ROTC with Chinese Characteristics: Training the PLA in Civilian Universities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 6

China is nearly a decade into a program to commission up to half of the new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers from its finest universities. In the near-term, this initiative will take advantage of civilian institutions of higher education to train large numbers of technologically proficient military leaders better able to function on the high-tech battlefields of the 21st century. Over the longer term, relying on civilian education may well increase the level of PLA officers’ professionalism and potentially even alter the dynamic of elite interaction in the formulation of Chinese security policy. The pace of growth and the future impact of the program will shed important light on the quality of PLA leaders, while also contributing to an enhanced understanding of overall PLA military modernization programs.

Program Origins

In early 1999, the PLA leadership came to the realization that its military education system was ill-prepared to groom officers with the technical expertise necessary to master the demands of high-technology warfare. The existing military academy structure, styled after the old Soviet system, maintained more than 100 academies—many redundant—and kept nearly a quarter of the PLA’s force structure tied up in military schools. Moreover, the sheer size of the PLA military-academic complex prevented the capital upgrades in computers and other equipment necessary for systematically training cadets to address looming technological challenges.

In response, the Chinese leadership undertook two important efforts. The first was to downsize the bloated PLA military academy organization by one-third, either by closing redundant academies outright, or by consolidating campuses on a functional or geographical basis [1]. By 2006, the PLA had just 67 military academies, including both commissioning academies as well as basic military specialty schools (Defense White Paper: China’s National Defense in 2006).

In a second, and perhaps more far-reaching initiative, the PLA also decided to “take advantage of the civilian education system” (yituo guomin jiaoyu) to commission military officers for service in China’s military—a PLA-style Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

PLA officers had attended civilian universities in China since as early as 1991 (Jiefangjun Bao, April 2, 1999). Indeed, from 1996 to 1999 in the Beijing Military Region alone, more than one thousand officers were drawn from civilian universities, usually with majors in computers, engineering, electronics and other technical fields, and also in foreign language (Jiefangjun Bao, June 16, 1999). Nonetheless, in early 1999, China’s military leadership decided to turn the previous ad hoc practices into a more systematic arrangement, and in the process, fundamentally changed the way in which junior officers are recruited for the PLA. Employing a name for the plan quite similar to the U.S. program from which it drew its core characteristics, the PLA Reserve Officer Selection and Training Unit (houbei junguan xuanba xunlian tuan) was conceived [2]. The Reserve Officer Selection and Training Unit would serve to commission a portion of the officer corps from dynamic civilian universities in order to establish a leading edge capability that would result in important army-wide effects.

The initiative was launched from experimental status into a full-fledged PLA program by China’s Central Military Commission in March 1999. At the “All-PLA Cadre Training Work Meeting” in March 1999, orders were passed to the major PLA danwei (units) to establish feeder relationships with prominent Chinese universities, with the goal of improving the educational level of the Chinese officer corps and better preparing them for the requirements of 21st century warfare (Jiefangjun Bao, April 2, 1999).

In the months that followed, the “big 14 units”—the General Staff, General Political, General Logistics, General Armaments Departments; the seven Military Region Headquarters; the PLA Air Force, PLA Navy, and Second Artillery plus the People’s Armed Police—all established exclusive relationships with civilian universities to carry out this mandate. Examples included: Fudan University with the People’s Armed Police; Beijing Polytechnic and the General Staff Department; and Wuhan University in partnership with the Guangzhou Military Region, among others. Meanwhile, the elite Beijing and Qinghua University programs continued their direct reporting relationships with the General Political Department’s Cadre Department, the program’s bureaucratic patron.

Program Characteristics

From the outset, program implementation has incorporated all phases of officer accession. Cadets are recruited from the ranks of active duty soldiers, high school seniors and already-matriculated college or graduate school students and selection is made on the basis of an application, a physical exam and, importantly, a political reliability check (Guofang Bao, December 8, 1999). These “national defense scholars” (guofang sheng) then obligate themselves, after completion of their studies, to serve with the PLA unit which recruited them. In return, they receive scholarship assistance of 5,000-10,000 yuan per year.

While enrolled, the cadets have a military curriculum at their civilian universities in addition to their normal academic load. Military classes are taught by active duty officers assigned to the various university campuses, and while the curriculum notably includes political training, the cadets receive much less instruction in this category than their counterparts at military academies. In addition to their military education classes, the cadets also take part in other required cadet functions, such as providing support to the broader national defense education activities required of all university students (Jiefangjun Bao, November 19, 2003).

Upon graduation, officers serve in the units that sponsored them. This usually means that the officers will be assigned to the general department or military region headquarters units (Jiefangjun Bao, October 9, 2000). So, for example, a cadet who studies at Beijing Polytechnic University will, upon graduation, work at the headquarters of the General Staff Department.

The PLA Air Force and Navy intend to assign ROTC graduates on a nationwide basis. Army officers have also gained coveted assignments to troop units, and besides being assigned to technical staff positions, some ROTC graduates are moving into leadership or command positions. According to Chinese observers, entry into platoon and company level leadership positions by civilian university graduates has led to increases in training levels (Jiefangjun Bao, June 16, 1999).

ROTC Today

Despite its modest beginnings, the Chinese ROTC system has developed in ways that were unlikely to have been imagined by the Political Department cadres who had first conceived of it. From the original dozen-plus civilian universities in 1999 with exclusive relationships with PLA units, the total number of ROTC programs on Chinese university campuses had grown more than six-fold in seven years; by the time of the release of the 2006 Defense White Paper, 112 universities were commissioning officers for the PLA (China’s National Defense in 2006) [3].

According to PLA statistics, the program appears to have become an important, if not leading, source of new officers for the PLA. From 2000-2005, more than 8,800 students were enrolled in the program, and in 2004 alone, 1,800 graduates of civilian universities joined military units (Jiefangjun Bao, July 14, 2004).

Extrapolating from the published plans of the PLA Navy and the Shenyang Military Region to the larger PLA suggests that the number of officers graduating from civilian universities will grow several more times, perhaps to as many as 10,000 officers a year by 2010, or between 40-50 percent of the new officers commissioned annually [4]. Interestingly, this estimate is consistent with a PLA Navy announcement that more than 40 percent of its officers will come from civilian schools by 2010 (Xinhua, August 17, 1999).

Calculations and Implications

The PLA was determined to implement a civilian university commissioning program for a number of reasons despite the fact that its sheer size made the fundamental reform of China’s military academy system a daunting challenge. It was unclear to PLA leaders that the existing system could ever produce the quality of officers required to fight wars under modern high-tech conditions at the price the PLA was willing to pay. Establishing an ROTC program allowed for military leaders to ensure excellent academic training for its rising officers, but at a modest cost and without significant capital investments. Moreover, despite the reduced political training received by cadets relative to their military academy counterparts, the establishment of a formal program had the added benefit of providing more political control in universities than had previously been the case.

It is perhaps premature to assess the long-term impact of the program, since the first cadets only graduated in 2004. Nonetheless, as these new graduates will soon assume company-level command, some preliminary judgments appear to be in order. First, the programs’ rate of growth and the diverse fields into which graduates are assigned, including leadership and command slots, suggest that the initiative has moved from the novel into the mainstream and will continue to grow in significance over time.

Second, with as many as 50 percent of its new officers commissioned by civilian universities within the next five years, the PLA almost certainly will enjoy a more highly technologically adept junior officer corps. This could result in an even greater integration of advanced weapons platforms and related command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems coming online. The PLA leadership recognizes that without talented personnel, its modernization efforts—including the assimilation of these new systems into coherent operational structures—will not be as effective, and so the ROTC program will help realize the dramatic capability improvements offered by these new systems.

Third, the significance of the PLA ROTC program goes well beyond simply the high-tech training of future officers and touches on national-level defense initiatives. The ROTC program itself is part of a broad national defense education effort—codified in the 2001 National Defense Education Law—to strengthen the concept of national defense in Chinese citizens by mastering national defense knowledge as well as necessary military skills, developing a patriotic spirit and creating a willingness to fulfill national defense duties in students from pre-school through college (Jiefangjun Bao, November 19, 2003). Moreover, the use of civilian universities to train military cadres—“taking advantage of civilian education to train military officers”—is a fundamental principle of the national defense mobilization effort, which seeks to build peacetime capacity in preparation for a range of crisis contingencies.

The program may have some unintended consequences, however. PLA leaders may mistakenly discount the liberalizing effect of a university education, even (or especially) in China, despite efforts to vet the political reliability of cadets in the recruitment process. Moreover, despite the potential benefits to the officer corps, the fact that the program assignments of graduates are heavily weighted to headquarters billets risks marginalizing the program’s potential benefit to an increased operational integration of high-tech systems.

Nonetheless, the program bears further attention. While many questions loom, two seem most critical: Will the PLA become a more effective military force as an increasing number of its officers graduate from China’s most prestigious universities? And, in the formulation of national security policy, how will the role of the PLA change as the once-backward educational background of senior military leaders increasingly converges with that of the country’s diplomatic and economic leaders? All these, and many other questions, bear close scrutiny as the PLA continues to implement its “ROTC Program with Chinese Characteristics”.


1. For instance, the Information Engineering University in Zhengzhou was formed from the original Information Engineering, Electronics Technical, and Measurements Academies, all of Zhengzhou, thereby creating a new “comprehensive” university (Jiefangjun Bao. July 3, 1999).

2. A PLA delegation led by Major General Dong Wancai was invited to the United States to conduct an “investigation” of the U.S. ROTC system in November and December 1998.

3. By comparison, the U.S. Army has more than 250 ROTC detachments.

4. From 2001 on, Shenyang Military Region intended to recruit approximately eight hundred graduates per year from civilian universities around China for military service. (Jiefangjun Bao, December 6, 2000) From 1999 on, the PLA Navy planned to access six hundred students in civilian universities for military service. Jiefangjun Bao, July 7, 1999.