One Step Forward, One Step Back for PLA Military Education

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 7

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s sweeping reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2016 was meant to shake up ossified bureaucracies, boost operational jointness and technical ability, and refocus the PLA on its mission to “fight and win wars” (China Brief, January 12). It is thus unsurprising that military academies and schools in China have seen significant reorganization since the initiation of the 2016 reforms, with some changes modeled on the training systems used in the United States and Taiwan. While some progress has been made towards desired outcomes, including combatting entrenched corruption within the PLA officer corps, significant obstacles remain, particularly in building cooperation across branches within services, and promoting the civil-military cooperation necessary for an effective civilian office reserve corps.

Before and After the Reforms

Prior to the 2016 reforms, PLA military education was jointly controlled by each of the four general departments of the Central Military Commission (CMC). In the 2016 military reforms, the four general departments of the CMC were re-organized and transformed into 15 functional departments and organs. (Xinhuanet ,Dec.18, 2017). After the disbandment of the four general departments in the 2016 military reforms, all military academies and schools have been placed under the joint control of the CMC Training and Administration Department (CMCTAD), and the appropriate service branch (TAKUN, July 29, 2017).

According to open source information, there were a total of 67 military academies and schools in China before the military reforms, with 15 attached to the People’s Armed Police (PAP) alone. With the new military structure in place, the number has now dropped to 43, which were made public by China’s Ministry of National Defense in June 2017 (Xinhuanet, June.30, 2017). They include two schools directly subordinate to the CMC, namely the National Defense University (NDU) and National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), 35 under the control of the services and service branches, and six belonging to the People’s Armed Police (PAP).

The re-organization of military academies and schools was not meant to eliminate any of them; rather, many were re-organized as branches of larger existing universities, with the goal of streamlining and facilitating policy coordination. The most noticeable example is the two universities directly subordinate to the CMC, the NDU and the NUDT, which absorbed, respectively, seven and five formerly separate military academies following the re-organization (People Daily, March.23).

The Objectives of Reform

The consolidation of military academies and schools had a number of objectives, which we might divide into practical, political, and professional.

At a very practical level, one of the goals of the reorganization was to slash redundant bureaucracy and reduce costs. This, however, had the important political side effect of reducing the number of positions available for generals. One of the most important considerations for CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping in his reorganization of the military was breaking the systems that tended to breed corruption. Before the consolidation, most of the academies and schools were headed by major generals, who generally had significant resources at their disposal, and were thus prone to corruption. One example was former NDU President General Wang Xibin, one of the generals removed from power in CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign (China Military, Feb 24, 2017).

A professional goal of military academy and school reform was to build links between military academies and individual PLA services. The newly established PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), for example, was assigned two new military academies: the Aerospace Engineering University, which grew out of the Armament College of under the former General Armaments Department, and the Strategic Support Force Information Engineering University, which merged the PLA Information Engineering University with the PLA College of Foreign Languages., both of which were under the former General Staff Department (China Military, Jun 13, 2017).

Building links between the services and military schools is part and parcel of the guiding principles behind this round of military reforms, which place the CMC in charge of managing the PLA, theater commands in charge of operations, and the individual services in charge of training and equipping troops, or “build-up”, in the jargon of the PLA. This build-up directly charges services with personnel development. In this respect it differs from other militaries such as Taiwan’s, an indication that the PLA may be short of highly competent personnel. Particularly lacking are officers of major and lieutenant colonel rank and below who understand joint operations, an issue that has cropped up repeatedly in military exercises during recent years (China Military, Mar 20, 2017).

The Limits of Jointness

One of the greatest challenges for the PLA post-reform is the ability of its generals to understand and apply the concept of joint operations. The PLA itself is aware of the issue; its publications frequently speak of the PLA’s lack of high-ranking staff officers, particularly in group armies and in theater command joint command centers (China Military, May 5, 2016). The problem is particularly pressing at the moment, since the PLA command and staff officers assigned to the newly created theater commands and joint command centers are drawn from the PLA’s army, navy, air force, and rocket force, and may find it difficult to move past their pre-existing “service-centered” mindsets.

Before the military reforms, each service had sought help from technology experts to overcome technical barriers hindering inter-service cooperation. But different services still have different command structures and planning processes, making it difficult to execute joint command. The new theater command joint operations are likely to reveal previously hidden coordination problems, problems that go beyond culture, service jargon, and mapping practices to more fundamental issues of personal habits and ways of thinking that cannot be easily changed through structural reforms. (China Military, Jan 12, 2017)

Although the reorganization of PLA military academies and schools is designed, in part, to help address some of these training issues, there are important structural limitations that may limit the ability of these schools to change entrenched cultures. The PLA’s model differs from that used by the US and Taiwan, in which army, navy, and air force academies do not train and educate cadets in ways that prepare them to serve as members of any specific service branch upon graduation. In the PLA, cadets choose their service branch before being admitted to military academies. In other words, high school graduates who want to become surface ship officers will choose to study at Dalian Naval Academy, while those who wish to serve on submarines will opt to study at PLA Navy Submarine Academy in Qingdao, Shandong Province. Cadets at the two schools will have limited exchange opportunities during their four-year undergraduate studies. Similar problems have been found with the PLAA’s Infantry Academy, Armored Academy, and Artillery Air Defense Corps Academy, all of which independently recruit cadets from high school, and do not cooperate on joint training for cadets (Gaokao, March, 22, 2016).

This speaks to the depth of the training gulf separating service branches, even within individual PLA services. Officers serving in different branches of a service might never have chances to meet each other, let alone their counterparts in other services. The PLA is attempting to solve the problem through training provided by the NDU, but the PLA’s sheer size means it may take a period of many years before the effects become noticeable in training exercises (Xinhuanet, July 10, 2017).

The End of the Reserves

The PLA has also failed to institute reserve programs of the kind used in Taiwan and the US. China scrapped the “national defense student” program, or the “reserve officer” program, in 2017,saying it had not achieved its expected results. (China Military, May 26, 2017). The reasons show the enormous distance the PLA must still travel to institute military education programs of the sort that are commonplace elsewhere.

The main reason for the program to be cancelled was reserve officers’ failure to integrate themselves into the military, indicating the wide gap that still exists between the PLA and the civil sector. Officers graduating from military academies and those not from the system are treated differently, making it difficult for reserve officers to integrate themselves into combat units. They were, generally speaking, not well liked within their units. Those who graduated from universities in big cities did not have sufficient military training before becoming officers, nor did they go through the baptism of barracks life prior to formal military service. Some reserve officers, after reporting to their units, found their jobs had nothing to do with their prior studies. Over time, reserve officers thus became a source of headaches within the military (Initium Media, Sep,23, 2016).

By contrast, officers promoted from within the regular ranks tend to be more popular, since they are more likely to rise in the ranks (and pull subordinates with them), and more familiar with military culture. This also makes them more likely to be too close to their subordinates, and more likely to develop problems like cheating and corruption (China Military, May 22, 2017).


The PLA’s recent reorganization is merely the first step towards promoting a more joint force. Although the PLA and its political leadership are both aware of the vast gulf separating PLA training from global best practices, entrenched institutional cultures and the sheer size of the force both mitigate against change. Redrawing lines on an organizational chart was challenging enough, but for the PLA, the real hard work of embracing jointness has barely begun. Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Assistant Professor at Institute of Strategic and International Affairs National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi Taiwan. He received his Ph.D from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University. His research interests include the PLA and cyber security.