“Serve in a Company” and “Switch Posts”: Mix of Old and New in Recent PLA Personnel Policies

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 4

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with senior members of the People's Liberation Army. (Credit: Xinhua)

On January 11, 2015, Xinhua reported that a directive issued by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Political Department (GPD) and endorsed by Central Military Commission chairman Xi Jinping ordered military and political officers to rotate posts at the grassroots level (jiceng) (Xinhua, January 11). In the PLA, “grassroots level” generally refers to subunits (fendui) at the battalion level and below. [1] Xinhua’s report stated that, as the GPD circular noted, the new policy is aimed at helping “train quality grassroots officers who excel as military and political officers in charge.” The new policy also applies to the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and is being implemented after a pilot program was carried out at the battalion and company level in 2014 (Beijing Youth Daily, January 11; Ministry of National Defense [MND], January 12). The grassroots position rotation policy follows a separate GPD directive from April 2013 requiring senior field-grade officers to conduct short tours as a first-year enlisted soldier in a grassroots-level position (Xinhua, April 21, 2013). Both policies come at a time when the PLA is looking to fulfill the goal of achieving the “strong army dream” in the Xi Jinping era, while at the same time facing old problems such as broad gaps in understanding between officers and grassroots soldiers. A mix of new and old grassroots personnel policies appear to target some of these problems while providing opportunities for the PLA’s political component under the GPD to shape the training of the next generation of PLA political and military leadership.

Historical Continuity: The “Serve in a Company” Campaign

Although some of the recently proposed policy changes are new, grassroots personnel policies have strong historical roots within the PLA and can be placed in the broader context of its development. PLA leadership emphasizes the importance of the grassroots level for two reasons. First, because most soldiers in grassroots units are not Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, political and ideological training of soldiers via Party grassroots organizations helps “ensure the Party’s absolute leadership over the military and earnestly grasp the military’s thinking, politics and organization [as well as] ensure the Party guidelines and policies [are] carried out and implemented among grassroots units” (PLA Daily, October 18, 2000). More recently, a “Military Grassroots Construction Outline” (jundui jiceng jianshe gangyao) released in February 2015 reiterated the importance of political thought work for grassroots troops (PLA Daily, February 4). Second, grassroots-level units are the ones largely carrying out military operations and, hence, are seen as the foundation upon which PLA combat power is based; a July 2014 PLA Daily article noted that “we must consistently do a good job in strengthening grassroots force building… and truly lay a strong and solid combat power groundwork for our armed forces as a whole” (PLA Daily, July 4, 2014).

Correspondingly, a series of policies have targeted both a better understanding of grassroots personnel’s needs and improvements to grassroots leadership training throughout the PLA’s history. A Party-run magazine called CCP History Extensive Reading (dangshi bolan) ran an article in December 2013 that traced the history of the “serve in a company” (xialian dangbing) concept back to two Party-wide directives that the PLA studied and implemented beginning in 1958, with subsequent official documents proclaiming that hundreds of thousands of cadres had participated, including hundreds of generals (Dangshi Bolan, September 13, 2013). According to the article, the “serve in a company” campaign requirements began to loosen in 1963 as the PLA was needed to participate in the “Four Cleanups” Movement (siqing yundong), and the campaign was eventually subsumed into the Cultural Revolution as it began to take off in 1966. More recently, the “serve in a company” campaign regulations were modified in 2007 and discussed at a convention in 2010 (People’s Daily, 2011). In this context, the revamp of the “serve in the company” campaign is not unexpected.

Based on PLA and other Chinese state media reports, the recent grassroots policies announcements are the result of directives released since Xi Jinping assumed the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in November 2012. The first major directive, titled the “Provision Regarding Organizing Leaders and Administrative and Functional Cadres at the Regiment Level and Above to Serve in the Company and Live in the Squad” (guanyu zuzhi tuan yishang lingdao he jiguan ganbu xialian dangbing, duanlian zhuban de guiding), was issued by the GPD in April 2013 (Xinhua, April 21, 2013). The “Provision” appears to require that officers at the regiment level or above serve in grassroots units in order to better connect high-level officers to grassroots soldiers, while potentially also providing opportunities for grassroots soldiers to learn about a senior officer’s perspective. [2]

The primary candidates for the program include commanding officers or administrative and functional cadres under the age of 55, cadres who do not have experience holding a post at the grassroots level as well as some administrative and functional cadres at the company level or below (Xinhua, April 21, 2013). This latter category could include certain junior-grade officers working in regimental-level headquarters or above, such as intelligence, armament or logistics specialists, whose specialties are not generally found at the grassroots levels—meaning that they did not have the opportunity to serve in grassroots leadership positions. For program participants, the term of “service” can last no fewer than 15 days and participants must serve again within a set number of years (see chart below). Presumably to minimize any exploitation of loopholes by reluctant units, the “Provision” also requires that at least one officer from a unit must participate in a given year or other timeframe (also see below). Officers who participate are also instructed to wear a private’s uniform (MND, January 12).

Minimum Participation Requirements for the “Provision” Service Campaign

Unit Grade

Individuals Must Participate

Units Must Send a Participant

Brigade

Once every 3 years

At least once per quarter

Division

Once every 4 years

At least once per half year

General HQ/MR

Once every 5 years

At least once a year

The Ministry of National Defense’s website reported that “more than 86,000 leaders and cadres above the regimental level, including 810 leaders above the combined corps [Group Army] level” had participated in the campaign by the end of 2014 (MND, January 12, 2014).

As the “Provision” service campaign was getting underway, Xi Jinping made a series of high-profile inspection tours to grassroots-level units in 2013 and 2014, including stops in Inner Mongolia and Kashgar (Xinjiang Autonomous Region) (MND, December 22, 2015). Most recently, Xi reiterated the importance of grassroots development during a visit to the Chengdu Military Region’s 14th Group Army and an unspecified PLA Second Artillery (PLASAF) base (possibly 53 Base, which is located in the Kunming area) from January 19 to 21, 2015 (Xinhua, January 22). [3]

Military media also began tying the new grassroots policies to broader military reform goals. For example, in December 2013 during a CCTV-7 “Military Report” (junshi baodao) series on a military-wide campaign for studying Xi Jinping’s remarks, a PLA reporter in uniform linked grassroots reform to broader policy objectives, stating that the “main part, center, [and] vitality” of realizing the “strong army goal” involves expanding construction at the grassroots level (December 17, 2013). [4] The importance of grassroots changes for developing a “strong army” was echoed later during the news clip by a researcher at the Academy of Military Science named Wang Xingsheng.

Post Rotations: A New Policy in a Party Army

The second major grassroots initiative in the Xi Jinping era is the post rotation program. Xinhua reported that during the 2014 pilot program, a brigade in the Beijing Military Region’s 27th Group Army tested switching political and military officers at the company level after they had held two years in office; battalion chiefs were also ordered to shift positions if they had not previously held the other role (Xinhua, April 16, 2013; Xinhua, January 11). The policy was sanctioned and later promulgated in January 2015 when the GPD issued a directive called the “Opinion Regarding Properly Enacting the Tempering Work of Switching the Posts of Grassroots Military and Political Officers in Charge” (“guanyu zuohao jiceng junzheng zhuguan huan gangwei duanlian gongzuo de yijian”) (MND, January 10). According to an article on the MND website, this is the first time there has been “an all-round and systematic deployment” that promotes military and political officers rotating posts within both the PLA and the PAP (MND, January 12).

Changes to grassroots-level military and political staffing are important because of the nature of the PLA’s dual political-military leadership structure, the roots of which go back to the early days of the Red Army during the Gutian Conference in 1929. [5] Unlike most militaries, the PLA also has a political track for officers in addition to a military/command track. This track is formalized with political officers placed in all units, beginning with political instructors (zhidao yuan) at the company level, political directors (jiaodao yuan) at the battalion level and political commissars (PCs or zhengzhi weiyuan) at the regimental level and above. [6] Besides the GPD, the General Logistics Department, General Armament Department, Navy, Air Force, Second Artillery and the seven military region headquarters each have a PC. [7] Each of these political leaders has a PC background.

Military/command and political track officers generally have varying roles at the different levels of command, but China’s 2002 Defense White Paper notes that both command track and political track officers “are the chief leaders of their units, assuming joint responsibility for all work in their units under the leadership of the Party committees (Party branches) at the same level.” [8] As Kenneth Allen, Brian Chao and Ryan Kinsella note in their March 4, 2013 China Brief article, political officers are responsible for organizing the daily work of the unit’s Party committee or branch and implementing its decisions (larger units have committees while smaller ones have branches),as well as political education, discipline among Party members and liaising with other facets of the political work system (see China Brief, March 4, 2013). [9] In the case of personnel promotions, the political officer, as the direct link to other Party units and committees, has the final say over his or her military counterpart. [10]

In this dual-command system, the post rotation policy is significant because it helps remove cultural distance between different groups within the PLA by allowing both command track and political track officers to better understand each other’s jobs. Through their rotations to political-track leadership positions, grassroots commanders gain a better understanding of grassroots political work, which is helpful as they move up the career ladder. From a top-down perspective, post rotations could double the number of leaders with experience with both political and military grassroots issues, possibly increasing the number of potential candidates for promotion to higher levels within the political commissar system. Likewise, the “serve in a company” program helps bring senior cadres, particularly those who have never interacted with enlisted soldiers, down to the grassroots level to understand the challenges faced by the “foundation” of the military’s combat power.

In conclusion, both personnel policies appear to address perceived gaps within the PLA’s personnel development today. The post rotation policy in particular could affect the early training of grassroots political and military officers and potentially forecasts changes to current personnel grooming procedures at the higher levels of the PLA. Although it is highly unlikely that the PLA will make sweeping changes to its political commissar system in the near future, Western analysts should be on the lookout for further evidence of broader changes to the Communist Party’s personnel management system within the “Party’s army.”

Notes

  1. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 25.
  2. It is worth noting that the term “cadres” (ganbu) used in the “Provision” and other policy announcements discussed in this article includes both officers (junguan) and non-ranking cadres who are uniformed PLA civilians (wenzhiganbu); this article uses the terms officer and cadre interchangeably.
  3. Mark Stokes, China’s Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2004), p. 95.
  4. CCTV-7 Junshi baodao program, segment titled “Qiangjun mubiao: Xiang jiceng yanshen xiang jiceng kuozhan” [“Goal of Building a Mighty Army: Spreading It to the Grassroots, Expanding It to the Grassroots”] (December 17, 2013).
  5. Larry Wortzel, “The General Political Department and the Evolution of the Political Commissar System,” in James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang, eds., PLA as Organization: Reference Volume 1.0 (Arlington: RAND Corporation, 2002), p. 225.
  6. “China’s National Defense in 2002,” (Beijing: State Council Information Office, 2002). As of February 18, 2015: http://www.china.org.cn/e-white/20021209/index.htm
  7. Although the General Staff Department does not have a PC, it has a second-level Political Department.
  8. “China’s National Defense in 2002.”
  9. See also “China’s National Defense in 2002” and “China’s National Defense in 2006,” (Beijing: State Council Information Office, 2006). As of February 18, 2015: http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/book/194421.htm
  10. Wortzel, “The General Political Department and the Evolution of the Political Commissar System,” pp. 238, 243.