Asia Defense

Chinese PLA Company Command: The Party Line

Recent Features

Asia Defense

Chinese PLA Company Command: The Party Line

Become a Chinese PLA company commander for a day.

Chinese PLA Company Command: The Party Line
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released

You’ve just been handed command of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) infantry company. Where do you begin? Fortunately there’s a handy reference just for you: Outstanding Company Commander: The Workbook. Published in 2008, it is a semi-official reference for young PLA officers that provides an easily digestible overview of company command. Its American counterpart (and possibly model) is Company Command: The Bottom Line.

Very broadly speaking, companies have between 100 and 200 troops and form the building blocks of larger units. The commander of a company is able to exercise a more direct style of command than commanders of larger units while at the same time wielding many of the authorities of more senior commanders. Taking over command of a company represents a significant leap in personal authority. Needless to say, this will test your character.

The first thing to note is that the word “workbook” in the title refers to a chart depicting martial arts routines. Much like the kung fu chart, each subheading of Commander has a flow chart depicting a series of actions the PLA expects of its company commanders in various circumstances. The types of “moves” include: training, combat readiness, military operations other than war (MOOTW), administration, logistics, armaments, and the handling various sorts of relationships. Because the book is generalized for commanders of every sort of PLA company, it does not cover tactics but rather the planning and administrative actions which consume so much of a commander’s time.

“Piece of cake,” you say. “This is just like commanding a company in my own country.” Indeed the main tasks and subtasks will look familiar to any officer or non-commissioned officer. Training and readiness are the most essential tasks of peacetime militaries (more here). MOOTW is prominent because modern militaries are more likely to serve in non-combat scenarios than in combat operations. And administration, logistics, and the fielding of weapons are all part of modern militaries’ stock and trade. For those interested in what company commanders actually spend their time doing, here is a great synopsis.

But the PLA has a number of important differences: special frameworks for dealing with ethnic minority service members, female service members, and service members with special relationships to senior officers. And once you get those straight, you need to know how to work with superiors, subordinates, and friends. And when you’ve got all that, it’s time for the political commissar.

Minorities, Women, and Friends in High Places

As an American in China, the most salient aspect of minority relations with the ethnic Han majority was its basis on what English speakers would call stereotyping. Minorities are expected to display their identifying characteristics of dress, diet, culture, and (perhaps surprisingly for a nominally Communist state) religion. The commander’s role in incorporating minority soldiers into the company is significant. From the manual:

(1) Educate your company on the Party’s ethnic policy.

(2) Respect minority customs. You must be completely clear about their ethnic habits, what they like, and their taboos.

This means some accommodation, for example to reflect the diets of soldiers among China’s nearly 25 million Muslims.

(3) Emphasize training the vanguard of minority soldiers.

This means working to make a success of soldiers from under-represented minorities. Given the situation with the Uyghurs and Tibetans, two of China’s largest minorities, the opportunity to integrate even a small portion of these populations into the PLA could pay great dividends later on. It falls to leaders like the company commander to ensure those minorities who do enlist have a positive experience that does not outwardly clash with their ethnic identity.

(4) Take the time to ensure the minority soldier is able to communicate in Mandarin Chinese.

If necessary, you can even have a Han soldier learn a few words of the individual’s language to advance unity. While this ethnic policy does demand tolerance, in many ways it emphasizes ethnic differences (see number two) in a way Westerners find uncomfortable.

And if that makes you uncomfortable, get ready. Women service members are seen to have their own special characteristics:

(1) Exercise strict management to prevent simple crudeness. When you praise female soldiers they will naturally be elated, but when you criticize them they will be hurt and cry and may even lie down in bed. Therefore, when carrying out their management, you must not only protect their confidence and motivation, but also educate them about handling themselves correctly. You must bring them to understand that, physiological differences notwithstanding, they must make the same strict requirements of themselves that male soldiers do, progressively acquiring the qualities of PLA members.

Note that “crudeness” here isn’t misogyny but inappropriate “female” behavior. Education about “handling themselves correctly” presumably means teaching them not to cry.

(2) Point out their beauty, carry out correct leadership. Educate women to have a correct understanding of beauty, to know that true beauty has many levels. Outward beauty falls short of beautiful behavior; beautiful behavior falls short of spiritual beauty; and spiritual beauty is the highest achievement of beauty. To create spiritual beauty, they must display the beauty of heroic behavior, protect their military appearance, and uphold rules and regulations conscientiously.

(3) Be sure to care for and protect them with regard to their physiological characteristics… While managing them, the company commander should protect them, make allowances for their requirements, make a practical analysis of their emotional changes, set guidelines to raise their level of self-control, to bring out the solidarity, friendship, and mutual assistance characteristic of female soldiers, ensuring they are well cared for and the company’s work proceeds peacefully.

(4) Enforce rules and regulations strictly and realistically. Many units with women are mixed-gender units and must be managed in strict accordance with the system of regulations. Stress the importance of not having personal conversations between genders behind closed doors in the barracks. Women who have male guests must not take them to the female barracks. They should go out in groups of two or more, leaving and returning together. Strictly enforce the cycle of work and rest; ensure only female cadres conduct female bed checks, etc.

This speaks for itself. It is an entirely different military for many PLA women, not simply a matter of allowances for physiological differences. Bear in mind that this is neither to embarrass the PLA nor to endorse their regulations, only to point out areas that might surprise readers.

Lastly, there are soldiers who have special relationships with senior officers, meaning family, old neighbors, or otherwise friends. Although few in number, they can cause real trouble. With the ear of a senior officer, such a soldier has a ready outlet whenever they are unhappy. Thus, according to Commander, they require special thought training to enhance their political qualities, presumably increasing loyalty to the unit and mitigating the risk of snitching. President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, falls into this category, although I suspect no one is seeking to provide her with thought training.

The Five Relationships

Finally, Company Commander lays out how to navigate five key relationships: with one’s superiors, the organization’s staff, the political officer, subordinates, and with the leaders of other units. This framework is lifted directly from Confucianism, with the corresponding relationships being ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger brother, and friend to friend. Like the Confucian relations, the first four relationships demand loyalty and obedience of the junior reciprocated by concern from the senior. Only the fifth relationships are based on equality. Also notable is that the relationships proceed from least to most familiar (although it may seem strange to modern readers that the spousal relationship would be anything but the most familiar), with equality achieved at the level of greatest familiarity.

For relations with superiors (ruler to ruled), there are prohibitions on fawning and flattery, but also a mandate to “maintain the relative independence of one’s own work.” This surprised me because throughout my work with the PLA I had never seen “independence” hailed as a virtue. Commander explains the meaning as understanding the higher commander’s intent and carrying it out creatively in one’s own way. This precise concept originated as Auftragstaktik in Germany and is what the U.S. Army refers to as mission command. It is the principle that gives commanders on the ground the freedom to execute the higher command’s directions in the best way they see fit, within prescribed limits.

Putting this concept into action sets Western militaries apart, particularly in the latitude U.S. non-commissioned officers have in accomplishing their assigned missions. My experience with PLA officers has not been that they lacked creativity or initiative, but that their system offered no reward for it. That the authors put it in their book shows a desire to include the best practices of militaries around the world. Its placement forth on a list of five principles, however, suggests the PLA has yet to embrace it fully.

The PC

Now that we have the rest of the company under control, it is time to face the political commissar (PC). The PLA inherited PCs from the Soviets and they are today nominally equal in authority to the company commander. Their purpose has always been to ensure the military hewed closely to the Party line, although they are also responsible for personnel management and propaganda, among other areas.

Perhaps because military commanders are traditionally jealous of others wielding power within what they consider their own domain, this commander-commissar duality is not a natural pairing. This is further stressed in the book’s exhortations to commanders regarding their political officers: “Mutual respect, mutual trust, no suspicion… Strict self-discipline, receive others generously, no disputes… Strengthen good feeling, solidify unity, communicate diligently.” Obviously, there have been problems in this relationship. Nevertheless there is still the principle of “no disputes,” which doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements, but there is a strong incentive to keep them out of view.

And so, commander, now that you have made your company into a Harmonious Society, you may return home to live the China Dream. Until your political education session, that is.