2018 Annual People's Liberation Army Conference
"The People in the PLA" 2.0
On October 19-21, 2018, The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), and Headquarters, Department of the Army convened the 27th annual People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Conference in Carlisle, PA. The conference topic—”The People in the PLA” 2.0—revisited a theme first explored at the conference in 2006 but understudied since. In this year’s presentations and discussions, participants examined how the structure, education, training, and recruitment of PLA personnel have changed in the last decade, and the effects of the Xi era.
The conference featured remarks by current and retired senior U.S. officials on their personal experiences and interactions with the people of the PLA. There was a consensus among these former officials that despite the challenges the PLA faces in modernizing its personnel, the PLA is increasingly confident, and the relationship with the United States is becoming increasingly competitive.
The rest of the conference was structured as a series of panels and breakout discussions. The first panel, entitled “Structural Changes in the PLA at the Beginning of the Xi Era,” focused on departments within the PLA that have undergone significant change under President Xi. One recurring theme in each presentation was the importance and difficulty of joint operations, which will be integral to the PLA’s future success. In the last decade, the PLA has begun to project its power abroad, increasing its overseas operations. As its overseas operations grow, the PLA will have to adapt to working with local societies and operating according to international norms. In terms of the politics of the PLA, Xi has continued to tighten Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control over the PLA, first with investigations into corrupt high-ranking officers such as Xu Caihou, and more recently with the dissolution of the General Political Department (GPD) in 2016 and its replacement with the Political Work Department. Disciplinary functions of the GPD were transferred to new entities to reduce corruption and increase the independence of investigations. Lastly, panelists examined changes in PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) personnel, including increases in the recruitment of women, engineering graduate students, and overall highly educated personnel. Issues of mental health and electronic security were also discussed, and it appears that the PLARF is responding to these emerging issues faster than other branches of the PLA.
Panel two, “Education and Civil-Military Relations,” examined reforms in the education of PLA personnel and the relationship between veterans of the PLA and society at large. In terms of the integration of civilian resources into the PLA education system, the PLA has created several new programs to both increase the education level of its recruits as well as diversify its candidate pool. With the elimination of the National Defense Student Program in 2017, it is not clear how the PLA will continue to integrate civilian resources going forward. The military education system has experienced major changes since Xi assumed power. Career tracks and training institutions have been severely cut, and there remains a stark divide in education and knowledge between commanding officers and non-commanding officers throughout their respective careers. Finally, the treatment of decommissioned soldiers has left many veterans resentful and led to protests throughout the PRC. Veterans’ protests are seen by the CCP as a socially destabilizing force, meriting the recent creation of a Ministry of Veteran Affairs. The main purpose of the ministry, however, may be to quell social disruption rather than meet the needs of former soldiers who feel socially ostracized or mistreated.
After the first two panels, conference participants separated into four breakout sessions on a diverse range of topics, namely: China-Russia Military Cooperation, Women in the PLA, Expanding PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Operations, and Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress Report. In the briefback session, breakout session facilitators presented key findings and lessons learned. In the China-Russia discussion, there was consensus that mil-mil relations between the two nations had improved, but it was less clear whether the relationship could be sustained. The session on women in the PLA questioned the motives of the PLA in recruiting women and touched on broader social issues regarding women in China and how female Chinese citizens view the PLA. The PLAAF operations group discussed the expanding mission of the PLAAF and the use of flights over international waters to both train and demonstrate capabilities. The 19th Party Congress breakout discussed how China’s overall understanding of its security situation will shape the PLA. The group examined whether China was moving toward continuity or change and concluded that the Party sees the country as entering a new era wherein China will have a larger role in shaping the international order.
Panel three, “Preparing to Fight and Win,” explored how the PRC is training the PLA to be successful in modern warfare. One method of improving the capability of the force is through foreign training exercises, which are gaining greater importance for the PLA. Personnel chosen for such trainings are heavily vetted, but it is unclear how long they participate in such trainings or the role these experiences play in career advancement. The importance of joint operations talent was reiterated during this panel, as many of the PLA’s education reforms are directed at improving joint courses and materials to create a knowledge base that informs the tactical level. While these reforms are clearly outlined, it is difficult to assess their success and quality thus far. Finally, when it comes to information warfare, the PLA’s biggest challenge is its people, not its technology. Potential recruits for information warfare units overlap with the private IT sector, making it harder to bring in and retain top-tier talent. Furthermore, those who are executing information warfare are simultaneously helping to develop the technology, which is unique compared to other PLA department personnel.
The concluding panel reflected on not only this year’s conference, but on PLA studies since the “founding generation,” and in particular the contributions of Ellis Joffe. Panelists discussed Joffe’s unique and deep knowledge of China and the PLA at a time when very little was known and the study of the PLA could be politically dangerous. While he was not completely prescient, Joffe did understand the politics of the PLA and the growing CCP desire to have a PLA that reflects China’s role and status in the world. Future conferences will continue the tradition of consciously fostering a new generation of PLA experts characterized by rich cultural, historical, and analytical sensitivity.