The Changing Face of PLA Political Education

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 13

In mid-April, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched its second annual large-scale military pre-recruitment campaign, designed to attract the best and brightest in Chinese universities into the nation’s armed forces. By the end of May, Xinhua announced that the campaign had already resulted in 100,000 new applications from college graduates—a marked increase over the previous year (Xinhua News Agency, May 30). The campaign is yet another indicator of a trend seen throughout the era of PLA modernization: academic achievement and advanced scientific and technical skills are now as desirable in the Chinese military—if not more—as political loyalty, so long the cornerstone of Red Army recruitment. Those who enter the military quickly discover that political indoctrination is also playing a lesser role within the PLA’s education system. Today, a modernized and professionalized PLA spends more time on the battlefield training for real-world combat missions and less time in the classroom learning the ideological roots of Marxist-Leninist Thought.

As a result of this trend, many in the PLA have expressed concern in recent years that political work is outdated, inefficient, and often a hindrance to Professional Military Education (PME) in a modern armed force. Some commentators even provide “on-the-ground” accounts that demonstrate the failed integration of political education during the PLA modernization effort. While no commentator doubts the importance of political work in securing the party’s unquestioned leadership over the military, there is a contingent that believes political work must be modernized and better integrated into other PME efforts or risk becoming irrelevant.

Changing Attitudes?

Some of the most stinging critiques of the role of political work in the modern PLA came in mid-2009 from the Huojianbing Bao, the official CCP newspaper of the Second Artillery. In one commentary, the paper’s editorial board criticizes the “lopsided stress on the exaggerated role of the political work.” While military training in Second Artillery units has changed significantly in recent years, the board says, the political education system remains the same.  “The means of doing political work should be modernized…We should aim at providing a strong mental power for training, and cannot just rely on such formalistic activities of putting up posters, hanging streamers, projecting movies, and printing flash reports.” Instead, the editors write, “We should maintain the pragmatic and realistic attitude and prevent the political work from being done in a superficial and simplistic way” [1]. In another editorial on the subject, the paper says that political cadres should feel “ashamed of being militarily ignorant.” Political work, they say, should “play a supportive role” to military training and military commanders, and cadres “should aim their work at serving the purpose of raising combat capabilities.” In order to rectify these concerns, the editorial argues that political work must be straightforward, concise, pragmatic and efficient [2].

How exactly do political cadres hinder PME and other military training efforts?  Renmin Haijun, the newspaper of the political department of the PLA Navy, provides a number of examples. In a simulated combat drill within a destroyer formation, the political cadre did their duty of using the communication channels to announce the “official call to arms”—intended to provide the political inspiration for battle—at the start of the fight. Yet, the lengthy speech “kept the communication channel occupied for almost four minutes;” the live missile-firing operation, though, took less than three minutes to complete. The article says, “There unfolded a ridiculous scene in which ‘mobilization was still going on after the combat operation was over.’” Over the next two days of the at-sea exercise, the political cadre led study sessions, but “the group members found that they had to vie with the military cadres for time and resources to carry out their work, and because of that, they hindered rather than helped with the directing of the exercise.” Of the 52 documents the political cadres had planned to study with the sailors, only five were completed.

The Renmin Haijun article continues with two other real-world examples. First, it says, during a “long-distance navigation training session involving a new type of submarine,” political cadres organized a karaoke party for off-duty crew members “with the aim of boosting their morale.” However, the “excessive commotion of the music and singing” was soon captured by “the enemy’s advance sonar detectors, resulting in the exposure of the submarine as a target.” Second, during a live-ammunition exercise, one fighter was “so nervous that he took up the wrong battle station.” In this situation, the paper notes, political cadres should have boosted the fighter’s morale and reduced his “psychological pressure.” Instead, the political commissar concluded, “there was something wrong with [the fighter’s] thinking,” and proceeded to scold the fighter to the point that he was in a “confused and stupefied state” and could “endure no more.”

The article concludes with three direct criticisms of political work in the PLA.  First, it says, political work lacks innovation and “a sense of the times as well as of the practical results in political work.” Second, political cadres are too often “simplistic in their capabilities and competence” and thus have deprived political work of “its relevance.” Third, there exists a “tension between military work and political work” to the point that all training becomes “muddled.” To avoid being overly critical of the system, the Renmin Haijun article notes that the General Political Department (GPD)—under General Li Jinai—has provided excellent regulations for political work but that “our political work cadres are still not sufficiently capable and competent to properly give play to the combat functions of political work” [3].

In November 2009, the Renmin Qianxin, the official CCP newspaper of the Nanjing Military Region, published similar accounts of the failings of political cadres during military training exercises. Like the PLA Navy experience, the Nanjing political cadres were unable to read their mobilization orders and wartime political work guidelines before combat operations began. When the exercise was complete, the military commander “picked up a baton and talked about tactics that were clear and well presented, but the political cadre stood to one side, not extending a hand and not saying anything.”  And, in another example, only after the “the frontline commander had already completed the battlefield propaganda communications, and the assault group was deep in the enemy position” did army helicopters drop psychological warfare leaflets on enemy areas.  The Nanjing paper concludes, “There was a lack of smooth communication between the joint political organ and the political organs of the various units participating in the training, and it had made it very difficult to amass the forces of the various units participating in the training together or truly train on the joint operational political work” [4].

These commentaries demonstrate a handful of common themes. First, inefficient and impractical political education risks becoming irrelevant within China’s fast-paced, technologically-advanced military. There simply is not enough time in modern PLA war plans for a political commissar to teach 52 political work documents over the course of a battle that could end within minutes or even seconds. Second, while military commanders in the PLA are on par with their counterparts in other advanced militaries, numerous commentaries note how incompetent political commissars and instructors are—perhaps because glory in the PLA now comes from learning modern military thought instead of increasingly anachronistic political ideology. Further, analysts note that many political cadres are not militarily qualified to be soldiers on a modern battlefield, and many call for the retraining of political cadres to contribute more to the cause than ideology. Finally, it is important to point out that all of the above criticisms of political work in the PLA come from notably advanced and forward-thinking branches and regions. The Second Artillery and PLA Navy have been the leading benefactors of PLA modernization, and the Nanjing Military Region has been central as well due to its proximity to Taiwan.  

Hu Jintao’s Solution?

Willy Lam has argued in this publication that Hu Jintao has returned the Party and PLA to the “lip and teeth” relationship that Mao so often espoused. Whereas Deng separated the two to ensure that the military did not stand in the way of economic development, Hu has instructed the military to take protecting development as one of its “new historic missions.” Further, Lam argues, Hu has returned the military to combat-readiness and is “paranoid about ‘hostile foreign forces’ sabotaging economic expansion or subverting the CCP’s leadership.” He also notes that Hu has strengthened the power and reach of the party in the military [5].

How are these influences reflected in the political work regulations in the military? It seems that Hu recognized the deficiencies of political work and has advocated an increasingly pragmatic, efficient, and informed political system (dubbed the scientific development of political work). In late 2009, the GPD released a new “Outline for Ideological and Political Education” which notes that the major task of political and ideological education is “to ensure that our armed forces will always be a people’s army under the absolute leadership of the party.” As opposed to old guidelines, this document notes that political and ideological education must focus on “actual results,” must be improved and innovated, and must use modern technological means. Importantly, it says that political education should not stand-alone but should be integrated into other forms of PME:

When we carry out ideological and political education, we shall combine it with learning relevant knowledge together, such as modern science and technology, history, economics, culture and arts, ethnic groups and religions, military diplomacy, psychology, management science and pedagogy, so that we can increase the contents of science, technology and cultural knowledge in it [6].

In many ways, these guidelines directly reflect the above criticisms of political work in a modern PLA.  

As the PLA has focused increasingly on fighting local wars under modern, informed conditions, its personnel, technology and capabilities have improved considerably. At the same time, it appears that political instruction has not been fundamentally transformed in parallel with these efforts. Yet, Hu Jintao, with a focus on ensuring the authority of the CCP, appears to recognize the problem and has put forth a solution. It remains to be seen how successful this will be, but what is known is that political work must keep pace with PLA modernization in order to ensure the unquestioned authority of the party over the armed forces.


 . Huojianbing Bao Editorial Board, “Achieve High Work Efficiency on the Basis of Scientific Regulations — Sixth Commentary on Driving Forward the Innovative Development of the Political Work in Military Training,” Huojianbing Bao, August 15, 2009, Open Source Center (OSC), CPP20091015478006.
2. Huojianbing Bao Editorial Board, “Create a New Image Through Conscientious and Pragmatic Work — Seventh Commentary on Driving Forward the Innovative Development of the Political Work in Military Training,” Huojianbing Bao, April 18, 2009, OSC, CPP20091015478007.
3. Mi Jinguo, Li De, Li Yibao, Li Gencheng, Li Binfu, and Yu Zhangcai, “Why Were Only Five of 52 Political-Work Documents Put to Use? An In-Depth Analysis of the Phenomenon of ‘Tension Between Political Work and Military Work’ Existing in Political Work Carried Out During Military Training,” Renmin Haijun, November 15, 2006, OSC, CPP20070307318008.
4. Luo Zhengran, Xiang Jincheng, and Sun Xuefeng, “Let Wartime Political Work Be Seamlessly Aligned With Actual Combat — Reporter Observes: Focus on Political Work in Field Training,” Renmin Qianxian, November 18, 2009, OSC, CPP20100311090007.
5. Willy Lam, “Hu Jintao’s Driving Influence on Chinese Military Modernization,” China Brief, May 17, 2005: 2-3.
6.  “The Outline for Ideological and Political Education Within the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” Jiefangjun Bao, November 19, 2009, OSC, CPP20091119710003.