Soldier Scholars: Military Education as an Instrument of China’s Strategic Power

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 4

The January 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile was a watershed event in China’s modernization program, because it demonstrated a key military capability of China and a major vulnerability of the United States. There is another element of China’s military transformation that tends to receive much less attention: professional military education (PME). Over the last three decades, China has undertaken significant efforts to enhance the quality of its military education system (China Brief, March 21, 2007). The expansion of non-commissioned officer (NCO) education over the last decade within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) illuminates an important—yet understudied—element of China’s broader military modernization efforts. Washington policymakers should take note of Beijing’s investments in military education as they may yield key insights into Chinese military strategy as well as its grand strategy.

The Transformation of the PLA Military Education System

China has been restructuring and enhancing its military education system since the mid-1980s, giving its military personnel, particularly the PLA officer corps, a more technical and more specialized education. In the last decade Beijing has initiated major efforts to improve its NCO education. Chinese military strategists believe that success on the future battlefield will require a well-educated military force capable of fighting “informationalized wars.” As a result, the demand for a better educated leadership cadre has emerged—including the NCO corps. The concept of information warfare became much more salient for Chinese military strategists after the Gulf War when China observed the heavy U.S. reliance on reconnaissance and communications networks to prosecute the war. The PLA has been raising academic standards at its institutions, upgrading its schools and academies to universities. The PLA is now providing graduate degrees to operations personnel; in the past, graduate degrees were reserved almost exclusively for academy instructors and technical personnel [1]. These types of reforms—such as reorganizing and raising the standards at PLA academic institutions and recalibrating the curriculum to emphasize the demands of information warfare—signal that the PLA leadership is serious about enhancing the overall quality of its personnel.

While the transformation of the PLA’s educational system began in the 1980s, it was the vision of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who made PME a strategic priority for the PLA (People’s Daily, December 4, 2007). In a speech delivered in 1977, Deng lamented the state of military education in the PLA and urged investment in PME [2]. In subsequent years, China’s PME system was re-established after years of neglect and closure under Mao Zedong. Deng’s successors Jiang Zemin—who formulated the “Two Transformation,” which called for the PLA to transform from an army based on quantity to an army based on quality—and Hu Jintao followed their examples into the 21st century. During Hu’s tenure the PLA launched a new initiative aimed at furthering this objective: the Strategic Project for Talented People. The goal of this initiative, according to Shi Baohua, deputy chief of the Personnel Department of General Political Department of the PLA, is to develop command officers with the skills needed to lead “informationalized wars,” staff officers with operational planning and force development skills, scientists and technical specialists and a cadre of NCOs with subject matter expertise in the employment of complex weaponry (China Daily, May 1, 2007). Deng recognized that the human capital element of warfare is as worthy as investment in tanks, guns or navy vessels—that the quality of personnel matters. While it is important to have technologically advanced weaponry, it is equally important to have intellectually talented military personnel capable of making decisions and operating complex equipment. Military effectiveness is determined by a number of different variables that range from weapons systems and logistics to doctrine and military education. PME is a key determinant of military effectiveness. A better-educated military is a more capable military [3].

The Ability to Fight and Win “Informationalized Wars”

Many military theorists believe that future warfare will depend more on denying and/or degrading an adversary’s information flow than kinetic firepower alone. Chinese military strategists have been discussing the concept of “informationalized wars” for well over a decade. Information acquisition will be especially prominent in this role, particularly in target acquisition and the use of precision-guided munitions. Chang Mengxiong, a noted Chinese military theorist, wrote the following in China Military Science in 1995:

The human factor will be more prominent in high-technology warfare. Making the most of the combat effectiveness of high-technology weapons and application of correct strategy and tactics will depend on the caliber of military personnel … This means that the education and technical skills of military officers in the future information society will have to be higher than that those of civilians [sic]; otherwise, even with information-intensified weapons, defeat in war will be possible [4].

Chang’s words underscore the important relationship that Chinese strategic thinkers ascribe between military education and combat effectiveness in the 21st century. In a June 2007 address to students in Beijing, Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong explained that the transformation of the PLA’s education system remains an urgent priority and should be considered in the broader context of the ongoing revolution in military affairs (Xinhua, June 1, 2007). As the nature of warfare continues to evolve, Beijing is increasingly looking toward education as an instrument of strategic advantage. Strengthening NCO education will enhance the PLA’s overall military effectiveness by making its NCOs more effective tacticians capable of directing the employment of high-tech weapons systems—a role formerly reserved for more junior officers. Moreover, a highly educated NCO is more likely to understand his orders within the broader context of the national war effort. This deepened understanding is likely to influence his decision-making calculus and approach to carrying out his orders, which can have reverberations at the operational and strategic levels of war. By enhancing NCO education, the PLA is able to build a cadre of “strategic tacticians” who operate at the tactical level but are cognizant of their role within the national war effort.

Teaching NCOs How to Think Strategically

In the last decade, China’s PME reforms have been perhaps most striking in the area of NCO education. The PLA has begun to expand the roles and responsibilities of its NCO corps, with an increasing emphasis on technical skills and leadership responsibilities previously reserved for junior officers [5]. For example, some non-combat support vessels in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are now commanded by NCOs [6]. To support this transformation, significant reforms in NCO education have occurred including reorganizations of the existing education system. Seven years ago, the General Staff Headquarters of the PLA and China Central Radio and TV University partnered in an effort to enhance the educational opportunities for NCOs. Earlier this month the PLA announced that more than 20,000 NCOs have earned undergraduate and associates degrees because of this partnership (PLA Daily, February 1). In July 2007, the PLA awarded five doctoral degrees in military education from the Shijiazhuang Army Command College—a first in the history of China’s PME system. Zhang Fuqiang, writing in the PLA Daily, remarked, “This symbolizes that the PLA has moved up to a new level in the cultivation of high-level talents in military education and training” (PLA Daily, July 27, 2007).

In 2001, the curriculum of the Qingzhou Non-Commissioned Officers’ School underwent significant changes with the addition of lectures and courses on strategy and information warfare. The reforms were met with minor resistance by some instructors and NCOs who insisted that matters of strategy were not the purview of the NCO corps. One student remarked, “Our duty is just to follow orders. Why do we need to study strategy?” (Huojiangbing Bao, November 29, 2001). While the PLA has implemented sweeping measures to reform the curriculum, it is clear that a cultural and attitudinal shift on the role of education within the NCO corps will be much more gradual. The new model of instruction includes lectures on international relations and current affairs and a reading list filled with titles such as “Introduction to Information Warfare” and “Military High-tech Knowledge,” which represents a significant transformation in the NCO curriculum.

Beijing has dedicated significant intellectual power to thinking about NCO education and how to improve it. Its reforms are rooted in extensive pedagogical research. In May 2007, Zhang Fuqiang and Lu Rongjun reported that the PLA had launched a research program to offer “theoretic guidance for the transformation of military training and academic education” throughout China’s PME system (PLA Daily, May 18, 2007). According to the authors, the research will focus on “the base training, simulated training and network training under the condition of informationalization, on cultivation of joint operation command talents, and on pre-assignment education curricula, teaching methods and means, teaching management and support.” It is important to note that Zhang and Lu highlight several themes consistent with American military thought, including the concepts of jointness and net-centric operations.

At the end of 2007, the Research Society of Non-Commissioned Officer Education held its eighth annual conference on NCO education. The attendees represented a diverse group, including all branches of the PLA, the Office of the General Department, the armed police and academia (PLA Daily, December 27, 2007). Since the Research Society of Non-Commissioned Officer Education was established nine years ago, it has conducted extensive research on NCO education with an emphasis on the art of teaching NCOs to operate effectively in “informatized conditions.” Forty-four organizations submitted 312 papers on the subject for the conference. Some attendees even argued that NCOs would play an increasingly large role in future warfare. The seminar also highlighted areas for improvement within the PLA’s NCO ranks including the need for more specialized technical training for weapons employment, the need to eliminate “big gaps between the specialty technical quality and meeting the requirements of informatized warfare,” and the development of updated operating concepts with applicability in the information age.


An examination of China’s PME reforms shows that Beijing’s belief in PME is more than rhetoric. China’s leadership has implemented sweeping organizational reforms, commissioned substantive pedagogical research and has institutionalized PME into the culture of the PLA. Today the PLA is leveraging its civilian academic institutions—as Roy Kamphausen stated—to “… train large numbers of technologically proficient military leaders better able to function on the high-tech battlefields of the 21st century.” Beijing’s investments in education have been impressive. From 1978 to 2004, the number of institutions of higher education in China nearly tripled while the number of faculty during that same time period quadrupled (China Brief, March 1, 2006).

Many studies have focused exclusively on the technological piece of the Chinese military transformation puzzle. Students of Chinese military power tend to emphasize the study of force structure and weapons systems while other aspects of military power such as doctrine, organizational structure and military education are neglected. The PLA’s sweeping education reforms indicate that English statesman Francis Bacon’s famous words that “knowledge is power” resonate with the leadership in Beijing. There are two overarching questions for defense analysts and Washington policymakers: How will China’s PME transformation impact their military effectiveness at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of warfare? And how will China’s military policy and strategy be affected writ-large? Enhancing education throughout the PLA is critical for producing a more highly effective force because it will provide officers and NCOs with the skills needed to succeed on the future battlefield. NCOs in the PLA will be more integrated into the system and likely to understand their orders within the broader context of the national war effort. This will influence their decision-making calculus at the tactical level, which can have operational and strategic implications. By transforming its entire PME system, the PLA is taking an important step to increase its military effectiveness at all levels of war, from tactical to strategic, by enhancing the quality of its personnel.


1. U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence “China’s Navy 2007,” available at, p.65.

2. See Michael Pillsbury, ed., “Chinese Views of Future Warfare,” National Defense University Press: Washington, March 1997, p.12.

3. For an informative discussion of education and military effectiveness, see Leonard D. Holder, Jr. and Williamson Murray, “Prospects for Military Education,” Spring 1998, Joint Forces Quarterly.

4. Pillsbury, “Chinese Views of Future Warfare,” pp.259-260

5. Justin B. Liang and Sarah K. Snyder, “The ‘People’ in the PLA: Recruitment, Training, and Education in China’s 80-Year-Old Military,” Colloquium Brief, U.S. Army War College and The National Bureau of Asian Research, November 2007, pp.2-3.

6. U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence “China’s Navy 2007,” available at, p.5.