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Chinese People's Liberation Army
Emblem of the People's Liberation Army
Flag of the People's Liberation Army
The characters are "八一", referencing August 1.
Motto为人民服务
("Serve the People")
Founded1 August 1927; 96 years ago (1927-08-01)
Current form10 October 1947; 76 years ago (1947-10-10)[1][2][3]
Service branchesServices

Arms

HeadquartersAugust First Building, Fuxing Road, Haidian, Beijing
Websiteeng.chinamil.com.cn Edit this at Wikidata
Leadership
Governing body Central Military Commission (CMC)
CMC leadershipChairman:
Xi Jinping
Vice Chairmen:

General Zhang Youxia

General He Weidong
Minister of National Defense Admiral Dong Jun
Director of the Political Work Department Admiral Miao Hua
Chief of the Joint Staff Department General Liu Zhenli
Secretary of Discipline Inspection Commission General Zhang Shengmin
Personnel
Military age18
ConscriptionYes (hybrid system of conscripts and volunteers)[4]
Active personnel2,035,000 (2022)[5] (ranked 1st)
Reserve personnel510,000 (2022)[5]
Expenditure
BudgetUS$293 billion (2022)[6]
(ranked 2nd)
Percent of GDP1.7% (2022)[6]
Industry
Domestic suppliers
Foreign suppliers Historical:
Annual importsUS$14.858 billion (2010–2021)[8]
Annual exportsUS$18.121 billion (2010–2021)[8]
Related articles
HistoryHistory of the PLA
Modernization of the PLA
Historical Chinese wars and battles
Military engagements
RanksArmy ranks
Navy ranks
Air force ranks
Chinese People's Liberation Army
Simplified Chinese中国人民解放军
Traditional Chinese中國人民解放軍
Literal meaning"China People Liberation Army"

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the military of the People's Republic of China. The PLA consists of four servicesGround Force, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force — and four arms — Aerospace Force, Cyberspace Force, Information Support Force, and Joint Logistics Support Force. It is led by the Central Military Commission (CMC) with its chairman as commander-in-chief.

The PLA can trace its origins during the Republican Era to the left-wing units of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) of the Kuomintang (KMT) when they broke away in 1927 in an uprising against the nationalist government as the Chinese Red Army, before being reintegrated into the NRA as units of New Fourth Army and Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The two NRA communist units were reconstituted as the PLA in 1947.[9] Since 1949, the PLA has used nine different military strategies, which it calls "strategic guidelines". The most important came in 1956, 1980, and 1993.[10] In times of national emergency, the People's Armed Police (PAP) and the China Militia act as a reserve and support element for the Ground Force. Politically, the PLA and PAP are represented in the National People's Congress (NPC) through a delegation of 285 deputies, all of whom are CCP members. Since the formation of the NPC, the joint PLA–PAP delegation has always constituted the largest delegation and today comprises just over 9% of the NPC.[11]

PRC law explicitly asserts the leadership of the CCP over the armed forces of China and designates the CMC as the nationwide military command of the People's Republic of China. The Party CMC operates under the name of the State CMC for legal and governmental functions, and the ceremonial Ministry of National Defense is limited to diplomatic functions. The PLA is obliged to follow the principle of the CCP's absolute civilian control of the military under the doctrine of "the party commands the gun" (Chinese: 党指挥枪; pinyin: Dǎng zhǐhuī qiāng) In this sense, the PLA is not a national army of the type of traditional nation-states, but a political army or the armed wing of the CCP itself since its allegiance is to the party only and not the state or any constitution. At present, the CMC chairman is customarily also the CCP general secretary.

Today, the majority of military units around the country are assigned to one of five theater commands by geographical location. The PLA is the world's largest military force (not including paramilitary or reserve forces) and has the second largest defense budget in the world. China's military expenditure was US$296 billion in 2023, accounting for 12 percent of the world's defense expenditures. It is also one of the fastest modernizing militaries in the world, and has been termed as a potential military superpower, with significant regional defense and rising global power projection capabilities.[12][13]: 259 

Stated mission

In 2004, paramount leader Hu Jintao stated the mission of the PLA as:[14]

  • The insurance of CCP leadership
  • The protection of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, internal security and national development of the People's Republic of China
  • Safeguarding the country's interests
  • Maintaining and safeguarding world peace.

China describes its military posture as active defense, defined in a 2015 state white paper as "We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked."[15]: 41 

History

Early history

The CCP founded its military wing on 1 August 1927 during the Nanchang uprising, beginning the Chinese Civil War. Communist elements of the National Revolutionary Army rebelled under the leadership of Zhu De, He Long, Ye Jianying, Zhou Enlai, and other leftist elements of the Kuomintang (KMT), after the Shanghai massacre in 1927.[16] They were then known as the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, or simply the Red Army.[17]

In 1934 and 1935, the Red Army survived several campaigns led against it by Chiang Kai-Shek's KMT and engaged in the Long March.[18]

During the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, the CCP's military forces were nominally integrated into the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China forming two main units, the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army.[9] During this time, these two military groups primarily employed guerrilla tactics, generally avoiding large-scale battles with the Japanese, at the same time consolidating by recruiting KMT troops and paramilitary forces behind Japanese lines into their forces.[19]

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the CCP continued to use the National Revolutionary Army unit structures until the decision was made in February 1947 to merge the Eighth Route Army and New Fourth Army, renaming the new million-strong force the People's Liberation Army (PLA).[9] The reorganization was completed by late 1948. The PLA eventually won the Chinese Civil War, establishing the People's Republic of China in 1949.[20] It then underwent a drastic reorganization, with the establishment of the Air Force leadership structure in November 1949, followed by the Navy leadership structure the following April.[21][22]

In 1950, the leadership structures of the artillery, armored troops, air defense troops, public security forces, and worker–soldier militias were also established. The chemical warfare defense forces, the railroad forces, the communications forces, and the strategic forces, as well as other separate forces (like engineering and construction, logistics and medical services), were established later on.

In this early period, the People's Liberation Army overwhelmingly consisted of peasants.[23] Its treatment of soldiers and officers was egalitarian[23] and formal ranks were not adopted until 1955.[24] As a result of its egalitarian organization, the early PLA overturned strict traditional hierarchies that governed the lives of peasants.[23] As sociologist Alessandro Russo summarizes, the peasant composition of the PLA hierarchy was a radical break with Chinese societal norms and "overturned the strict traditional hierarchies in unprecedented forms of egalitarianism[.]"[23]

In the PRC's early years, the PLA was a dominant foreign policy institution in the country.[25]: 17 

Modernization and conflicts

PLA troops entering Beijing in 1949 during the Chinese Civil War
Chinese troops gathered on a T-34/85 or a Type 58 medium tank leaving North Korea in 1958, 5 years after the Korean War ended with an armistice (a ceasefire) in 1953. The banner in the background of the picture bears a slogan (in Chinese) which declares "The Friendship And Unity of the North Korean And Chinese Peoples Are Always Steadfast And Strong!"
Marshal Lin Biao surveying the soldiers during the 10th-anniversary military parade in 1959.

During the 1950s, the PLA with Soviet assistance began to transform itself from a peasant army into a modern one.[26] Since 1949, China has used nine different military strategies, which the PLA calls "strategic guidelines". The most important came in 1956, 1980, and 1993.[10] Part of this process was the reorganization that created thirteen military regions in 1955.[citation needed]

In November 1950, some units of the PLA under the name of the People's Volunteer Army intervened in the Korean War as United Nations forces under General Douglas MacArthur approached the Yalu River.[27] Under the weight of this offensive, Chinese forces drove MacArthur's forces out of North Korea and captured Seoul, but were subsequently pushed back south of Pyongyang north of the 38th Parallel.[27] The war also catalyzed the rapid modernization of the PLAAF.[28]

In 1962, the PLA ground force also fought India in the Sino-Indian War.[29][30] In a series of border clashes in 1967 with Indian troops, the PLA suffered heavy numerical and tactical losses.[31][32][33]

Before the Cultural Revolution, military region commanders tended to remain in their posts for long periods. The longest-serving military region commanders were Xu Shiyou in the Nanjing Military Region (1954–74), Yang Dezhi in the Jinan Military Region (1958–74), Chen Xilian in the Shenyang Military Region (1959–73), and Han Xianchu in the Fuzhou Military Region (1960–74).[34]

In the early days of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA abandoned the use of the military ranks that it had adopted in 1955.[24]

The establishment of a professional military force equipped with modern weapons and doctrine was the last of the Four Modernizations announced by Zhou Enlai and supported by Deng Xiaoping.[35][36] In keeping with Deng's mandate to reform, the PLA has demobilized millions of men and women since 1978 and has introduced modern methods in such areas as recruitment and manpower, strategy, and education and training.[37] In 1979, the PLA fought Vietnam over a border skirmish in the Sino-Vietnamese War where both sides claimed victory.[38] However, western analysts agree that Vietnam handily outperformed the PLA.[34]

During the Sino-Soviet split, strained relations between China and the Soviet Union resulted in bloody border clashes and mutual backing of each other's adversaries.[39] China and Afghanistan had neutral relations with each other during the King's rule.[40] When the pro-Soviet Afghan Communists seized power in Afghanistan in 1978, relations between China and the Afghan communists quickly turned hostile.[41] The Afghan pro-Soviet communists supported China's enemies in Vietnam and blamed China for supporting Afghan anticommunist militants.[41] China responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by supporting the Afghan mujahidin and ramping up their military presence near Afghanistan in Xinjiang.[41] China acquired military equipment from the United States to defend itself from Soviet attacks.[42]

The PLA Ground Force trained and supported the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War, moving its training camps for the mujahideen from Pakistan into China itself.[43] Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of anti-aircraft missiles, rocket launchers, and machine guns were given to the Mujahideen by the Chinese.[44] Chinese military advisors and army troops were also present with the Mujahideen during training.[42]

Since 1980

In 1981, the PLA conducted its largest military exercise in North China since the founding of the People's Republic.[10][45] In the 1980s, China shrunk its military considerably to free up resources for economic development, resulting in the relative decline in resources devoted to the PLA.[46] Following the PLA's suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, ideological correctness was temporarily revived as the dominant theme in Chinese military affairs.[47]

Reform and modernization have today resumed their position as the PLA's primary objectives, although the armed forces' political loyalty to the CCP has remained a leading concern.[48][49] Another area of concern to the political leadership was the PLA's involvement in civilian economic activities. These activities were thought to have impacted PLA readiness and have led the political leadership to attempt to divest the PLA from its non-military business interests.[50][51]

Beginning in the 1980s, the PLA tried to transform itself from a land-based power centered on a vast ground force to a smaller, more mobile, high-tech one capable of mounting operations beyond its borders.[10] The motivation for this was that a massive land invasion by Russia was no longer seen as a major threat, and the new threats to China are seen to be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, possibly with assistance from the United States, or a confrontation over the Spratly Islands.[52]

In 1985, under the leadership of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the CMC, the PLA changed from being constantly prepared to "hit early, strike hard and to fight a nuclear war" to developing the military in an era of peace.[10] The PLA reoriented itself to modernization, improving its fighting ability, and becoming a world-class force. Deng Xiaoping stressed that the PLA needed to focus more on quality rather than on quantity.[52]

The decision of the Chinese government in 1985 to reduce the size of the military by one million was completed by 1987. Staffing in military leadership was cut by about 50 percent. During the Ninth Five Year Plan (1996–2000) the PLA was reduced by a further 500,000. The PLA had also been expected to be reduced by another 200,000 by 2005. The PLA has focused on increasing mechanization and informatization to be able to fight a high-intensity war.[52]

The PLA Honor Guard in Beijing, 2007

Former CMC chairman Jiang Zemin in 1990 called on the military to "meet political standards, be militarily competent, have a good working style, adhere strictly to discipline, and provide vigorous logistic support" (Chinese: 政治合格、军事过硬、作风优良、纪律严明、保障有力; pinyin: zhèngzhì hégé, jūnshì guòyìng, zuòfēng yōuliáng, jìlǜ yánmíng, bǎozhàng yǒulì).[53] The 1991 Gulf War provided the Chinese leadership with a stark realization that the PLA was an oversized, almost-obsolete force.[54][55] The USA's sending of two aircraft carrier groups to the vicinity of Taiwan during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis prompted Jiang to order a ten-year PLA modernization program.[56]

The possibility of a militarized Japan has also been a continuous concern to the Chinese leadership since the late 1990s.[57] In addition, China's military leadership has been reacting to and learning from the successes and failures of the United States Armed Forces during the Kosovo War,[58] the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan,[59] the 2003 invasion of Iraq,[60] and the Iraqi insurgency.[60] All these lessons inspired China to transform the PLA from a military based on quantity to one based on quality. Chairman Jiang Zemin officially made a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) part of the official national military strategy in 1993 to modernize the Chinese armed forces.[61]

A goal of the RMA is to transform the PLA into a force capable of winning what it calls "local wars under high-tech conditions" rather than a massive, numbers-dominated ground-type war.[61] Chinese military planners call for short decisive campaigns, limited in both their geographic scope and their political goals. In contrast to the past, more attention is given to reconnaissance, mobility, and deep reach. This new vision has shifted resources towards the navy and air force. The PLA is also actively preparing for space warfare and cyber-warfare.[62][63][64]

In 2002, the PLA began holding military exercises with militaries from other countries.[65]: 242  From 2018 to 2023, more than half of these exercises have focused on military training other than war, generally antipiracy or antiterrorism exercises involving combatting non-state actors.[65]: 242  In 2009, the PLA held its first military exercise in Africa, a humanitarian and medical training practice conducted in Gabon.[65]: 242 

For the past 10 to 20 years, the PLA has acquired some advanced weapons systems from Russia, including Sovremenny class destroyers,[66] Sukhoi Su-27[67] and Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft,[68] and Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.[69] It has also started to produce several new classes of destroyers and frigates including the Type 052D class guided-missile destroyer.[70][71] In addition, the PLAAF has designed its very own Chengdu J-10 fighter aircraft[72] and a new stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20.[73] The PLA launched the new Jin class nuclear submarines on 3 December 2004 capable of launching nuclear warheads that could strike targets across the Pacific Ocean[74] and have three aircraft carriers, with the latest, the Fujian, launched in 2022.[75][76][77]

From 2014 to 2015, the PLA deployed 524 medical staff on a rotational basis to combat the Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau.[65]: 245  As of 2023, this was the PLA's largest medical assistance mission in another country.[65]: 245 

In 2015, the PLA formed new units including the PLA Ground Force, the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force.[78]

The PLA on 1 August 2017 marked its 90th anniversary.[79] Before the big anniversary it mounted its biggest parade yet and the first outside of Beijing, held in the Zhurihe Training Base in the Northern Theater Command (within the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region).[80]

In December 2023 Reuters reported a military leadership purge after high ranking generals were ousted from the Chinese legislature.[81] In preceding years, sixty generals have been investigated and sacked.[82]

Overseas deployments and peacekeeping operations

The People's Republic of China has sent the PLA to various hotspots as part of China's role as a prominent member of the United Nations.[83] Such units usually include engineers and logistical units and members of the paramilitary People's Armed Police and have been deployed as part of peacekeeping operations in Lebanon,[84][85] the Republic of the Congo,[84] Sudan,[86] Ivory Coast,[87] Haiti,[88][89] and more recently, Mali and South Sudan.[84][90]

Engagements

As of at least early 2024, China has not fought a war since 1979 and has only fought relatively minor conflicts since.[15]: 72 

Organization

The CMC is ceremonially housed in the Ministry of National Defense compound ("August 1st Building")

The PLA is a component of the Armed Forces of the People's Republic of China, along with two paramilitary organizations: the People's Armed Police and the Militia.[114] Under the doctrine of "the party commands the gun" (Chinese: 党指挥枪; pinyin: Dǎng zhǐhuī qiāng), the PLA is under the absolute control of the CCP.[10]

Central Military Commission

The PLA is governed by the Central Military Commission (CMC); under the arrangement of "one institution with two names", there exists a state CMC and a Party CMC, although both commissions have identical personnel, organization and function, and effectively work as a single body.[115] The only difference in membership between the two occurs for a few months every five years, during the period between a Party National Congress, when Party CMC membership changes, and the next ensuing National People's Congress, when the state CMC changes.[116]

The CMC is composed of a chairman, vice chairpersons and regular members. The chairman of the CMC is the commander-in-chief of the PLA, with the post generally held by the paramount leader of China; since 1989, the post has generally been held together with the CCP general secretary.[115][117] Unlike in other countries, the Ministry of National Defense and its Minister do not have command authority, largely acting as diplomatic liaisons of the CMC, though the Minister has always been a member of the CMC.[115]

The Membership of the Central Military Commission
Chairman
Vice Chairmen
Members

Previously, the PLA was governed by four general departments; the General Political, the General Logistics, the General Armament, and the General Staff Departments. These were abolished in 2016 under the military reforms undertaken by Xi Jinping, replaced with 15 new functional departments directly reporting to the CMC:[118]

  1. General Office
  2. Joint Staff Department
  3. Political Work Department
  4. Logistic Support Department
  5. Equipment Development Department
  6. Training and Administration Department
  7. National Defense Mobilization Department
  8. Discipline Inspection Commission
  9. Politics and Legal Affairs Commission
  10. Science and Technology Commission
  11. Office for Strategic Planning
  12. Office for Reform and Organizational Structure
  13. Office for International Military Cooperation
  14. Audit Office
  15. Agency for Offices Administration

Included among the 15 departments are three commissions. The CMC Discipline Inspection Commission is charged with rooting out corruption.

Political leadership

The CCP maintains absolute control over the PLA. It requires the PLA to undergo political education, instilling CCP ideology to its members.[119] Additionally, China maintains a political commissar system.[120] Regiment-level and higher units maintain CCP committees and political commissars (Chinese: 政治委员 or 政委).[120][121] Additionally, battalion-level and company-level units respectively maintain political directors and political instructors.[122] The political workers are officially equal to commanders in status.[119] The political workers are officially responsible for the implementation of party committee decisions, instilling and maintaining party discipline, providing political education, and working with other components of the political work system.[122]

As a rule, the political worker serves as the party committee secretary while the commander serves as the deputy secretary.[122] Key decisions in the PLA are generally made in the CCP committees throughout the military.[119] Due to the CCP's absolute leadership, non-CCP political parties, groups and organizations except the Communist Youth League of China are not allowed to establish organizations or have members in the PLA. Additionally, only the CCP is allowed to appoint the leading cadres at all levels of the PLA.[121]

Grades

The position of entities in the PLA hierarchy is denoted by grades (also known as leader grades, duty grades or unit grades) spanning from the CMC to the platoon level. The latest grade structure is from 2021 and has 19 levels (or 20 if counting specialist officers). Each field formation, organization, academic institution, billet, ship commanded by an officer, and officer has a grade.[123]

Organizations command lower graded organizations and coordinate with those of the same grade.[123] Civilian CMC members (who can only be the Chairman and Vice-chairmen) have grades but not ranks.[124] Officer grade was since 1988 more important than rank for career progression. There were ten ranks to fifteen grades. A grade used to be filled by at least two ranks, and a rank could span multiple grades.[124][125]. This changed after extensive reforms in 2021[126], which made one grade one rank the rule. Grades are still the main indicator of organizational hierarchy and command power, but they are being harmonized with ranks, and career progression made congruent to synchronized grade and rank promotions. Grade is visually indicated by a ribbon bar.[127] On January 1, 2021, the "Interim Regulations on the Management of Active Military Officers"[128][129] determined that the military ranks, job grades, and salary levels of the Armed Forces shall be organized as follows:[130]

Unit/Leader/Duty grade system after the 2021 reform[131]
Category Rank (军衔等级) Billet/Duty grade (岗位职务层级) Pay grade (待遇级别)[132]
Commander-in-Chief Unranked (无衔) Chairman of CMC Pay grade 1 (1级)
General Officers (将官) Full Generals (上将) CMC Deputy (中央军委副主席) Pay grade 2 (2级)
CMC Member (中央军委委员) Pay grade 3 (3级)
Theater Command Leader (战区主官) Pay grade 4 (4级)
Lieutenant General (中将) Theater Deputy Leader (战区副职) Pay grade 5 (5级)
Major General (少将) Corps Leader(军级主官) Pay grade 6 (6级)
Corps Deputy Leader (军级副职) Pay grade 7 (7级)
Field Officers (校官) Senior Colonel (大校) Divisional Unit Commander (师级部队主官) Pay grade 7 (7级)
Division Leader (师级主官) Pay grade 8 (8级)
Division Deputy Leader (师级副职)
Brigade Leader (旅级主官)
Pay grade 9 (9级)
Colonel (上校) Brigade Deputy Leader(旅级副职) Pay grades 8-11 (8—11级)
Regiment Leader (团级主官), Pay grades 8-11 (8—11级)
Lieutenant Colonel (中校) Regiment Deputy Leader (团级副职) Pay grades 10-13 (10—13级)
Battalion Leader (营级主官) Pay grades 11-13 (11—13级)
Major (少校) Battalion Leader (营级主官) Pay grades 12-16 (12—16级)
Battalion Deputy (营级副职) Pay grades 12-16 (12—16级)
Company Officers (尉官) Captain (上尉) Company Leader (连级主官) Pay grades 14-17 (14—17级)
First Lieutenant (中尉) Company Deputy Leader(连级副职) Pay grades 15-18 (15—18级)
Second Lieutenant (少尉) Platoon Leader(排级主官) Pay grades 17-19 (17—19级)

The process of unifying rank and grade is ongoing as of 2024, as officers are progressively promoted in and out of "mismatches".[133] Moreover, as is clear in the use of "interim" for the regulations, the reforms are not considered final and changes are certain to come in the near future.

Theater commands

The five theater commands of the PLA[134]

Until 2016, China's territory was divided into seven military regions, but they were reorganized into five theater commands in early 2016.[118] This reflected a change in their concept of operations from primarily ground-oriented to mobile and coordinated movement of all services.[135] The five theatre commands, in order of stated significance are:[136]

The military reforms have also introduced a major change in the areas of responsibility. Rather than separately commanding their troops, service branches are now primarily responsible for administrative tasks (like equipping and maintaining the troops). It is the theater commands now that have the command authority. This should, in theory, facilitate the implementation of joint operations across all service branches.[137]

Organization table

Central Military Commission
DepartmentsCommissionsOfficesArmsResearch institutes
General OfficeDiscipline Inspection CommissionOffice for Strategic PlanningAerospace ForceAcademy of Military Science
Joint Staff DepartmentPolitics and Legal Affairs CommissionOffice for Reform and Organizational StructureCyberspace ForceNational Defence University
Political Work DepartmentScience and Technology CommissionOffice for International Military CooperationInformation Support ForceNational University of Defense Technology
Logistic Support DepartmentAudit OfficeJoint Logistics Support Force[138]
Equipment Development DepartmentAgency for Offices Administration
Training and Administration Department
National Defense Mobilization Department
Theater commandsService Branches
Eastern Theater CommandPLA Ground Force
Western Theater CommandPLA Navy
Southern Theater CommandPLA Air Force
Northern Theater CommandPLA Rocket Force
Central Theater Command
People's Liberation Army

State-owned enterprises

Multiple state-owned enterprises have established internal People's Armed Forces Departments run by the People's Liberation Army.[139][140][141] The internal units are expected "to work together with grassroots organizations to collect intelligence and information, dissolve and/or eliminate security concerns at the budding stage," according to the People's Liberation Army Daily.[140]

Academic Institutions

There are two academic institutions directly subordinate to the CMC, the National Defense University and the National University of Defense Technology, and they are considered the two top military education institutions in China. There are also 35 institutions affiliated to the PLA's branches and arms, and 7 institutions affiliated to the People's Armed Police.[142]

Service branches

Services

The PLA maintains four services (Chinese: 军种; pinyin: jūnzhǒng): the Ground Force, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Rocket Force. Following the 200,000 and 300,000 personnel reduction announced in 2003 and 2005 respectively, the total strength of the PLA has been reduced from 2.5 million to around 2 million.[143] The reductions came mainly from non-combat ground forces, which would allow more funds to be diverted to naval, air, and strategic missile forces. This shows China's shift from ground force prioritisation to emphasising air and naval power with high-tech equipment for offensive roles over disputed coastal territories.[144]

Ground Force

A Type 99A main battle tank in service with the PLAGF

The PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) is the largest of the PLA's five services with 975,000 active duty personnel, approximately half of the PLA's total manpower of around 2 million personnel.[13]: 260  The PLAGF is organized into twelve active duty group armies sequentially numbered from the 71st Group Army to the 83rd Group Army which are distributed to each of the PRC's five theatre commands, receiving two to three group armies per command. In wartime, numerous PLAGF reserve and paramilitary units may be mobilized to augment these active group armies. The PLAGF reserve component comprises approximately 510,000 personnel divided into thirty infantry and twelve anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) divisions. The PLAGF is led by Commander Liu Zhenli and Political Commissar Qin Shutong.[145]

Navy

A PLAN destroyer conducting maritime interdiction operations at RIMPAC 2016

Until the early 1990s, the PLA Navy (PLAN) performed a subordinate role to the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF). Since then it has undergone rapid modernisation. The 300,000 strong PLAN is organized into three major fleets: the North Sea Fleet headquartered at Qingdao, the East Sea Fleet headquartered at Ningbo, and the South Sea Fleet headquartered in Zhanjiang.[146] Each fleet consists of a number of surface ship, submarine, naval air force, coastal defence, and marine units.[147][13]: 261 

The navy includes a 25,000 strong Marine Corps (organised into seven brigades), a 26,000 strong Naval Aviation Force operating several hundred attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.[13]: 263–264  As part of its overall programme of naval modernisation, the PLAN is in the stage of developing a blue water navy.[148] In November 2012, then Party General Secretary Hu Jintao reported to the CCP's 18th National Congress his desire to "enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resource and build China into a strong maritime power".[149] According to the United States Department of Defense, the PLAN has numerically the largest navy in the world.[150] The PLAN is led by Commander Dong Jun and Political Commissar Yuan Huazhi.[151]

Air Force

A Chengdu J-20 5th generation stealth fighter

The 395,000 strong People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was organized into five Theater Command Air Forces (TCAF) and 24 air divisions.[152]: 249–259  As of 2024, the system has been changed into 11 Corps Deputy-grade "Bases" controlling air brigades.[153] Divisions have been mostly converted to brigades,[153] although some (specifically the Bomber divisions, and some of the special mission units)[154] remain operational as divisions. The largest operational units within the Aviation Corps is the air division, which has 2 to 3 aviation regiments, each with 20 to 36 aircraft. An Air Brigade has from 24 to 50 aircraft.[155]

The surface-to-air missile (SAM) Corps is organized into SAM divisions and brigades. There are also three airborne divisions manned by the PLAAF. J-XX and XXJ are names applied by Western intelligence agencies to describe programs by the People's Republic of China to develop one or more fifth-generation fighter aircraft.[156][157] The PLAAF is led by Commander Chang Dingqiu and Political Commissar Guo Puxiao.[158][159]

Rocket Force

DF-21Ds at the 2015 Victory Parade

The People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is the main strategic missile force of the PLA and consists of at least 120,000 personnel.[13]: 259  It controls China's nuclear and conventional strategic missiles.[160] China's total nuclear arsenal size is estimated to be between 100 and 400 thermonuclear warheads. The PLARF is organized into bases sequentially numbered from 61 through 67, wherein the first six are operational and allocated to the nation's theater commands while Base 67 serves as the PRC's central nuclear weapons storage facility.[161] The PLARF is led by Command Li Yuchao and Political Commissar Xu Zhongbo.[162]

Arms

The PLA maintains four arms (Chinese: 兵种): the Aerospace Force, the Cyberspace Force, the Information Support Force, and the Joint Logistics Support Force. The four-arm system was established on 19 April 2024.[163]

Personnel

Recruitment and terms of service

The PLA began as an all-volunteer force. In 1955, as part of an effort to modernize the PLA, the first Military Service Law created a system of compulsory military service.[4] Since the late 1970s, the PLA has been a hybrid force that combines conscripts and volunteers.[4][164][165] Conscripts who fulfilled their service obligation can stay in the military as volunteer soldiers for a total of 16 years.[4][165] De jure, military service with the PLA is obligatory for all Chinese citizens. However, mandatory military service has not been enacted in China since 1949.[166][167]

Women and ethnic minorities

Female Colonel of the Joint Logistics Support Force.

Women participated extensively in unconventional warfare, including in combat positions, in the Chinese Red Army during the revolutionary period, Chinese Civil War (1927–1949) and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945).[168][169] After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, along with the People's Liberation Army (PLA)'s transition toward the conventional military organization, the role of women in the armed forces gradually reduced to support, medical, and logistics roles.[168] It was considered a prestigious choice for women to join the military. Serving in the military opens up opportunities for education, training, higher status, and relocation to cities after completing the service. During the Cultural Revolution, military service was regarded as a privilege and a method to avoid political campaign and coresion.[168]

In the 1980s, the PLA underwent large-scale demobilization amid the Chinese economic reform, and women were discharged back to civilian society for economic development while the exclusion of women in the military expanded.[168] In the 1990s, the PLA revived the recruitment of female personnel in regular military formations but primarily focused on non-combat roles at specialized positions.[168] Most women were trained in areas such as academic/engineering, medics, communications, intelligence, cultural work, and administrative work, as these positions conform to the traditional gender roles. Women in the PLA were more likely to be cadets and officers instead of enlisted soldiers because of their specializations.[168] The military organization still preserved some female combat units as public exemplars of social equality.[168][169]

Both enlisted and cadet women personnel underwent the same basic training as their male counterparts in the PLA, but many of them serve in predominantly female organizations. Due to ideological reasons, the regulation governing the segregation of sex in the PLA is prohibited, but a quasi-segregated arrangement for women's organizations is still applied through considerations of convenience.[168] Women were likelier to hold commanding positions in female-heavy organizations such as medical, logistic, research, and political work units, but sometimes in combat units during peacetime.[168] In PLAAF, women traditionally pilot transport aircraft or serve as crew members.[170] There had been a small number of high-ranking female officials in the PLA since 1949, but the advancement of position had remained relatively uncommon.[168][169] In the 2010s, women were increasingly serving in combat roles, in mixed-gender organizations alongside their male counterparts, and to the same physical standard.[169]

The military actively promotes opportunities for women in the military, such as celebrating International Women's Day for the members of the armed forces, publicizing the number of firsts for female officers and enlisted personnel, including deployments with peacekeeping forces or serving on PLA Navy's first aircraft carrier, announcing female military achievements in state media, and promoting female special forces through news reports or popular media.[169] PLA does not publish detailed gender composition of its armed forces, but the Jamestown Foundation estimated approximately 5% of the active military force in China is female.[171]

National unity and territorial integrity are central themes of the Chinese Communist Revolution. The Chinese Red Army and the succeeding PLA actively recruited ethnic minorities. During the Chinese Civil War, Mongol cavalry units were formed. During the Korean War, as many as 50,000 ethnic Koreans in China volunteered to join the PLA. PLA's recruitment of minorities generally correlates to state policies. During the early years, minorities were given preferential treatment, with special attention given to recruitment and training. In the 1950s, ethnic Mongols accounted for 52% of all officers in Inner Mongolia military region. During the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, armed forces emphasized "socialist culture", assimilation policies, and the construction of common identities between soldiers of different ethnicities.[172]

For ethnic minority cadets and officials, overall development follows national policies. Typically, minority officers hold officer positions in their home regions. Examples included over 34% of the battalion and regimental cadres in Yi autonomous region militia were of the Yi ethnicity, and 45% of the militia cadres in Tibetan local militia were of Tibetan ethnicity. Ethnical minorities achieved high-ranking positions in the PLA, and the percentage of appointments appears to follow the ratio of the Chinese population composition.[172] Prominent figures included ethnic Mongol general Ulanfu, who served in high-ranking roles in the Inner Mongolian region and as vice president of China, and ethnic Uyghur Saifuddin Azizi, a Lieutenant General who served in the CCP Central Committee.[172] There were a few instances of ethnic distrust within the PLA, with one prominent example being the defection of Margub Iskhakov, an ethnic Muslim Tatar PLA general, to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. However, his defection largely contributed to his disillusion with the failed Great Leap Forward policies, instead of his ethnic background.[173] In modern times, ethnic representation is most visible among junior-ranking officers. Only a few minorities reach the highest-ranking positions.[173]

Rank structure

Officers

Rank group General / flag officers Senior officers Junior officers Officer cadet
 PLA Ground Force[174]
General Lieutenant General Major General Colonel Commandant Colonel Lieutenant Colonel Major Captain First Lieutenant Second Lieutenant Officer Cadet
上将
Shàngjiāng
中将
Zhōngjiāng
少将
Shàojiāng
大校
Dàxiào
上校
Shàngxiào
中校
Zhōngxiào
少校
Shàoxiào
上尉
Shàngwèi
中尉
Zhōngwèi
少尉
Shàowèi
学员
Xuéyuán


 PLA Navy[174]
海军上将
Hǎijūn shàngjiàng
海军中将
Hǎijūn zhōngjiàng
海军少将
Hǎijūn shàojiàng
海军大校
Hǎijūn dàxiào
海军上校
Hǎijūn shàngxiào
海军中校
Hǎijūn zhōngxiào
海军少校
Hǎijūn shàoxiào
海军上尉
Hǎijūn shàngwèi
海军中尉
Hǎijūn zhōngwèi
海军少尉
Hǎijūn shàowèi
海军学员
Hǎijūn xuéyuán


 PLA Air Force[174]
General Lieutenant General Major General Brigadier Colonel Lieutenant Colonel Major Captain First Lieutenant Second Lieutenant Officer Cadet
空军上将
Kōngjūn shàngjiàng
空军中将
Kōngjūn zhōngjiàng
空军少将
Kōngjūn shàojiàng
空军大校
Kōngjūn dàxiào
空军上校
Kōngjūn shàngxiào
空军中校
Kōngjūn zhōngxiào
空军少校
Kōngjūn shàoxiào
空军上尉
Kōngjūn shàngwèi
空军中尉
Kōngjūn zhōngwèi
空军少尉
Kōngjūn shàowèi
空军学员
Kōngjūn xuéyuán


PLA Rocket Force
General
General
Lieutenant General
Lieutenant General
Major General
Major General
Colonel Commandant
Colonel Commandant
Colonel
Colonel
Lieutenant Colonel
Lieutenant Colonel
Major
Major
Captain
Captain
First Lieutenant
First Lieutenant
Second Lieutenant
Second Lieutenant
Officer Cadet
Officer Cadet
上将
Shàngjiàng
中将
Zhōngjiàng
少将
Shàojiàng
大校
Dàxiào
上校
Shàngxiào
中校
Zhōngxiào
少校
Shàoxiào
上尉
Shàngwèi
中尉
Zhōngwèi
少尉
Shàowèi
学员
Xuéyuán


China PLA Strategic Support Force
上将
Shàngjiàng
中将
Zhōngjiàng
少将
Shàojiàng
大校
Dàxiào
上校
Shàngxiào
中校
Zhōngxiào
少校
Shàoxiào
上尉
Shàngwèi
中尉
Zhōngwèi
少尉
Shàowèi
学员
Xuéyuán

Other ranks

Rank group Senior NCOs Junior NCOs Enlisted
 PLA Ground Force[174]
一级军士长
Yījí jūnshìzhǎng
二级军士长
Èrjí jūnshìzhǎng
三级军士长
Sānjí jūnshìzhǎng
四级军士长
Sìjí jūnshìzhǎng
上士
Shàngshì
中士
Zhōngshì
下士
Xiàshì
上等兵
Shàngděngbīng
列兵
Lièbīng


 PLA Navy[174]
海军一级军士长
Hǎijūn yījí jūnshìzhǎng
海军二级军士长
Hǎijūn èrjí jūnshìzhǎng
海军三级军士长
Hǎijūn sānjí jūnshìzhǎng
海军四级军士长
Hǎijūn sìjí jūnshìzhǎng
海军上士
Hǎijūn shàngshì
海军中士
Hǎijūn zhōngshì
海军下士
Hǎijūn xiàshì
海军上等兵
Hǎijūn shàngděngbīng
海军列兵
Hǎijūn lièbīng


 PLA Air Force[174]
空军一级军士长
Kōngjūn yījí jūnshìzhǎng
空军二级军士长
Kōngjūn èrjí jūnshìzhǎng
空军三级军士长
Kōngjūn sānjí jūnshìzhǎng
空军四级军士长
Kōngjūn sìjí jūnshìzhǎng
空军上士
Kōngjūn shàngshì
空军中士
Kōngjūn zhōngshì
空军下士
Kōngjūn xiàshì
空军上等兵
Kōngjūn shàngděngbīng
空军列兵
Kōngjūn lièbīng


PLA Rocket Force
No equivalent
Master sergeant class one
一级军士长
yījí jūnshìzhǎng
Master sergeant class two
二级军士长
èrjí jūnshìzhǎng
Master sergeant class three
三级军士长
sānjí jūnshìzhǎng
Master sergeant class four
四级军士长
sìjí jūnshìzhǎng
Sergeant first class
上士
shàngshì
Sergeant
中士
zhōngshì
Corporal
下士
xiàshì
Private first class
上等兵
shàngděngbīng
Private
列兵
lièbīng


PLA Strategic Support Force
一级军士长
Yījí jūnshìzhǎng
二级军士长
Èrjí jūnshìzhǎng
三级军士长
Sānjí jūnshìzhǎng
四级军士长
Sìjí jūnshìzhǎng
上士
Shàngshì
中士
Zhōngshì
下士
Xiàshì
上等兵
Shàngděngbīng
列兵
Lièbīng

Weapons and equipment

According to the United States Department of Defense, China is developing kinetic-energy weapons, high-powered lasers, high-powered microwave weapons, particle-beam weapons, and electromagnetic pulse weapons with its increase of military fundings.[175]

The PLA has said of reports that its modernisation is dependent on sales of advanced technology from American allies, senior leadership have stated "Some have politicized China's normal commercial cooperation with foreign countries, damaging our reputation." These contributions include advanced European diesel engines for Chinese warships, military helicopter designs from Eurocopter, French anti-submarine sonars and helicopters,[176] Australian technology for the Houbei class missile boat,[177] and Israeli supplied American missile, laser and aircraft technology.[178]

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's data, China became the world's third largest exporter of major arms in 2010–14, an increase of 143 percent from the period 2005–2009.[179] SIPRI also calculated that China surpassed Russia to become the world's second largest arms exporter by 2020.[180]

China's share of global arms exports hence increased from 3 to 5 percent. China supplied major arms to 35 states in 2010–14. A significant percentage (just over 68 percent) of Chinese exports went to three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China also exported major arms to 18 African states. Examples of China's increasing global presence as an arms supplier in 2010–14 included deals with Venezuela for armoured vehicles and transport and trainer aircraft, with Algeria for three frigates, with Indonesia for the supply of hundreds of anti-ship missiles and with Nigeria for the supply of several unmanned combat aerial vehicles.[181]

Following rapid advances in its arms industry, China has become less dependent on arms imports, which decreased by 42 percent between 2005–09 and 2010–14. Russia accounted for 61 percent of Chinese arms imports, followed by France with 16 percent and Ukraine with 13 per cent. Helicopters formed a major part of Russian and French deliveries, with the French designs produced under licence in China.[181]

Over the years, China has struggled to design and produce effective engines for combat and transport vehicles. It continued to import large numbers of engines from Russia and Ukraine in 2010–14 for indigenously designed combat, advanced trainer and transport aircraft, and naval ships. It also produced British-, French- and German-designed engines for combat aircraft, naval ships and armoured vehicles, mostly as part of agreements that have been in place for decades.[181]

In August 2021, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the globe before speeding towards its target.[182] The Financial Times reported that "the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized."[183] During the Exercise Zapad-81 in 2021 with Russian forces, most of the gear were novel Chinese arms such as the KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, J-20 and J-16 fighters, Y-20 transport planes, and surveillance and combat drones.[184] Another joint forces exercise took place in August 2023 near Alaska.[185]

Cyberwarfare

There is a belief in the Western military doctrines that the PLA have already begun engaging countries using cyber-warfare.[186] There has been a significant increase in the number of presumed Chinese military initiated cyber events from 1999 to the present day.[187]

Cyberwarfare has gained recognition as a valuable technique because it is an asymmetric technique that is a part of information operations and information warfare. As is written by two PLAGF Colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in the book Unrestricted Warfare, "Methods that are not characterized by the use of the force of arms, nor by the use of military power, nor even by the presence of casualties and bloodshed, are just as likely to facilitate the successful realization of the war's goals, if not more so.[188]

While China has long been suspected of cyber spying, on 24 May 2011 the PLA announced the existence of having 'cyber capabilities'.[189]

In February 2013, the media named "Comment Crew" as a hacker military faction for China's People's Liberation Army.[190] In May 2014, a Federal Grand Jury in the United States indicted five Unit 61398 officers on criminal charges related to cyber attacks on private companies based in the United States after alleged investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who exposed their identities in collaboration with US intelligence agencies such as the CIA.[191][192]

In February 2020, the United States government indicted members of China's People's Liberation Army for the 2017 Equifax data breach, which involved hacking into Equifax and plundering sensitive data as part of a massive heist that also included stealing trade secrets, though the CCP denied these claims.[193][194]

Nuclear capabilities

The range of the PLA Rocket Force's medium and intercontinental ballistic missiles (2006)

The first of China's nuclear weapons tests took place in 1964, and its first hydrogen bomb test occurred in 1967 at Lop Nur. Tests continued until 1996, when the country signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), but did not ratify it.[195]

The number of nuclear warheads in China's arsenal remains a state secret.[196] There are varying estimates of the size of China's arsenal. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Federation of American Scientists estimated in 2024 that China has a stockpile of approximately 438 nuclear warheads,[196][197] while the United States Department of Defense put the estimate at more than 500 operational nuclear warheads,[198] making it the third-largest in the world.

China's policy has traditionally been one of no first use while maintaining a deterrent retaliatory force targeted for countervalue targets.[199] According to a 2023 study by the National Defense University, China's nuclear doctrine has historically leaned toward maintaining a secure second-strike capability.[200]

Space

Having witnessed the crucial role of space to United States military success in the Gulf War, China continues to view space as a critical domain in both conflict and international strategic competition.[201][202] The PLA operates a various satellite constellations performing reconnaissance, navigation, communication, and counterspace functions.[203][204][205][206]

Significant components of the PLA's space-based reconnaissance include Jianbing (vanguard) satellites with cover names Yaogan (遥感; 'remote sensing') and Gaofen (高分; 'high resolution').[203][207] These satellites collect electro-optical (EO) imagery to collect a literal representation of a target, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery to penetrate the cloudy climates of southern China,[208] and electronic intelligence (ELINT) to provide targeting intelligence on adversarial ships.[209][210] The PLA also leverages a restricted, high-performance service of the country's BeiDou positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites for its forces and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.[211][212] For secure communications, the PLA uses the Zhongxing and Fenghuo series of satellites which enable secure data and voice transmission over C-band, Ku-band, and UHF.[205] PLA deployment of anti-satellite and counterspace satellites including those of the Shijian and Shiyan series have also brought significant concern from western nations.[213][206][214]

The PLA also plays a significant role in the Chinese space program.[201] To date, all the participants have been selected from members of the PLA Air Force.[201] China became the third country in the world to have sent a man into space by its own means with the flight of Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft on 15 October 2003,[215] the flight of Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng aboard Shenzhou 6 on 12 October 2005,[216] and Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng aboard Shenzhou 7 on 25 September 2008.[217]

The PLA started the development of an anti-ballistic and anti-satellite system in the 1960s, code named Project 640, including ground-based lasers and anti-satellite missiles.[218] On 11 January 2007, China conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite missile, with an SC-19 class KKV.[219]

The PLA has tested two types of hypersonic space vehicles, the Shenglong Spaceplane and a new one built by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation. Only a few pictures have appeared since it was revealed in late 2007. Earlier, images of the High-enthalpy Shock Waves Laboratory wind tunnel of the CAS Key Laboratory of high-temperature gas dynamics (LHD) were published in the Chinese media. Tests with speeds up to Mach 20 were reached around 2001.[220][221]

Budget

Official budget
Publication
date
Value
(billions of US$)
March 2000 14.6[citation needed]
March 2001 17.0[citation needed]
March 2002 20.0[citation needed]
March 2003 22.0[citation needed]
March 2004 24.6[citation needed]
March 2005 29.9[citation needed]
March 2006 35.0[citation needed]
March 2007 44.9[citation needed]
March 2008 58.8[222]
March 2009 70.0[citation needed]
March 2010 76.5[223]
March 2011 90.2[223]
March 2012 103.1[223]
March 2013 116.2[223]
March 2014 131.2[223]
March 2015 142.4[223]
March 2016 143.7[223]
March 2017 151.4[223]
March 2018 165.5[224]
March 2019 177.6[225]
May 2020 183.5[226]
March 2021 209.4[227]
March 2022 229.4[228]
March 2023 235.8[citation needed]

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that China's military expenditure was US$296 billion in 2023, the second-largest in the world after the United States and accounting for 12 percent of the world's defense expenditures.[229]

Budget figures are published on the website of the State Council via a document named 'Central and Local Budgets' followed by the preceding year of the publication.[citation needed]

A pie chart showing global military expenditures by country for 2019, in US$ billions, according to SIPRI

Symbols

Anthem

The Central Military Band of the People's Liberation Army of China at the Great Hall of the People. The band is a common performer of the military anthem of the PLA at ceremonial protocol events.

The March of the Chinese People's Liberation Army was adopted as the military anthem by the Central Military Commission on 25 July 1988.[230] The lyrics of the anthem were written by composer Gong Mu (real name: Zhang Yongnian; Chinese: 张永年) and the music was composed by Korea-born Chinese composer Zheng Lücheng.[231][232]

Flag and insignia

The PLA's insignia consists of a roundel with a red star bearing the two Chinese characters "八一"(literally "eight-one"), referring to the Nanchang uprising which began on 1 August 1927 (first day of the eighth month) and symbolic as the CCP's founding of the PLA.[233] The inclusion of the two characters ("八一") is symbolic of the party's revolutionary history carrying strong emotional connotations of the political power which it shed blood to obtain. The flag of the Chinese People's Liberation Army is the war flag of the People's Liberation Army; the layout of the flag has a golden star at the top left corner and "八一" to the right of the star, placed on a red field. Each service branch also has its flags: The top 58 of the flags is the same as the PLA flag; the bottom 38 are occupied by the colors of the branches.[234]

The flag of the Ground Forces has a forest green bar at the bottom. The naval ensign has stripes of blue and white at the bottom. The Air Force uses a sky blue bar. The Rocket Force uses a yellow bar at the bottom. The forest green represents the earth, the blue and white stripes represent the seas, the sky blue represents the air and the yellow represents the flare of missile launching.[235][236]

See also

References

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Works cited

Further reading

History

Present-day

Preceded by Armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party
1 November 1948 – present
Incumbent