Asia Defense

What a Change in China’s Officer Rank and Grade System Tells Us About PLA Reform

Recent Features

Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

What a Change in China’s Officer Rank and Grade System Tells Us About PLA Reform

New interim regulations to improve the PLA’s officer management system and recruitment policies are more evidence of China’s long time horizons for military prowess.

What a Change in China’s Officer Rank and Grade System Tells Us About PLA Reform
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

With global attention still trained on the COVID-19 pandemic as the world transitioned into 2021, a significant event in China largely came and went under the radar a few months before the recent Two Sessions.

While journalists in attendance at the monthly Ministry of National Defense (MND) press conference in Beijing on January 28 were informed by the MND spokesperson, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, about the adjustment of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) officer management system from a “post rank-based” to a “military rank-based” one, the significance of the policy shift was likely largely lost on most of his interlocutors – leading to the lack of media attention.

In clarifying the relative importance between “ranks” (junxian) and “posts” (zhixian, also known as “grades”) – with ranks henceforth accorded priority in determining an officer’s career development and remuneration – this latest development also clearly distinguishes PLA officers under two main career tracks: commanders and administrators.

While it remains the case that personnel under these two categories continue to be rated across 15 grades, a new four-level classification system has also been established, placing specialist technical officers into senior professional, deputy senior professional, intermediate professional and junior professional categories. Put together, there are now 19 grades in the Chinese military.

Unlike most Western defense forces, personnel of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) armed wing are organized under a system of both ranks, as well as grades – the latter based on one’s vocation and post.

Whereas the significance of ranks is quite straightforward – with the reinstatement of the rank system in China in 1988 giving rise to 10 different ranks (from 2nd lieutenant to general) – China’s military system becomes more convoluted when the other category of grades is also factored in. Under such a rank-cum-grade system, grades mattered more than the rank insignia on one’s uniform.

In view of the aforementioned, distinguishing the relative status of a PLA officer vis-à-vis a similarly ranked peer in the military hierarchy – from the elite Central Military Commission (CMC) all the way down to basic PLA units – was not a straightforward affair. In that regard, a major general could well be of the same grade as a senior colonel if both were commanding a division. At the same time, it also meant that apart from being of division leader grade, a major general could also be designated to one of the following posts: deputy theater command/military region leader; corps leader; or deputy corps leader.

While the PLA reforms since late 2015 meant that the former Military Region (MR) leader grade was replaced like-for-like by the Theater Command (TC) leader grade, other changes to PLA organizational structure were not as well understood, and even complicated matters by creating new problems in its personnel management.

Quite significantly, the PLA has been undergoing a “brigadization” (lühua) process that has seen most of its divisions disbanded, whereas some regiments were merged or upgraded – if not abolished altogether.

Such a shift from a 4-tier corps-division-regiment-battalion PLA structure to a 3-level corps-brigade-battalion model also undercut the career prospects for some senior officers. Whereas the anticipated triennial promotion in grade was denied to a number of them, others were also left with fewer opportunities to assume leadership positions at each successive level of the Chinese military command.

Almost five years ago, in late 2016, the CMC Political Work Department first hinted at restructuring the officer management system based on ranks. Despite that, this latest announcement nevertheless took some China military watchers by surprise, given the decades-long institutionalization of ranks-cum-grades in the PLA system. Still, the signs of change had become clearer in recent years.

Perhaps most significant of all, the CCP’s elite 25-member Politburo led by Xi Jinping – and including his two uniformed deputies in the CMC, generals Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia – deliberated at a collective study session in July 2019 to reform military regulations. That same month, the important business of recalibrating PLA policy was likewise made abundantly clear in the Chinese Defense White Paper.

Even if some PLA watchers were caught off guard by the timing of the MND promulgation, the rationale for change should not come as a surprise.

Taking China’s military reforms as a whole, the present phase of change is in fact a logical and overlapping progression following, first, the overhaul of the PLA command structure (the so-called above-the-neck reforms above corps level) and, second, changes to its force structure (i.e. below-the-neck reforms).

With the below-the-neck adjustments (affecting corps-level entities and below) largely in place, the present emphasis on reforming PLA policies is therefore clear – and a necessary undertaking that complements the preceding changes in enhancing Chinese military professionalism.

As well as improving its officer management system, this latest policy shift also reflects the PLA’s desire to recruit China’s best and brightest by making a clear association between junior officer ranks and one’s academic qualifications and professional backgrounds. For instance, second lieutenants stand to be promoted to captain rank after obtaining a doctoral degree.

Although official PLA commentary presaging the MND announcement make clear that this latest phase is “still in progress and transitional,” it is nevertheless an important development and one that will have implications on Xi Jinping’s goal of turning the PLA into a “world-class” outfit by the PRC’s centenary in 2049.

But given persistent PLA shortcomings vis-à-vis other advanced armed forces, especially in terms of combined arms and joint operations, the changes already in place – and those adjustments yet to come – will take many more years, if not decades, to finetune.

The argument can thus be made that in the military aspect of the China-U.S. rivalry at least, China’s high command is clearly taking a long-term view toward nurturing a high-quality officer corps capable of holding its own against the incumbent world-class military.

It also stands to reason that until the time its military operations are perfected, Beijing will prefer not to contemplate war against Washington – or any of China’s other strategic rivals in the Indo-Pacific region – in the near- to medium-term.

Guest Author

James Char

James Char is an associate research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is the editor of “The People’s Liberation Army in Its Tenth Decade: Assessing ‘Below the Neck’ Reforms in China’s Military Modernisation,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 44, Issue 2 (2021).