How China commands its ‘people’s army’
13 Nov 2023|

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing in June exposed the scarcity of military-to-military dialogue between China’s People’s Liberation Army and the US military. Stabilising US–China relations to manage competition and avoid conflict was the main goal of Blinken’s visit.

Despite echoing these aims in its propaganda, Beijing has closed military-to-military channels at the same time that the PLA is ramping up assertive manoeuvres against US assets in the Indo-Pacific, raising the risk of potentially fatal miscalculations and accidents. These channels could mean the difference between peace and war.

The PLA is the Chinese Communist Party’s military arm. Article 29 of the Chinese constitution states that the armed services ‘belong to the people’, yet CCP Secretary General and Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated to the 20th Party National Congress the importance of ‘absolute leadership of the party over the people’s army’. As chair of the Central Military Commission, Xi is paramount commander of the PLA—itself a branch of the party, not the Chinese state.

That might sound similar to the principle of civilian control over the military familiar in the West, including the US president’s role as commander-in-chief, but these parallels are misleading. Xi commands without the checks and balances central to constitutional democracy. The CCP extends its control over the PLA at every level of command through the ‘military and political dual-command structure’ (军政双首长制).

Quoting Mao Zedong at the PLA’s 90th anniversary celebration in 2017, Xi reminded the armed forces that ‘our principle is that the party commands the gun, but the gun is never allowed to command the party’. The CCP uses political organisations to avoid corruption, revolution and dissension in the PLA, and officials have noted the importance of the dual-command structure in ‘fully implementing and embodying the fundamental principle of the absolute leadership of the party over the people’s army’.

While a dual-command structure will be unfamiliar to most associated with Western-style militaries, it is imperative to understanding China’s ‘people’s army’. So what is it? And why does the CCP think it is  the PLA’s ‘greatest characteristic and advantage’ compared to the West’s single-command structure ()?

Essentially, the PLA reports to the rest of the CCP at every level of command. The party uses a handful of political organisations in the PLA, additional to the military’s command structure, to keep it under control. The political commissar at one of China’s top defence universities has said that these organisations—namely, the party committee system (党委制), the political commissar system (政治委员制) and the political organ system (政治机关制)—represent the CCP‘s ‘painstaking exploration and development and gradual finalisation in the process of ideologically building the party and politically building the army’. These are the three foundational political structures at the heart of the dual-command structure.

The party committee system is the ‘fundamental system of the party’s leadership of the people’s army’. Party committees lead and guide the work of the party at every military level; they also function outside the PLA in all aspects of society. The CCP sees committees as crucial to a ‘unified system of division of responsibility among heads under the unified collective leadership of the party committee’ (党委统一的集体领导下的首长分工负责制). While a mouthful, the phrase strikes on the CCP idea of ‘collective leadership’ (集体领导) that’s at the core of the dual-command structure securing the rest of the party’s control of the PLA.

The second pillar of the dual-command structure is the political commissar system. A PLA political commissar (政治委员) acts as the ‘head of his unit along with the military commander at the same level and is jointly responsible for the work of the troops to which he belongs under the leadership of the party committee at the same level’. The commissars lead and organise the political work of units, including education. Since they act at the same level with similar authority as their corresponding military commanders, they are integral to the dual-command structure of the PLA.

Political commissars also play a role managing discipline, morale and welfare, a function usually filled by higher-ranking enlisted soldiers in Western militaries. Political commissars’ specific roles can vary—at lower levels they are designated as directors and instructors—but they have similar responsibilities.

The third pillar, the political organ system, comprises ‘administrative and functional’ departments that host political work at each level of the military. While little is known about exactly how they function, the role of the political organs is hold the PLA accountable to political objectives through inspection and punishments. (The word ‘organ’ is the Chinese ji’guan (机关), which can also be translated as ‘institution’ or ‘agency’.)

Using these systems, the dual-command structure provides political command that sits alongside the operational command of military personnel. Since the PLA’s official creation on 1 August 1927, there was only one short period in the late 1930s when it didn’t have a dual-command structure. After an almost immediate increase in disloyalty, Mao quickly reversed the decision and reinstated PLA political organisations.

From the Western perspective, a collective leadership system like this would seem to weaken the PLA’s ability to make good decisions quickly. Its advantage, however, is complete political alignment and, ideally, prevention of corruption. The dual-command structure can secure party loyalty with little room for error, but at some point the party is making a trade-off, be it for speed of communication, innovation or intent. The Western military mind is immediately drawn to the limitations of collective leadership, but without a real test we will never know for sure where those limitations might lie, or how restrictive they might be.

While understanding the PLA’s dual-command structure is a great start, viewing the PLA as one might view a Western military is the wrong approach. When considering the PLA’s structure, Western leaders must keep in mind what it is—the armed wing of the CCP. It is a civil-war-born military that exists to hold political power for the party. The dual-command structure is not just a quirk of command-and-control tactics; it’s integral to the PLA’s purpose.

In the CCP’s eyes, the PLA’s dual-command structure is just as efficient and powerful as a Western military’s command system, if not better. Above all, if strategists cannot prevent themselves from projecting their Western-style military perspectives onto the PLA, they risk severely misunderstanding the CCP’s lethal arm, and will pay the price for it.