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NCOs with Chinese Characteristics: How the Peoples Liberation Army Views Non Commissioned Officers
One of the aspects of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) modernization process is the creation of a Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) corps that mirrors the NCO corps of western countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom. The new NCO corps would be in contrast to the current corps in that the NCOs would be allowed to take the initiative and be the ‘end-point commanders’ in future wars. While the PLA understands that they would need to remake the NCO corps if they were to become a ‘world-class military’ by 2049, they also understand they would need one that would be loyal to and controlled by the party.
Reforms of the NCO Corps
The PLA created the foundation of the new NCO corps in 1999 when it revised regulations related to active-duty personnel that created the 30-year career path currently in place for NCOs. The revisions involved breaking down the career path into three grades – junior, intermediate, and senior – and six service periods ranging from three to nine years. The grades and service periods roughly equate to the company/battalion, regiment, and brigade/division level units. Another revision to the regulations is how NCOs can only retire if they reach the age of 55 or served 30 years. The regulations had a profound impact on the enlisted force by increasing the number of NCOs while decreasing the number of conscripts in the PLA. Because of the minimalism and ambiguity of the regulations, the PLA’s ability to recruit and retain both qualified and talented individuals was negatively affected.
In 2009, the Central Military Commission (CMC) implemented both a new plan and revised three regulations that covered NCO service periods, management, and training/education. The new plan and revised regulations kept the enlisted the same size but expanded the NCO corps while also further decreasing the number of conscripts. It also increased training and education opportunities for NCOs and raised the number of NCOs recruited from college graduates. The goal for both the 1999 and 2009 regulations and laws was to create a more professional and educated NCO corps. In 2014, the PLA created the new rank of Master Chief/Sergeant Major (shiguan zhang/士官长) in an attempt to retain experienced and trustworthy NCOs. These Master Chiefs and Sergeant Majors would act as the unit’s senior enlisted advisor and enlisted representative to the unit commander. They would also be responsible for helping unit commanders in training and leadership responsibilities.
NCOs filling Officers Billets
The PLA began to convert billets originally reserved for commissioned officers to NCO billets in 2004. These billets were in approximately 70 specialties such as trainers, vehicle commanders, and company quartermasters in aviation, communications, missile, vessel, and radar units in 2004. The NCOs in these new billets received both training and managerial training, which ranged from attending officer colleges to on the job training at factories. NCOs also held combat leadership positions reserved for officers and in some stances achieved the temporary rank of “acting company deputy commanders.” The PLA also enabled NCOs to assume more technical officer billets in various units such aviation maintenance or operating radars. In December 2012, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) held a graduation ceremony for six NCOs in addition to 29 commissioned officers. However, the NCOs were called “acting chief mechanics,” showing they held the same billet as the commissioned officers.
While the NCOs filled the officer billets and given increased opportunities, they still often face obstacles. One major obstacle is how the billets the NCOs fill are often still officially labeled as officer billets. The lack of officially labelling them as NCO billets create a ‘glass-ceiling effect’ that greatly hinder NCOs certain advancement opportunities. Another obstacle is the lingering societal biases and cultural stigma attached to the social standing of the enlisted force, including the NCO corps. The stigma and biases stem from how commissioned officers in the PLA historically viewed enlisted as being poorly educated conscripts. This viewpoint also extends to unwillingness of the officers to delegate authority to NCOs. The final impediment is how NCOs and officers do not know how to interact with each other on a daily basis. For example, Chinese officers will often be extremely amazed when seeing enlisted talking to a captain or major let along a colonel or flag officer during visits to other nation’s militaries. These impediments point to a lingering hierarchal culture that is still cautious about trusting NCOs.
Issues with NCO Corps
While the modernization of the NCO corps by the PLA brought some notable improvements such as increased pay and an improved training/education opportunities, it is still plagued with major issues. One of the most notable issues is the lack of representation of NCOs on party standing committees of various units. Party standing committees are CCP units stationed throughout the PLA form the company level upwards and are responsible for the daily political work and collective day-to-day leadership. The reason for the lack of representation is due to the use of quotas to control the number of party member NCOs who could sit on the committees. The quota system goes against the PLA Political Work Regulations requirement that NCO party members also have a seat on committees. Furthermore, Master Chiefs/Sergeant Majors who are party members may not be seen as equals to their officer counterparts on the committees. The lack of NCO representation on the party committees is also connected to issues of trust but also party loyalty.
Another major concern for the PLA is the potential to develop NCOs who are capable of independent thought that may not be acceptable to party thinking. While the PLA understands the need for NCOs that could take the initiative and be decisive, they also understand that there is the risk of the NCOs taking anti-party stances if independent thought is encouraged. For example, during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the commanding officer of the Beijing garrison went against party orders to crush the protests. His rationale was that the PLA was for the people and the people were protesting because they wanted their grievances to be heard. The CMC responded by gathering a force that would obey the orders and sent them into the city, crushing the protests. During this time, the PLA enabled their officers to be free-thinking like their western counterparts. The inability of the garrison commander to follow the party orders caused significant unease within the party since the PLA is one of means the CCP uses to maintain power. The lesson the CCP took from the Tiananmen Square protest was that they could not have PLA officers who are capable of questioning orders. This lesson also extends to the NCO corps and the need to balance between being entrusted with decision-making but also make the decision that would be in the party’s best interest.
The PLA understands the need for the modernized NCO corps that is capable of fighting and winning wars but they also understand the need to maintain party control. The CCP recognizes one of the lessons that came from the Tiananmen Square protests is that it needs officers who are willing to obey party directives without hesitation. This lesson also extends to how the PLA is currently recreating its NCO corps. However, the PLA knows that the balance is more delicate than the one found in the officers corps since they would be ‘end-point commanders’ in a future war.