eye

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 6

Xi Jinping at the plenary meeting of the delegation of the People's Liberation Army and the Armed Police Force at the Second Session of the Fourteenth National People's Congress (Source: Lianghui)

Executive Summary:

  • Conceptual framings from the military may be influencing how the CCP approaches its management of the economy.
  • The phrase “New Quality Combat Forces” predates the phrase “New Quality Productive Forces” by several years. Now they are being linked as mutually self-reinforcing constructs.
  • Both phrases refer to cutting-edge science and technology capabilities, enhancing efficiency through digitization, and cultivating and deploying highly trained talent in strategic sectors of the economy.
  • The phrase ties in to the PRC’s Military Civil Fusion Development Strategy and approach to “systems warfare,” whereby the CCP is increasingly dissolving the distinction between the military and the state.


Recent media reports erroneously suggest that “New Quality Combat Forces (新质战斗力)” (hereafter NQCF) is a new buzzword coming out of the Two Sessions (两会) meetings that wrapped up on March 11 (People’s Daily, March 4). [1] The South China Morning Post, for instance, writes about the phrase’s prevalence at the annual political event, and notes that Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong (王小洪) “was the first to use the phrase ‘new quality combat capacity’ during a nationwide meeting with the country’s provincial police chiefs in January” (SCMP, March 14). The phrase has newfound synergies with “New Productive Forces (新质生产力)”—the economic counterpart to NQCF—both of which relate to technological upgrading and integration. However, the origins of NQCF are much earlier. It seems likely that NQCF predates “New Productive Forces,” which suggests the possibility that conceptual framings emerging from the military complex within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could be informing emerging approaches to managing the economy.

An article in People’s Republic of China (PRC) state media Xinhua, begins as follows: “The term ‘New Quality Combat Forces’ is heard with increasing frequency. But what does it actually refer to? (新质战斗力这个词越来越被叫响,新质战斗力到底指的是什么?)” This article, published almost nine years ago in 2015, gives the precise definition that it is a “system combat capability based on information systems (基于信息系统的体系作战能力)” (Xinhua, November 29, 2015). This is a rather narrow definition. However, other articles from the last decade indicate that NQCF has been a reasonably stable concept throughout this period. [2]

A 2015 article appearing in Study Times, is titled “Reshaping the New-Quality Combat Force System to Deal with ‘Cyber War,’ (重塑新质作战力量体系应对 ‘网络战’)” (Study Times, June 15, 2015). It highlights how the PLA has been focusing on new warfighting domains that require technological capabilities. Specifically mentioned are the development of NQCF “for future combat, including those tailored for special operations, cyber operations, and electronic countermeasures.” A brief search of articles on the PLA Daily website returns no fewer than 52 referencing NQCF. These date back to 2019, but this is likely due to the website’s limited functionality. A citation in an academic paper by Dennis Blasko cites a PLA Daily article from October 2, 2017, headlined “New Quality Combat Force from the Army’s Air Assault Brigade.” [3] This suggests that there is likely a degree of earlier commentary on the subject. Moreover, a recent CCTV report notes that in 2019, President Xi pointed out at the Central Military Commission’s military work conference that it is “necessary to strengthen the construction of NQCF and increase the proportion of NQCF,” and that during his inspections of troops, he has “repeatedly spoken of the need to strengthen the construction of NQCF” (CCTV, March 11).

This year’s Two Sessions are not the first in which NQCF have been discussed. Six years ago, at a dialogue with group army chiefs, Political Commissar of the 81st Army Group Fang Yongxiang (方永祥) spoke about strengthening the army, arguing that “the increase in the proportion of NQCF are both a holistic reshaping of the Army’s mobile combat forces and a key step in building a strong, modern and new type of army” (Sohu, March 13, 2018). The following year, NPC Deputy Liu Jingju (刘京菊) was profiled in a PLA Daily article on “Relying on Science and Technology to Enhance New Quality Combat Power (依靠科技提升新质战斗力)” (, March 15, 2019). Liu, the head of a department at the National University of Defense Science and Technology, stated that she has been actively exploring the application of AI technology in the field of military equipment since as early as 2013. The article describes her research as largely focusing on “using new type equipment to directly serve NQCF (以新型装备居多,直接服务部队新质战斗力).” The piece finishes with an editorial flourish, insisting that “To win the future war and dominate the future battlefield, we need to rely on S&T to enhance the NQCF (需要依靠科技提升新质战斗力).”

The phrase has garnered a lot of attention over the last two weeks because of the prominence of the phrase “New Quality Productive Forces (新质生产力)” (sometimes translated as simply “New Productive Forces”) in both the government work report and the work report of the National Development and Reform Commission. “New Quality Productive Forces” appears to have first been used by President Xi Jinping last September during an inspection tour in the northern province of Heilongjiang (Xinhua, September 8, 2023). It has been fleshed out over the intervening months, including at the Central Economic Work Conference in December, in the first group study session held by the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee this year, and in particular during coverage of the Two Sessions (Xinhua, December 12, 2023; Xinhua, February 21). It refers to cutting-edge science and technology capabilities, enhancing efficiency through digitization, and cultivating and deploying the very best and most highly-trained talent in strategic sectors of the economy. Xi has emphasized that S&T innovation is a “key element,” and economists have argued variously that these new forces will raise total factor productivity and allow the country to pivot away from the PRC’s older, unsustainable development model (China News, March 5; Wechat, March 5; see also: Ginger River Review, March 6). Meanwhile, as an explainer on a Party media site makes clear, NQCF is predicated on six core advances: advanced S&T, new types of talent, new equipment, a new structural formation, a dimensional expansion, and dynamic evolution (, March 12). There is much overlap between these and the characteristics of the New Productive Forces in the economy.

NQCF and New Productive Forces are explicitly linked in Party discourse. A CCTV report puts them side by side: “The high-quality development of the economy and society requires the development of new-quality productive forces; the construction of a world-class army also requires the enhancement of new-quality combat capabilities” (CCTV, March 11). Other coverage directly links the two, including a Huaxia piece titled “Enabling ‘new quality combat power’ through ‘new quality productivity’ (以“新质生产力”赋能“新质战斗力”)” and a Qiushi article (Huaxia, March 15; Qiushi, March 10). Linking efficiencies and technological innovation in the economic domain with the same in the military domain is connected to the Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy (展军融合发战略; MCF). Much of the discussion on NQCF, both by Xi and in the surrounding commentary, echoes the language used to discuss MCF. For instance, in an important speech Xi made at the plenary meeting of PLA and Armed Police Force delegation, Xi announced that “we have coordinated the promotion of strategic emerging industries and the development of NQCF, and achieved a series of significant results … new quality productive forces (新质生产力) … promote the efficient integration and two-way pull of new productivity and new combat power (推动新质生产力同新质战斗力高效融合、双向拉动)” (People’s Daily, March 8). One piece goes so far as to suggest New Productive Forces are subordinate to NQCF: “Treat advanced technology as the new productive force and combat capability of national security organs (将先进科技作为国家安全机关新质生产力、战斗力)” (China Peace, March 14).

Links between both the high-tech economy and the military are deepening as part of a concerted effort to build the PLA into a force capable of waging fully-integrated, multidomain systems warfare (RAND, February 1, 2018). That the phrase “NQCF” appears to predate “New Productive Forces” could suggest that the linkages are bidirectional. Not only are advances in S&T being leveraged to support the military, but perhaps the military is also contributing to the shaping of general economic policy and strategy at the same time. There has been an increase in power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the government, especially in the shaping of policy. This is in part evidenced by the newly revised State Council Organic Law (国务院组织法) (NPC Observer, March 11). Xi Jinping, as Chairman of the Party-run Central Military Commission, oversees the PLA—a Party institution, not a civil one. The possibility of organizational concepts originating in the military before being transposed into the economic domain is at the very least a process of conceptual cross-pollination. It also suggests that the CCP, which supervenes both the military and the state, sees little difference between its approaches to each domain. Hence the drive to fuse the two and the drive to manage both in similar ways. The extent to which this can be corroborated, and the implications for any growing militarization of the PRC are therefore worthy of further research.


[1] The Two Sessions (两会) are the annual plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC; effectively the PRC’s parliament), and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC; a Party United Front organization).

[2] In a 2019 white paper, “Chinese National Defense in the New Era (新时代的中国国防),” a similar phrase was used. “New Quality Combat Capabilities (新质作战能力)” uses “作战” (literally “making war”) instead of “战斗” (literally “war and struggle”) and uses “能力” (literally “capability”) instead of “力” (literally “force”). This alternative formulation is highlighted as an “important emerging point,” but it is unclear whether it is intended to refer to the same concept as NQCF.

[3] Dennis J. Blasko (2021) The PLA army after ‘below the neck’ reforms: contributing to China’s joint warfighting, deterrence and MOOTW Posture, Journal of Strategic Studies, 44:2, 149-183.