New Roles Played by Different PLA Departments after China’s Military Reform
By Gang Chen

New Roles Played by Different PLA Departments after China’s Military Reform

Apr. 22, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Following three years of power consolidation through an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign and the enforcement of comprehensive reform blueprints, Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping has proven himself to be a charismatic statesman with a highly attention-grabbing leadership and resilient ruling style. As commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi unexpectedly snared Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the PLA’s top command mechanism.

Anti-corruption purges were followed by reforms. In November 2015, Beijing announced guidelines for reforming the PLA, with CMC Chairman Xi vowing to make a breakthrough in the overhaul by 2020. The reforms included plans to reorganize the four headquarters at the top of the command system — General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments — and to restructure the seven military command regions. The role of the disciplinary commission has been enhanced within the CMC to tackle corruption by sending inspectors to every level of the military to ensure strict discipline. In general, after the PLA restructure, some departments and their employees’ political status have been uplifted whereas some other departments will lose in status or see some of their functions and power eroded by their newly-established peers.

Restructuring the PLA’s General Departments

Before the restructuring, the four general military headquarters — the Staff, Politics, Logistics, and Armament general departments — constituted the superstructure of the PLA’s central command system. After the restructuring, these four powerful departments (si zong bu) continue to be important components of the top command system, but they now have to share this prestigious status with 11 newly-promoted agencies and commissions that are now also under the direct administration of the CMC. The 15 departments directly subordinated to the CMC enhance the party’s control over the military with more effective strategic planning and supervision of military officers.

Highlighting the PLA’s joint warfighting capabilities, the CMC Joint General Staff Department (Table 1), headed by Fang Fenghui, is responsible for military operations planning, command and control, military strategies, assessment of operational capacity, guidance of joint exercises and combat preparations, etc. The Political Work Department, whose predecessor had practiced Mao’s thought on military control and discipline, remains accountable for party construction, organization, political education, and human resources management in the military, with General Zhang Yang as the director of the department. Demanding better compatibility with the construction of joint operational capability, the Logistics Support Department headed by General Zhao Keshi has been optimized regarding the allocation of logistics support and the relations between leadership and command. As for the Equipment Development Department headed by General Zhang Youxia, its main responsibility remains the planning and conduct of R&D, and the testing and procurement of equipment and weapons for the whole military. In general, the roles played by these four general departments have not changed much, but they are now receiving many more checks and balances from the other newly-promoted 11 departments under the direct administration of the CMC, and some of their functions and tasks have been shifted to these 11 departments.

The CMC Training and Administration Department and the CMC National Defense Mobilization Department are two brand new departments. To implement a closer combination of military training and troop management, and better management of military colleges and universities, the CMC Training and Administration Department is designed to strengthen “the centralized planning, organization and leadership of the training across the military and enhancing the management of troops and military academies” (China’s Ministry of National Defense, 2016a).

China has a large number of reserve units, including civilian units, for the rapid mobilization of both military and civilian forces during wartime (Tai, 2009). With a smaller standing army, the increased effectiveness of the mobilization of Chinese civilians to safeguard national security is becoming increasingly crucial. Accordingly, the CMC National Defense Mobilization Department is in charge of organizing national defense mobilization, building reserve forces, and leading provincial military commands.

In order to enhance disciplinary inspections and the anti-corruption effort, the new CMC Discipline Inspection Commission will regularly send inspection teams to CMC departments and battle zones. In China, the PLA used to be an independent domain insulated from the judicial system within the state apparatus. The CMC Politics and Law Commission has been established to improve governance by law in the military.

The Sino-Vietnamese war provoked a wave of debates on the PLA’s organizational reforms, while the accelerated modernization of the PLA’s weapons systems was actually driven by the profound shock of the US’ high-technology war capabilities displayed during the Gulf War (Shambaugh 2002), which still remains a notable concern in the current restructuring. The Equipment Development Department was formed by the CMC Science and Technology Commission is to strengthen the strategic management of R&D for national defense by pushing for the integrated advancement of both military and civilian science and technology. The CMC Office for Strategic Planning is responsible for improving the strategic planning system for the whole military. For continuing reforms in the PLA, the CMC Office for Reform and Organizational Structure will push for the implementation of major reshuffles.

The Office for International Military Cooperation is in charge of foreign military exchanges and cooperation, while the Audit Administration Office is responsible for military audit and supervision. The Administrative Affairs Management Office will provide general support to the CMC and the CMC agencies.

Table 1. New Commanders in the PLA (Liu and Chen, 2016, pp. 4-5)

New Title



Previous position


Joint General Staff chief

Fang Fenghui


Chief of General Staff


Joint General Staff deputy chief

Xu Fenlin


Guangzhou Military Command chief


PLA Army chief

Li Zuocheng


Chengdu Military Command chief


Navy chief

Sun Jianguo


General Staff Department deputy chief


Air force chief

Yi Xiaoguang


General Staff Department deputy chief

Air force

Rocket Force chief

Wei Fenghe


Chief of the Second Artillery Corps


Strategic Support Force chief

Gao Jin


President of the PLA Academy of Military Science


Eastern Theater chief

Liu Yuejun


Lanzhou Military Command chief


Western Theater chief

Zhao Zongqi


Jinan Military Command chief


Southern Theater chief

Wang Jiaocheng


Shenyang Military Command chief


Northern Theater chief

Song Puxuan


Beijing Military Command chief


Central Theater chief

Han Weiguo


Beijing Military Command vice-commander


The Newly-Established Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force

Unlike Wei Fenghe who commanded the Second Artillery Corps before it was recently renamed the Rocket Force, Lieutenant General Gao Jin, commander of the Strategic Support Force, has a stronger academic background, although he had also served in the Second Artillery since 2001. Gao has a Master’s degree from the Second Artillery Engineering University, the only military school to train strategic missile commanders. Above all, Gao has conducted in-depth research and published papers on the use of missiles, and has made considerable contributions in establishing the PLA’s Unit 15A, which oversees the development of new-generation missiles.

Established primarily on the PLA’s ground forces, guiding the construction of joint operational capacity among the various PLA forces, the PLA Army’s General Command is a centralized command hub for the management of ground forces. Obviously, the Army’s General Command is designed to further adapt into the integrated system of the three forces (army, navy and air force), which has become an urgent priority since the PLA’s leaders recognized the weaknesses of the excessive focus on the army (“Media’s interview of”, 2016) and the inefficient mechanism for coordinating multi-type forces in modern battles.

Built from the Second Artillery Corps, the Rocket Force is China’s strategic and tactical missile force, commanding nuclear and conventional strategic missiles, and like its counterparts, is directly commanded by the CMC. The PLA Rocket Force is China’s core strategic deterrence power, which will strengthen the PLA’s capabilities of nuclear deterrence, and medium- and long-range precision strikes. Regarding nuclear deterrence, China has already equipped its nuclear missiles with “multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs)” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2015) that put multiple warheads on a single missile and deliver them separately against targets. This is represented by the DF-21D, widely known as the “carrier-killer” missile, that appeared in the Tian’anmen Square military parade on September 2, 2015.

In comparison with other two forces, the new Strategic Support Force (SSF) has caught the widest attention outside China. As Xi said in his speech, it “is a new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA’s combat capabilities” (China’s Ministry of National Defense, 2016b). The SSF is supposed to be a crux for the PLA’s joint operations, and the case of how the US successfully killed Osama Bin Laden was used in the article to highlight the importance of overall strategic support from spy satellites, stealth scout planes, fighter jets, and even aircraft carriers and land bases. Integrating operations of land, air, and rocket forces, accurate intelligence from the strategic support force will be particularly critical for successful modern combat. The SSF has wider range of responsibilities than focusing on cyber operations, which will include the five domains of intelligence, i.e., technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cyber offense and defense, and psychological warfare. Also, in a broader sense, research on military science and weapons systems involve strategic intelligence support, and some people have called the SSF a “cloud think tank” for the PLA (“What will strategic”, 2016).


China’s Ministry of National Defense. (2016a). MND holds press conference on CMC organ reshuffle. Retrieved from

China’s Ministry of National Defense. (2016b). China establishes Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force. Retrieved from

Liu, B. and Chen, G. (2016). Xi Jinping restructures People’s Liberation Army’s command system and military zones. Singapore: East Asian Institute Background Brief No. 1123.

Media’s interview of Commander Li Zuocheng. (2016, January 30). People’s Daily. Retrieved from

Office of the Secretary of Defense. (2015). Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015. Retrieved from

Shambaugh, D. (2002). Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tai, M.C. (2009). Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy. Cornell University Press.

What will strategic support force do? (2016, January 24). Ifeng News. Retrieved from

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