Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on People’s Liberation Army (PLA; 人民解放军) officer cadet recruitment since the PLA reduced the number of officer academic institutions (院校) in 2017 to 34, as part of the eleventh Force Reduction that began in 2016. There had previously existed 63 such institutions since 1998. This article examines recruitment of non-aviation cadets with a focus on 2023 and 2024. The article does not discuss education or training once they assume their cadet billets. The second article will focus on recruitment for aviation cadets for the entire PLA. Part 2 will be published in Issue 22.
China’s military activity has increased significantly in recent times, leading to concerns that the likelihood of an attempt to take over Taiwan is increasing. Indeed, China’s President Xi Jinping told President Biden in San Francisco this week that reunification is “unstoppable (中国终将统一，也必然统一)” (Xinhua, November 16). Given the almost daily incursions of PLA aircraft over Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ROC Air Force, accessed November 16) and other posturing in the South China Sea (see China Brief, October 6), it is imperative to understand the makeup of China’s forces, in order to provide a clearer understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions.
In June 2023, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA; 人民解放军) announced the process for recruiting new officer cadets into 27 academic institutions for the upcoming class and identified three key issues:
- The number of recruitment directions has increased, and the professional fields suitable for the development of future wars have become more diverse.
- The number of professional categories has increased, and the integration of command and skills has been added to the command and technical categories.
- The number of students enrolled has increased, with an increase of more than 2,000 students as compared with last year, with the total number reaching 17,000 (Ministry of National Defense, June 15).
In 2017, the PLA reduced the number of officer academic institutions (院校) from 63, which had existed since 1998, to 34. This was done as part of the eleventh force reduction, which have occurred on an ad hoc basis since 1949.  This time, the PLA also ceased recruiting freshmen for the National Defense Student (NDS; 国防生) Program, which began in 1998 at 118 civilian universities.  As such, the entire program ceased to exist when the last class recruited in 2016 graduated in 2020. Direct recruitment of civilian college graduates with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees has replaced the NDS program as the main source of officers for the PLA. In 2022, the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) recruited 3,600 college graduates (China Military, March 13, 2022; Sohu, March 12, 2022). The PLA has also increased the number of high school graduates (普通高中毕业生) who become officer cadets (学员). Some outstanding enlisted force conscripts have also been allowed to become officer cadets.
New PLA officer cadets can generally be organized into two categories—non-aviation cadets and aviation cadets. This article covers non-aviation cadet recruitment.
Brief History 
Since 1956, the PLA has held 16 All-Army Academic Institution Conferences (全军院校会议), each of which have laid out important guidance for all academic institutions. Although the PLA reduced the number of institutions from 67 to 37 in 2017, the last conference was held in 2011 under then Central Military Commission (CMC; 中央军事委员会) Chairman Hu Jintao (胡锦涛). No conferences have been held under the current CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping (习近平). As can be seen in Table 1 below, the number of PLA academic institutions has fluctuated since 1950.
To frame the thinking behind these conferences, one PLA article from 2000 states the following:
“It is important to compare the ratio of our military officers’ educational levels during several different periods. Specifically, in the period between the founding of the Army (1927) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), there were many officers who were either illiterate or barely literate. In the late 1960s, 93.4 percent had lower than a high-school educational level. Before the Third Plenum of the 11th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (December 1978), this figure still stood at 91.9 percent. The first bachelor’s degree (本科) was implemented in 1982. The first non-commissioned officer (NCO; 士官) school (学校) was created in 1985. The situation underwent enormous change in the late 1980s, when 42.3 percent of officers had a college educational level (i.e., a three-year post-secondary (大专) or four-year bachelor’s degree) or above. In 2000, that figure had risen as high as 71.8 percent.” 
Today, all officer cadets apparently receive a bachelor’s degree.
Table 1: Number of PLA Academic Institutions from 1950-2017
Current Officer Academic Institutions
As of 2017, the PLA had 34 officer and 3 NCO academic institutions as shown in Table 2 below.  Officer academic institutions are classified as either universities (大学) or academies/colleges (学院). The list comes from an official PLA Ministry of National Defense (MND; 国防部) media report and lists them in protocol order by subordination (Xinhua, June 29, 2017). The table includes the official Chinese name, the official English name when found, official English acronym, subordination (PLAA/Army, PLAN/Navy, PLAAF/Air Force, PLARF/Rocket Force, and PLASSF/Strategic Support Force), grade,  and whether there is an official website—identified with a “Y” for yes and an “N” for none found, a “C” for Chinese and “E” for English. However, websites were only found for a few of the institutions. The final column shows the Ministry of Education (MOE; 教育部) codes assigned in 2017 (Zhihu, October 25, 2018). None of the current institutions are subordinate to any of the five Theater Commands (战区). This is in contrast to the earlier system, whereby several of the previous 67 institutions were subordinate to a Military Region (军区) command.
|#||English Name||Chinese Name||Acronym||Subord-ination||Grade||Web||MOE Code (2017)|
|1||National Defense University||国防大学||NDU||CMC||TCDL||N||91001|
|2||National University of Defense Technology||国防科技大学||NUDT||CL||Y I||91002|
|3||Army Command College||陆军指挥学院||PLAA||CDL||91003|
|4||Army Engineering University||陆军工程大学||N||91004|
|5||Army Infantry College||陆军步兵学院||N||91005|
|6||Army Academy of Armored Forces||陆军装甲兵学院||91006|
|7||Army Academy of Artillery & Air Defense||陆军炮兵防空兵学院||N||91007|
|8||Army Aviation Academy||陆军航空兵学院||91008|
|9||Army Special Operations Academy ||陆军特种作战学院||91009|
|10||Army Academy of Border and Coastal Defence||陆军边海防学院||91010|
|11||Army Institute of NBC Defence||陆军防化学院||91011|
|12||Army Medical University||陆军军医大学（第三军医大学）||TMMU||Y (C)||91012|
|13||Army Logistic University||陆军勤务学院||91014|
|14||Army Military Transportation University||陆军军事交通学院||91013|
|15||Naval Command College||海军指挥学院||NCC||PLAN||N||91015|
|16||Naval University of Engineering||海军工程大学||NUE||C||91016|
|17||Dalian Naval Academy||海军大连舰艇学院||N||91017|
|18||Navy Submarine Academy||海军潜艇学院||N||91018|
|19||Naval Aviation University||海军航空大学||N||91019|
|20||Naval Medical University||海军军医大学（第二军医大学）||SMMU||C||91020|
|21||Naval Service Academy||海军勤务学院||91021|
|22||Naval NCO School||海军士官学校||DL||91022|
|23||Air Force Command College||空军指挥学院||AFCC||PLAAF||CDL||91023|
|24||Air Force Engineering University||空军工程大学||AFEU||C||91024|
|25||Air Force Aviation University||空军航空大学||AUAF||N||91025|
|26||Air Force Early Warning Academy||空军预警学院||N||91026|
|27||Air Force Harbin Flight Academy||空军哈尔滨飞行学院||N||91027|
|28||Air Force Shijiazhuang Flight Academy||空军石家庄飞行学院||N||91028|
|29||Air Force Xi’an Flight Academy||空军西安飞行学院||N||91029|
|30||Air Force Medical University||空军军医大学（第四军医大学）||AFMU; FMMU||C/E||91030|
|31||Air Force Logistics College||空军勤务学院||N||91031|
|32||Air Force Communication NCO Academy||空军通信士官学校||DL||N||91032|
|33||Rocket Force Command College||火箭军指挥学院||PLARF||CDL||91033|
|34||Rocket Force University of Engineering||火箭军工程大学||EPGC||C||91034|
|35||Rocket Force NCO School||火箭军士官学校||DL||91035|
|36||Strategic Support Force Space Engineering University||战略支援部队航天工程大学||PLASSF||CDL||N||91036|
|37||Strategic Support Force Information Engineering University||战略支援部队信息工程大学||PLAIEU||N||91037|
Not all 34 officer academic institutions have programs for new cadets. This is discussed in the gaokao section below.
Recruitment System and Process
Early each year, the MOE provides step-by-step guidance to all graduating high school students about registering and being selected to attend a civilian or military academic institution. The Central Government and the Military Training Bureau (军事训练局) of the CMC’s Training and Management Department (TMD; 军委训练管理部) oversee recruitment of all new officer cadets.  The education departments and committees of all provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the Central Government as well as the Military Training Bureau (军事训练局) of the CMC’s Training and Management Department (TMD; 军委训练管理部) oversee the process within their jurisdictions (CHSI, June 12). For example, in June 2019, the department announced its 2019 enlistment plan for enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and fresh high school graduates to become pre-commissioned officers at various military academies (China Military, June 18, 2019). The 2019 enlistment plan (招生计划) optimized the gender ratio and focused on the needs of professional training, aligning with the reform of the National College Entrance Examination (CEE; also known as the gaokao, 高考). The admission test for conscript candidates was hosted in parallel with the CEE for students graduating high school. Selected candidates were scheduled to take additional political examinations, interviews, and physical examinations before the final decision. Exam results were posted on the official website of China Military (中国军网; www.81.cn) in early July and admissions were completed in August, in time for the start of the academic year. The enlistment plan was announced through public information platforms, and promotional events were jointly hosted by institutions of higher education and military commands at various levels.
As shown in Table 2, each academic institution is subordinate to the CMC or one of the services or forces. As such, each of the four services (PLAA, PLAN, PLAAF, and PLARF) has a Staff Department (参谋部) with a subordinate Training Bureau (训练局) that is responsible for managing the recruitment of that service’s new cadets.  It is not clear if the PLASSF, which is a force and not a service, has a Training Bureau under its Staff Department, but this is most likely the case.
PLA Non-Aviation Cadet Recruitment Process
Admission to PLA academies generally follows the same process as for all other civilian universities, except that students need to go through interviews, a political evaluation, and a military physical examination. The chart below demonstrates the timeline for the overall process to get admitted by military institutions (MOD, June 15).
Three major changes were made for the recruitment process in 2023. First, a more diverse range of majors were opened to new cadets, with fields that are designed for future warfare. Second, on top of the command majors (指挥类) and technical majors (技术类), an integrated command-technical major (指技融合类) has been introduced. Third, military institutions have recruited 2,000 more students than last year, bringing the total to 17,000.
Gaokao (高考) Score Requirements
The gaokao examinations are a key part of the admissions process for those entering PLA institutions. These exams are typically held annually on June 7–10, with results released on June 25.  Around the time that the gaokao ends, military institutions announce their recruitment plans, in which they specify the gender quotas allocated to each locality. The gender ratio is nearly 18:1 for male and female students. The mechanism for setting quotas is not public, but factors such as population size, education quality, and students’ historical performance may affect how many students are admitted to each institution.
There is some variation between who can apply to which institutions. For instance, only the National University of Defense Technology admits students from all 31 regions, and only male students from Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, and Shandong provinces have opportunities to apply for all 23 military institutions. There is also variation in the minimum admission scores for each university. This is mainly due to different educational attainment levels in different regions. Minimum scores also vary by major. For example, in Hubei Province in 2023, minimum scores for students admitted to first batch Chinese universities, referred as “985” universities (Wikipedia, accessed November 7), were in the range of 564–693 (out of a maximum of 750). By comparison, the range for military institutions was 559–664 (GK100, September 13; TTJM, July 3). These data indicate that Chinese military universities have relatively high standards for selecting new cadets.
After receiving their gaokao scores, students fill in school selection forms, noting their desired universities and majors (See Appendix II for a sample form; Gaokao Online, July 17, 2020). Applicants normally list the military academic institutions first, followed by the civilian institutions. They are only approved by one institution, such that if the first institution does not accept them, their request is forwarded to the next one on their list. The process continues down the list until they are finally accepted. Students are unaware of the minimum scores for the current year, as the lines are drawn only after universities have received all applications. As such, they usually refer to the previous year’s data to estimate the competitiveness of their intended schools.
The admission process for Chinese universities occurs in four batches (批次). These are the early admission batch (提前批), the first batch undergraduate universities (本科一批), the second batch undergraduate universities (本科二批), and the third batch junior colleges (专科批次). Usually, the minimum scores are in descending order from the first to third batches. Students will be admitted by the first university on their lists whose minimum admission requirements are satisfied by their gaokao scores. Military institutions are among the early admission batch along with police academies, normal universities, sports and art institutions, and schools with special requirements. Students can generally choose one school as their first choice and two schools as their second choice for the early admission batch.
Accepted students then attend interviews and take physical examinations at their chosen institutions. The interview is designed to evaluate six aspects: motivations for attending military institutions; communication skills; physical appearance and demeanor; psychological traits; logical thinking ability; and speed of responses. Sample questions include “Why do you want to apply for military institutions?” “What is your opinion on a military career?” “Does your family support your decision?” and “Are you prepared for a tough journey in the military?” Approximately 80 percent of students satisfy all six criteria and progress to the physical examination (xjdkctz.com, September 7). For the political review, candidates complete a political assessment form that is reviewed by the People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) to determine their political and ideological performance. Their family background is also checked for any history of political crimes. Physical requirements are based on the 2023 version of the CMC’s “Physical Examination Standards for the Military Selection of Officers and Civilian Personnel” (军队选拔军官和文职人员体检标准),” and cover eyesight, height, and BMI for men and women (Ministry of Defense, June 15). If a student successfully completes the interview, physical examination, and political evaluation, they then receive an admission notification from that military institution. If not, they will then have a chance to get admitted to schools in subsequent batches.
High school students can only apply to 23 of the PLA’s 34 officer academic institutions through the gaokao system (Ministry of Defense, June 15). Specifically, these institutions are subordinate to the following organizations: CMC (1), PLAA (10), PLAN (5), PLAAF (4), PLARF (1), and PLASSF (2). It appears that the institutions not included are NDU, the three PLAAF flight academies (which educate and train graduates from the Air Force Aviation University), and the four service Command Colleges. It is not clear why the Command Colleges are not involved, since they do have some undergraduate cadets who graduate and become staff officers in the Staff Department.
Recruitment Data for 2023
The PLA has been quite open about the number of high school graduates who have been recruited into each of its academic institutions since 2017, as can be seen in Appendix 1. A small selection of the data is also presented in Table 3 below, though readers are encouraged to look at the full tabulation appended at the end. Although it appears that each locality most likely has an annual quota (招生名额), no specific information could be found to confirm this. In addition, there are likely additional quotas based on ethnicity and gender, but this could also not be confirmed.
Table 3: High School Graduate Recruits by Institution for 2023 (a selection)
|Sex||National University of Defense Technology||Air Force Engineering University||Army Academy of Border and Coastal Defense||[20 additional institutions]||Total|
Outstanding Enlisted Conscripts as Officer Cadets
Besides recruiting high school graduates as officer cadets, the PLA also recruits outstanding enlisted conscripts and some NCOs as officer cadets (生长干部) (Wangyi, July 7). Outstanding conscripts with a high school degree or an incomplete college degree can apply to officer military academic institutions by participating in the all-military undergraduate admissions examination (Qin Chu Online, July 22, 2017). This is the same exam civilians take to attend officer academic institutions, or current enlisted personnel to enter the targeted NCO program in civilian polytechnic and vocational colleges.  The exam consists of five subjects: Chinese culture and history, mathematics, military and political knowledge, scientific knowledge, and English. The total score is 750 points. In June 2022, the exam was held at 158 centers in 91 cities across China (PLA Daily, June 2, 2022). A total of 54,000 enlisted soldiers took the exam. No information was found about acceptance rates. Enlisted personnel with at least two years of college education selected to attend an officer academic institution are only required to attend the institution for two years (学制两年) (Ministry of Education, July 30, 2020).
The PLA abolished the National Defense Student program in May 2017 and replaced it with direct recruitment of civilian college and university graduates with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. It is not clear if the new program will succeed, so there may be more changes down the road for this system.
 The People’s Armed Police (PAP; 中国人民武装警察部队) has also had academic institutions, though these are beyond the scope of this article.
 The National Defense Student (国防生) Program was a rough equivalent to the US military Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).
 Kenneth W. Allen and Mingzhi Chen, The People’s Liberation Army’s 37 Academic Institutions; Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2020. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/CASI/Display/Article/2216778/the-peoples-liberation-armys-academic-institutions/.
 Bi Yongjun, “Master’s and Doctoral degrees — Development Trend in Military Officers Contingent,” China Military Online, 11 December 2000, 1.
 Every organization is assigned one of 15 grades from platoon leader to CMC vice chairman. These also include Theater Command Deputy Leader (TCDL), Corps Leader (CL), Corps Deputy Leader (CDL), and Division Leader (DL). See: “China Announces Reform to Military Ranks,” China Brief, January 30, 2017.
 See 
 In 2017, the Air Force’s Airborne Troop College and the Navy’s Marine Corps College were abolished and became training bases. Since then, Airborne and Marine cadets have received their education and training at the Army Special Operations Academy.
 The Training and Administration English language website is located at http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/CMC/Departments/TrainingandAdministrationDepartment/index.html. The Chinese website is located at http://www.mod.gov.cn/gfbw/qwfb/jwxlglb/index.html.
 United States Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, Directory of PRC Military Personalities, Washington DC, 2022.
 By law, no males in the PLA can get married until they are 25, and no females until they are 23.
 For more general information about the gaokao, see: Xjtlu, June 7, 2019. For essay questions for all years 1977–2019, see: Beijing Qianlong, July 7, 2020
 However, while officer and NCO candidates sit the exam together, it appears that they take different versions of the exam.