Special forces soldiers conduct a tactical formation training in Fangchenggang city, Guangxi province, China, Jan. 4, 2023.

Special forces soldiers conduct a tactical formation training in Fangchenggang city, Guangxi province, China, Jan. 4, 2023. CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

The PLA’s People Problem

China’s military has long struggled to field quality personnel.

Too much Western analysis and debate about China’s impressive military buildup focuses on its equipment and weapons, and too little on its people. Yet personnel recruiting, training, and retention issues might be exactly what holds China back in the “marathon” it is racing against the United States.

For instance, the Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report goes into considerable detail about the PLA’s new equipment, but makes almost no mention of personnel. The same is true of congressional testimony by government and non-government officials, as well as statements by politicians everywhere from the hearing room to cable news. And like those who expected a swift Russian victory in Ukraine, the new cottage industry of think tank reports and wargames on a potential Taiwan war count ships, planes, and tanks, while spending less time on the skill and will of the people in them.

The PLA has long struggled to field quality personnel. In its early years, most personnel were illiterate, including officers. (This mirrored even the most senior CCP political leaders; for instance, Chen Yonggui rose to Vice Premier despite not being able to read.) Into the 2000s, a plurality of PLA conscripts only had a ninth-grade education, while one-third of PLA officers lacked even the most basic higher education. 

PLA strategists recognize these problems as obstacles to building a world-class military. “We have developed and deployed many cutting-edge weapons, including some that are the best in the world, but there are not enough soldiers to use many of those advanced weapons,” one PLA academic wrote in 2016. “In some cases, soldiers lack knowledge and expertise to make the best use of their equipment.” 

Even China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has called for a greater “sense of urgency” toward military-personnel modernization, which he discussed at the 19th and 20th Party Congresses. China’s top general, CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Youxia, has concurred, saying that human talent matters to the PLA “more than at any other time in history.”

Thus the issue is increasingly being messaged across the force. Just weeks after the 20th Party Congress, an article in the PLA’s official newspaper, the PLA Daily, declared that China trails the West in talent, especially in how it is applied to force development in unmanned systems and other new high-tech fields.

The example of unmanned systems illustrates how the PLA’s increasing focus on people is, in fact, driven by the very same high technology acquisitions that draw so much attention in Western debate and wargames. A ninth-grade education was adequate when PLA doctrine centered on massed infantry, but the increasingly high-tech demands of the modern battlefield will require personnel with “scientific literacy and technological know-how,” as Xi put it. 

So the PLA has been working to recruit more-skilled and better-educated personnel, especially in technical fields. For example, starting in 2016, the Central Military Commission announced that military academic institutions would admit 16 percent more students in high-tech sectors of urgent need, such as space intelligence, radar technology, and drones; 14 percent more students in the aviation, missile, and maritime fields; and 24 percent fewer students in more traditional fields like infantry, artillery, and logistics. 

Even the PLA’s enlisted recruiting reflects a drive for college students, especially those with science and engineering backgrounds, graduates of advanced technical schools and technician colleges, and those with high-tech skills. Anecdotal reports indicate the PLA wants at least 70 to 75 percent of new recruits to have at least some college education. Recent years have seen increases in local quota targets for recruiting college students and graduates, including those with associate’s and technical degrees. 

The PLA has also experimented with new methods for attracting people with these skills, such as by going out and directly finding and recruiting civilians who already had needed expertise. For example, in 2016, a Chongqing recruiting center said it was directly recruiting 194 new NCOs, including in high-tech specialties such as computers, automation, communications, electronic information, medical technology, energy, mechanical and electrical equipment, and mechanical design and manufacturing. 

The PLA is also increasingly emphasizing direct recruitment of civilian college graduates as officers, with a focus on science and technology. Last March, the CMC announced that the PLA and People’s Armed Police would directly recruit more than 3,600 new college graduates (including graduate-degree-holders) as officers, with a focus on majors in science, technology, and other needed disciplines.

Weighing whether these various initiatives are paying off for the PLA is complicated. China’s decennial census found that almost 57 percent of PLA personnel had at least some post-secondary education in 2020, up from about 47 percent in 2000. Likewise, the number of PLA personnel with only a ninth-grade education has been reduced to less than 4 percent. This indicates that the PLA has clearly had success in recruiting more educated personnel, even if it has not met its high quotas.

But acquiring better human talent is not the same as keeping it, and there is also evidence that the PLA is struggling to retain its highly skilled officers and enlisted personnel. There is frequent discussion of how college-educated personnel struggle to integrate into PLA military life, and of resentment about being treated like their less-educated counterparts. For instance, a program to educate PLA officers at civilian universities (roughly akin to the U.S. ROTC program) was scrapped in 2016, having failed to properly integrate the civilian officers, who were viewed as inferior and treated as second-class citizens within the PLA hierarchy. Such military cultural attitudes do not change overnight. 

The more educated recruits also frequently complain that the PLA has no system for placing them into billets where their skills are properly used. For example, more than 30 college-educated enlisted personnel were assigned to a radar brigade (likely the Air Force’s 14th Radar Brigade under the Western Theater Command) in Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert. Yet none chose to re-enlist after their mandatory two years of service, due to the harsh conditions they endured in the desert as well as general dissatisfaction with military life. A subsequent brigade investigation found that more than 80 percent of college-educated soldiers have been unwilling to re-enlist in recent years. More broadly, a 2021 survey of highly educated soldiers in one unit showed that only 35 percent of college students who completed their two years in the PLA wanted to remain on active duty, while the percentage of college graduates who wanted to stay was even lower. To try to mitigate this, the PLA has begun allowing previously demobilized personnel to re-enlist for a second time and has allowed NCOs to stay on beyond their maximum age. 

Overall, the PLA is having trouble competing with the very same high-technology economy that is driving China’s rise as a global power. Competition from the private sector, especially in high-tech areas and areas with civilian-applicable skillsets, and employment incentives for veterans also contribute to poor retention.

All in all, the challenge of personnel will likely remain a bottleneck in the PLA’s quest for military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific in the coming years. It also points to how thinking about analysis of China’s military rise would be well served by viewing not just through the lens of its new equipment, but also the people behind that equipment. 

Taylor A. Lee is a research analyst at BluePath Labs. This article is drawn from research by BluePath Labs analysts’ report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Personnel of the People’s Liberation Army

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