By Roderick Lee
/ Published August 31, 2020
How does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) People’s Liberation Army (PLA) treat senior military leadership development? This article answers this question by looking at what the PLA views as a good leader, how it develops such leaders, and when the new generation of PLA leaders will emerge.
But why does it matter? US Department of Defense operational concepts such as joint all-domain operations, multi-domain operations, and distributed maritime operations require our joint force to execute harder, better, and faster than our opponents. However, our opponents, namely China, are not static forces. China is also trying to build a military “system of systems” that will execute harder, better, and faster than ours. It is relatively easy to observe and measure how different hardware components of the PLA function. Measuring how the “software”1 functions is a more difficult but equally important part of determining how well the system as a whole will operate. The leaders of the PLA are in some ways the operating systems of the PLA as a whole.
While we do not have access to canonical literature discussing the specific question of “How the PLA views senior leadership development,” we can extrapolate themes based on publicly available, native-language literature written by the PLA on the subjects of command and leadership. In an effort to break down the aforementioned question into more tractable terms, we look at the following three subquestions:
1. What does the PLA view as a good leader?
2. How does the organization develop such leaders?
3. When will these leaders show up?
The bottom line is that the PLA views a “good leader” as an expert strategic war fighter who always listens to orders. They plan to get there by first deliberately selecting only desirable officer candidates and second inducting them through a rigorous professional military education (PME) process focused on skill building. The PLA can expect their efforts to pay off between roughly 2035 and 2050.
To fully understand what the PLA wants out of its senior leaders, there are three complicating factors unique to the PLA that have major implications for the leadership within the PLA:
Military leaders in the PLA operate within a collective CCP leadership mechanism. This makes it difficult to find direct analogues to US military leadership concepts.
Until 2012 and possibly as recently as 2017, the PLA often promoted leaders based on a corrupt “pay-to-play” system rather than anything that resembled merit-based promotions. As such, the PLA cannot presently assume all its senior leaders possess competence in basic military leadership skills.
Current PLA leaders have a narrower range of experiences to draw on compared to US counterparts, because PLA career paths up to the present day emphasize depth of knowledge rather than breadth of knowledge.
The subsequent sections discuss these three factors in greater detail.
Factor One: Party, Collective, and Dual Leadership
True leadership over the PLA is entirely derived from the CCP and thus the Party core (presently Xi Jinping).2 Stemming from that, the PLA operates within the larger CCP ideology that views unified leadership and central authority as key tenants of its philosophy.3 In some ways, one can view the PLA as the militant wing of a centralized religion with an individual leader representing the vanguard of that ideology (e.g., a highly centralized Catholic Church).
Within this centralized leadership mechanism, the PLA practices a form of collective leadership known as the “military and political dual-leadership system.” Under this system, a unit’s commander and the political officer serve as co-equals.4 Political officers and unit commanders share joint responsibility for issuing orders, giving directions to lower levels, and overseeing all daily unit work.5 The political officer and unit commander also share responsibility for leading their unit’s Party committee and usually serve as the Party committee secretary and deputy secretary, respectively.
The unit’s Party committee, of which both the political officer and the unit commander are members (along with varying numbers of other unit officers, all CCP members), holds the power at the heart of the command-and-control mechanism of the PLA. It is the embodiment of the CCP’s overall leadership over the PLA and thus is the formal decision-making mechanism for each PLA unit.6
Typically, decisions within a unit’s Party committee are made through democratic centralism, wherein each committee member may voice opinions and vote on a decision, but once the committee makes a decision, it is the responsibility of all committee members to support that policy. In the event of a time-sensitive decision, the individual best suited to make a decision (typically the unit commander in a combat situation) is permitted to make a unilateral decision. However, the unit’s party committee still shares collective responsibility for that individual’s decision. As a result, the committee is likely to review such unilateral decisions at an appropriate time.
Factor Two: Corruption
The CCP’s arrest of Central Military Commission (CMC) Vice-Chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong in 2014 as well as CMC members Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang in 2017 on corruption charges represents a much larger problem within the PLA. President Xi’s anticorruption campaign implicated dozens if not hundreds of PLA general and flag officers (GFO), many of whom were responsible for personnel appointments and promotions.7
Because the CMC must approve all GFO promotions, between 2002 and at least 2012 during the tenures of the corrupt officers Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, it is reasonable to assume that most GFOs promoted in that period paid for that promotion. 8 Although no complete “price list” is available, anecdotal evidence through official People’s Republic of China (PRC) state media and unofficial press outlets suggests that a promotion to an O-9 or O-10 equivalent cost between 1.4 to 2.8 million USD.9 Unofficial sources claim that O-7 and O-8 promotions ran roughly 700,000 USD.10 To fund these promotions and the bribes necessary to stay in the good graces of senior officials, this system had a trickledown effect, wherein even field grade officers were forced to pay into the system.11 This system may have persisted into 2017, when the PLA arrested CMC members generals Fang Fenghui (the officer in charge of overall military operations in the PLA) and Zhang Yang (the officer in charge of overall personnel issues in the PLA).12
The end result is a system that promoted individuals into senior leadership positions based on cash amounts rather than talent or competence. The handful of competent senior leaders in the PLA succeeded in climbing the ladder in spite of the system during this time—not because of it.
Factor 3: Lacking in Breadth of Experience
All PLA officers up to the present day are likely to have had a stove-piped career. Aviators will have only served almost exclusively in aviation units, likely of the same type, until they reach roughly the O-6 equivalent level. The same can be said about submarine officers, tankers, surface warfare officers, and infantrymen.13 This trend is not only an observable career tendency in most PLA officers but also codified in official career trajectories. The PLA Air Force Officer’s Handbook and PLA Navy Officer’s Handbook both stipulate that, up to an O-6 equivalent level, an officer is expected to remain within the same discipline for virtually his or her entire career up to that point.14
Making matters worse was the total lack of joint assignment opportunities until 2016.15 Prior to 2016, the PLA had virtually no joint organizations and, thus, no opportunities for officers to gain joint experience. The closest equivalents the PLA had to institutionalized joint assignments were cross-service assignments, wherein an officer from one service (e.g., the Navy) would take up a position in another service (e.g., the Air Force). However, this was a rare occurrence.
This lack in career diversity results in exceptional depth in knowledge but little in the way of breadth. While this is advantageous early in one’s career, it becomes a major handicap later in one’s career. This major deviation in the career experiences that senior leaders in the PLA draw from versus the experiences that senior US military leaders draw from factors into how the PLA is now looking to develop its leaders going forward.
What Is a Good Leader in the PLA?
I feel that no matter how the system is adjusted and how missions change, we should all be politically sound, align with the Party, listen to the Party's command, and work hard to improve the joint operational command capability under realistic combat conditions.
—PLA National Defense University Senior Officer’s Course student in 2017
The PLA regularly talks about deficiencies within its force—many of which are associated with its people rather than its technical systems. The most commonly discussed deficiencies are seen below:
Inability to analyze a situation
Ability to adapt to the circumstances
Insufficient ability to fight modern wars
Inability to understand the higher echelon’s intent
Ability to manage and coordinate
Inability to make a decision on a course of action
Ability to operate equipment
Insufficient ability of cadres at all levels to command modern combat
Inability to deploy forces
Ability to command operations
Inability to handle unexpected situations
Ability to organize training
While the inverse of some of these deficiencies suggest desirable leadership traits (e.g., inability to analyze a situation implies they want leaders who are good at analyzing situations), the PLA also discusses desirable traits that it wants its leaders to have. A survey of publicly available PLA literature since 2015 reveals the following broad trait categories that the PLA views as desirable in its leaders:
Politically Loyal: A PLA military leader’s worldview is in lockstep with the CCP, and they understand their role within the CCP.
The PLA views politics as being an integral part of its identity and tradition. Understanding political factors within the scheme of the CCP is not just a fundamental skill that is necessary for leaders in the PLA. Military commanders in the PLA must always put ideological and political development first and foremost. This can be accomplished by strengthening political beliefs in communism, reiterating the philosophy of serving the people, and emphasizing the Party’s absolute leadership in all matters. 19
Strategically Aware: A PLA military leader should have a solid understanding of how what they are doing fits into the bigger picture, how various different parts interact, and how actions will play out over time.
Given that the PLA is moving toward becoming an “informatized force,” wherein overall force effectiveness is determined by the extent to which the force is networked with access to information, the PLA not surprisingly sees strategic awareness as a crucial element that its leaders must have. Specifically, it wants its leaders to have a holistic understanding of where they fit in within the overall strategy, possess the skills to determine how different factors will interact with each other, and have the foresight to understand how a situation will evolve.20 This also leads to PLA leaders being able to conduct mission command to a certain degree, wherein they are able to continue operating absent of direct command guidance based on their understanding of the situation.
Skilled in Military Affairs: A PLA military leader should have the requisite skills to command combat operations at their respective level of war.
As indicated in the section discussing the problem of corruption and breadth of experience, the PLA is essentially starting over in terms of military skills. Skills that the US military would consider prerequisites such as understanding joint operations, operational art, integration of new technical capabilities, and the importance of information superiority often must be taught to senior PLA leaders.21 The PLA views leaders that already possess such fundamental skills as extremely desirable, not just minimally successful.
Appropriate Military Culture: A PLA military leader adheres to a particular set of intellectual achievements, beliefs, and norms that the PLA collectively regards as canonical.
The PLA does not want leaders who are just there for the paycheck. It wants leaders who are passionate about military affairs and the PLA’s legacy. This means it wants officers who are actively interested in combat command, the newest military literature and theory, and the overall art of war.22 The PLA also wants a “genetic inheritance,” so to speak, wherein its current generations of leaders pull from the experiences of “past PLA greats.”23 Contemporary examples of “famous generals” include Peng Dehuai, Liu Bocheng, and Xu Xiangqian. Although the PLA’s National Defense University lists the Chinese intervention in the Korean War as a “famous modern campaign,” all the famous “contemporary” generals listed are better known for their actions during the Chinese Civil War.24
Adaptive: They can respond to new circumstances, develop innovative ideas, and incorporate new methodologies.
Not surprisingly, the PLA wants its leaders to be adaptive and innovative. Specifically, it wants leaders to learn new methods and military developments from other countries, incorporate future technologies that have not yet operationalized, and be more creative.25 There is also a reasonably new emphasis on finding officers who are reasonably independent and willing to take the initiative on their own (within reason).26
Other Intangible Traits: In addition to the aforementioned leadership traits, the PLA also discusses the value of leadership concepts that are intangible or not typically associated with the military. Examples include charisma, institutional leadership, leading from behind, flexible leadership, and intercultural leadership.27 However, there is an absence of evidence regarding whether the PLA is systemically trying to implement such concepts across the force or not.
Many of these desirable leadership traits are new to the PLA, but systematic implementation of mechanisms to promote such traits is an even more recent phenomenon. Although the PLA is relatively opaque when it comes to ongoing efforts to improve the force, leadership development within the PLA can be broken down into two categories. First, the PLA selects what it views as the optimal officer candidates. Second, it implements a fairly stringent series of PME requirements.
The Right Material
Before the PLA begins to mold officers into future senior leaders, the organization wants to ensure that the “material” that they are working with is appropriate. Specifically, PLA officer candidate prerequisites are designed to identify politically reliable individuals who have character traits aligned with some of the “soft” desirable leadership traits mentioned above. The PLA accomplishes this by conducting a series of unspecified psychological, political, and personality testing.28 There is virtually no information on the PLA’s psychological and political testing, but the PLA provides broad guidelines for desired personalities.
The PLA currently uses a Myers–Briggs Type Indicator to filter out certain types of personalities. Persons who test as “INFP” (introverted, intuitive, feeling, and prospecting) are immediately flagged, while individuals who test as “ENFP” (extroverted, intuitive, feeling, prospecting), “INTJ” (introverted, intuitive, thinking, judging), or “ISTP” (introverted, sensing, thinking, prospective) require additional screening. The implication of this personality screening is that the PLA is trying to filter certain “undesirable” personalities, “INFP” being the archetype.29
Professional Military Education
The aim of the PLA’s PME system likely is to build and develop military skills required to lead the next level of combat operations. There is little evidence to suggest that the PLA PME system is designed to inculcate habits of the mind, critical thinking, or intellectual integrity. This view is based predominantly on PME requirements for PLA officers and limited information about graduate programs at PLA PME institutions.
PLA PME requirements focus on training officers to conduct combat operations at the tactical and then operational level.30 PME requirements can be met by attending any number of military academic institutions, but there are few opportunities for officers to attend higher-quality civilian institutions. Field grade officers attend a series of multimonth courses at military academies covering single-service and then combined arms tactics. Some junior and field grade officers that will be assigned to a larger headquarters staff will attend courses on campaign-level staff work.31 Senior officers will receive PME in single-service campaigns then joint campaigns at either their service’s command academy or the PLA’s National Defense University.32
The concentrations and prerequisite readings at degree-granting programs intended for senior officers reflect the probable emphasis on building skills for war fighting. Most degrees issued are in military affairs, with concentrations in fields of military science, strategy, tactics, operational command, and military operations research.33 The prerequisite readings cover military strategy, operations, and tactics exclusively.34
The PLA is clearly making efforts to fast-track the presence of some of these aforementioned desirable traits within its current generation of leaders. Through the massive culling of corrupt officers, institution of rigorous testing, and investment in PME, the hope is that the competent leaders of the current generation will form at least a solid basis for subsequent generations. However, a full generational shift in the PLA’s officer corps is likely necessary before it observes substantive change in the quality of its senior leaders. Using standard trajectories for PLA officers, we can extrapolate how long that might take.
The starting point for the PLA is roughly 2017, when the PLA’s anticorruption efforts peaked and the organization reformed its command-and-control structure to allow for joint operations and modernized its PME system to develop a new generation of human talent. Officers entering the “new-generation” PLA are more likely to be promoted based on merit rather than money, have a wider range of career experiences to inform their worldview, and undergo much more rigorous academic training. Based on standard career trajectories for PLA officers, officers in this new generation will reach their first major field commands around 2035 and their first senior commands around 2050.
Incidentally, 2035 and 2050 are broader benchmarks for the PLA’s overall modernization. According to the PRC’s 2019 Defense White Paper, the PLA is expected to, “basically complete the modernization of national defense and the military by 2035 and to fully transform the People’s Armed Forces “into world-class forces by the mid-21st century.”35 Not only does this translate to a PLA that will be better equipped, trained, and networked but also a PLA that will be better led.
Mr. Lee is the director of research at the Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). Prior to joining CASI, he served as an analyst with the United States Navy, covering Chinese naval forces. He earned his MA degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
1 Software in this case refers to factors such as personnel quality, training, doctrine, and proficiency.
2 This authority is typically manifested by the CCP Central Committee’s Central Military Commission.
3 Yang Xiaolin [杨晓霖], “Key Questions and Answers: How to Understand ‘The Core Essence of Adhering to the Party’s Commands” [要点问答：如何理解“坚持党的领导的核心要义], 21 November 2019, http://www.81.cn/.
4 Jeff Benson, Zi Yang, “Party on the Bridge: Political Commissars in the Chinese Navy”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 29 June 2020, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/.
5 Cheng Baoshan, ed., The Fundamental Laws and Regulations of Military Political Work in the New Century and New Era—Studying the Newly Revised and Promulgated 'Regulations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Political Work [新世纪新阶段军队政治工作的根本法规—学习新修订颁布的《中国人民解放军政治工作条例》] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2004).
6 Wang Weidong [王卫东], Li Yongfei [李永飞], et al., “Grasp Work Methods and Improve Leadership Art” [掌握工作方法 提高领导艺术], 9 March 2016, http://www.81.cn/.
7 Derek Grossman, “Envisioning a ‘World Class’ PLA- Implications for the United States and the Indo-Pacific” CT-514 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1 July 2019), https://www.rand.org/.
8 Central Military Commission [中央军委], “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Active Duty Officer Regulations on Appointment and Dismissal” [中国人民解放军现役军官职务任免条例], 16 September 2009, http://www.mod.gov.cn/.
9 Han Jianping [韩建平], “A Major General’s Insider Story into Xu Caihou’s Selling of Positions: A Military Region Command Costs 20 Million” [少将曝徐才厚卖官内幕：大军区司令行贿两千万], 10 March 2015, http://www.xinhuanet.com/.
10 Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Richmond, Victoria: Hardie Grant Books, 2018). Note that GFO promotions are much more valuable than field and mid-grade officer promotions. Under old PLA retirement regulations, GFOs had access to a wider range of benefits, including ownership of housing held at the GFO level. For example, if a GFO assigned to City 1 is lateralled or promoted to an assignment at City 2, they were allowed to keep the housing unit in City 1 in addition to getting new housing unit in City 2. Given the housing boom in China, these benefits were rather significant in terms of financial gains. For additional details on housing, see Marcus Clay, Understanding the “People” of the People’s Liberation Army (Maxwell AFB, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2018), https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/.
11 Li Wenlong [李文隆], “Vice Admiral Yang Shiguang Pleads Guilty and Exposes the Fallen Zhang Shutian” [海军中将杨世光自称罪该万死 曝张树田已落马], 20 July 2017, https://www.secretchina.com/.
12 Nie Chenjing [聂晨静], “Fang Fenghui Sentenced to Life Imprisonment” [房峰辉被判处无期徒刑], 20 February 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/.
13 CASI, internal database of PLA Officer Career Histories, 1 January 2020.
14 Du Jingchen [杜景臣], Handbook for Officers and Enlisted of the Chinese PLA Navy [中国海军军人手册]， 143, Haichao, 2012; and PLA Air Force Soldier Handbook [解放军空军士兵手册], Lantian Chubanshe [蓝天出版社], Beijing, 2006.
15 People’s Daily Online [人民网-中国共产党新闻网], “Xi Jinping as the Newly Appointed Military Commander in Chief Fully Lays Out National Defense Reform” [习近平新任军委联指总指挥 全面布局国防军改], 21 April 2016, http://cpc.people.com.cn/.
16 Wang Leiping [王雪平], “Focusing on the Commander’s ‘Five Cannot’ Problem” [着力破解指挥员“五个不会”问题], 18 June 2019, http://www.81.cn/.
17 Zhou Jian [周剑 ], Zhang Xiaolong [张晓龙], and Cai Yichen [蔡宜臣], “Joint Training Achieves Rapid Implementation of Capabilities” [合训到分流 实现能力素质弯道超车], 1 June 2018, http://www.js7tv.cn/.
18 Li Chunli [李春立], “Focus on Solving the Problem of ‘Two Insufficient Capabilities’” [着力破解“两个能力不够”问题],30 December 2014, http://www.81.cn/.
19 Liu Wei [刘伟], “Molding a Strong Foundation for a Military Commander’s Leadership Art” [铸造军事指挥员领导艺术的坚强基石], Leadership Science Journal [领导科学], 1 August 2005; and Guo Qiang [郭强], “Building of Strategic Leadership is Essential” [战略领导力建设至关重要], 28 December 2016, http://www.81.cn/.
20 Lu Zhisheng [陆知胜], “How to Improve a Commander’s Command Ability” [如何提升指挥员指挥能力], 20 November 2018, http://www.81.cn/; Liu Wei [刘伟], “Molding a Strong Foundation for a Military Commander’s Leadership Art” [铸造军事指挥员领导艺术的坚强基石], Leadership Science Journal [领导科学], 1 August 2005; and Guo Qiang [郭强], “Building of Strategic Leadership is Essential” [战略领导力建设至关重要], 28 December 2016, http://www.81.cn/.
21 Xia Dongxu [夏东旭], Huang Hongqiang [黄宏强], and Gao Qingsen [高清森], “How to Improve Combat Command Abilities” [如何提升作战指挥能力], 8 August 2019, http://www.81.cn/; Lu Zhisheng [陆知胜], “How to Improve a Commander’s Command Ability” [如何提升指挥员指挥能力], 20 November 2018, http://www.81.cn/; and CCTV-7, “Military Report” [军事报道] 22 March 2017.
22 Xia Dongxu [夏东旭], Huang Hongqiang [黄宏强], and Gao Qingsen [高清森], “How to Improve Combat Command Abilities” [如何提升作战指挥能力], 8 August 2019, http://www.81.cn/; and Yang Yan [杨帆], “Military News Commentary—Accelerate the Improvement of Command Ability” [军报评论 加快把指挥能力搞过硬], 27 October 2018, http://www.81.cn/.
23 Lu Zhisheng [陆知胜], “How to Improve a Commander’s Command Ability” [如何提升指挥员指挥能力], 20 November 2018, http://www.81.cn/.
24 PLA National Defense University [国防大学], “Famous Chinese Military Strategists” [中国著名军事家], PLA National Defense University (website), http://www.cdsndu.org/.
25 Liu Wei [刘伟], “Molding A Strong Foundation for a Military Commander’s Leadership Art” [铸造军事指挥员领导艺术的坚强基石], Leadership Science Journal [领导科学], 1 August 2005; and Guo Qiang [郭强], “Building of Strategic Leadership is Essential” [战略领导力建设至关重要], 28 December 2016, http://www.81.cn/.
26 Brendan Mulvaney, lecture at PACAF Commander’s Symposium, China Aerospace Studies Institute, 17 April 2020.
27 Cheng Gang [程钢], “New Features and Trends in Modern Leadership” [现代领导的新特点新趋势], Strategic Vision Journal, 1 March 2017; and Guo Qiang [郭强], “Building of Strategic Leadership is Essential” [战略领导力建设至关重要], 28 December 2016, http://www.81.cn/.
28 PLA General Staff Department, PLA General Political Department, PLA General Logistics Department, “Physical Examination Standards for Recruiting Students into Military Academies” [中国人民解放军军队院校招收学员体格检查标准], 18 December 2019, http://zsb.ccit.edu.cn/.
29 MBTI guides typically describe INFPs as “Quiet, open-minded, imaginative, and apply a caring and creative approach to everything they do.”
30 Du Jingchen [杜景臣], “Handbook for Officers and Enlisted of the Chinese PLA Navy” [中国海军军人手册], Haichao, 2012; and “PLA Air Force Soldier Handbook” [解放军空军士兵手册], Lantian Chubanshe [蓝天出版社], Beijing, 2006.
31 PLA [解放军], “2020 National Defense University Graduate Student Brochure” [2020年国防大学硕士研究生招生简章], 1 January 2020, https://yz.chsi.com.cn/.
32 PLA [解放军], “2020 National Defense University Graduate Student Brochure” [2020年国防大学硕士研究生招生简章], 1 January 2020, https://yz.chsi.com.cn/.; PLA [解放军], “2019 Navy Command College Admissions Guide” [海军指挥学院2019年硕士研究生招生简章], 1 January 2019, China Postgraduate Student Recruitment Information Network [中国研究生招生信息网]; and PLA [解放军], “2020 Air Force Command College 2020 Graduate Student Admissions Guide” [空军指挥学院2020年硕士研究生招生简章], 2 October 2019, https://www.sohu.com/.
33 People’s Liberation Army Navy [解放军海军], “2019 Naval Command Academy Admissions Guide” China Postgraduate Student Recruitment Information Network [中国研究生招生信息网]; and PLA [解放军], “2020 National Defense University Graduate Student Brochure” [2020年国防大学硕士研究生招生简章], 1 January 2020, https://yz.chsi.com.cn/.
34 姚远 [Yao Yuan], “Navy Command College 2017 Student Graduate Admissions Guide” [海军指挥学院2017年军事学博士研究生招生简章], 22 September 2016, http://www.chinamil.com.cn/.
35 PRC Ministry of National Defense, “China's National Defense in the New Era,” Xinhua, 24 July 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/.
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