The PLA's Path Toward Transparency

The PRC's Defence White Paper functions as a means of putting forth the national defence policies and military strategy, guiding national defence and military building, pointing out certain threats and political goals, indicating national defence power, implementing military deterrence, increasing military transparency, and establishing mutual understanding.


PRC State Council Spokesman

Beijing, December 2004 (1)


Transparency is critical to fostering trust and diffusing suspicion. China's emergence is an important new reality in this era. Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?


US Secretary of Defense

Singapore, June 2005 (2)



China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has definitely become more transparent over the past twenty-five years, but it has yet to reach the level of transparency requested by other countries. This article first reviews PLA sources of information about itself that lead to greater transparency. It then examines areas where the PLA has become more transparent concerning its leadership, foreign affairs, doctrine, organizational structure and education and training. The final section discusses areas where lack of transparency on weapon systems, defence budget, personnel issues and the operational orders of battle are major concerns to foreign countries.


PLA Sources of Information

One of the most dramatic changes in the PLA is the amount and types of material it has made public about itself over the past twenty-five years, including newspapers, periodicals and books. The information is available in book stores, by mail and on the Internet. Some of the information is also available in English.(3) Without this information, it would be even more difficult to understand the PLA today.



The PLA's premier newspaper, the PLA Daily, which was originally known as the Liberation Army Daily, has been published by the General Political Department (GPD) since the mid-1950s. It was published for internal military use only until China's opening in the early 1980s. Since then, it has expanded in size and scope. In 1999, the PLA Daily established its online edition, which is currently available in Chinese and English.(4)


Each of the seven military regions, as well as the PLA Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery, has their own newspapers published by their respective Political Departments, but they are not available for public distribution.



The PLA publishes several periodicals. One of the oldest is the GPD's PLA Pictorial, which is published in hardcopy and on the Internet.(5) The Air Force has published its own magazine, China Air Force, every two months since 1986, and the Navy has published Modern Navy on a monthly basis since the early 1990s. The Academy of Military Science (AMS) publishes several periodicals, including the monthly National Defence in Chinese and China Military Science, which is in English and Chinese.



In 1985, the PLA Press published its first World Military Yearbook, which had less than thirty pages of information on the PLA. The 2004 edition has about 100 pages devoted to the PLA. Over the years, individual volumes have had coverage of specific PLA issues, such as doctrine, political work, education, training and foreign relations.


During the late 1980s, China published several books in the China Today series, including separate books on the Army, Navy and Air Force. These books helped lay the foundation for understanding the history of the three services and are still valuable today.


In 1997, the PLA published an eleven volume China Military Encyclopaedia, followed by a supplement volume in 2002. In 1992, the PLA Navy published a 1,500-page Navy Dictionary, followed in 1998 by a two-volume China Navy Encyclopaedia. In 1996, the PLA Air Force published a 1,000-page Air Force Dictionary, and is currently in the process of printing China Air Force Encyclopaedia. In 2002, the General Logistics Department published a ten-volume China Military Logistics Encyclopaedia.


Over the past twenty-five years, the PLA Press, National Defence University (NDU) Press and AMS Press have published thousands of books about the PLA, to include teaching materials used in PLA academies. Although most of them are for internal use only, a growing number are available to the public and provide a wealth of knowledge about various PLA issues.


Defence White Papers

As has been covered in previous Chinese Military Update volumes, the PRC State Council has published a Defence White Paper about the PLA every two years since 1998. These reports are available in English and Chinese on the Internet. Each report has provided a little better insight into the PLA.


Laws and Regulations

Since the late 1990s, the PLA has published hundreds of new and revised laws and regulations, which help understand many of the reforms currently taking place, such as the changes in the enlisted force. Many of the laws and regulations are available on the Internet in both English and Chinese.



Information on the PLA's leadership comes in two general areas. The first area is basic biographic information about the PLA's generals and admirals. For example, the Communist Party History Press published a book in 2004 that has fairly detailed biographical information on every PLA flag-rank officer who has been a member of the Central Committee since 1921. In addition, some information is available from various Internet sites, but many of those sites are not maintained on a regular basis and may have erroneous information.(6)


Second is information about what the flag-rank officers think about specific subjects. A few of them have written articles for various publications or given speeches at meetings. Although much of what is written or said falls within certain approved parameters, the topics and specific information still provide some insights into their thinking.


Foreign Relations

The Chinese press, including the Xinhua News Agency, has fairly extensive coverage of PLA delegations that visit overseas and foreign military leaders who visit China. Consolidated information for each year is available in the World Military Yearbook and Defence White Paper. Like most militaries, however, coverage of detailed information about functional delegations is missing or sketchy.


Although foreign militaries haveexpressed concern they are not allowed to visit many PLA organizations, the situation is much better than it was in the 1980s. Since then, the PLA has gradually opened up more facilities for foreign visits, including naval bases and ships, Air Force bases and PLA academies.



Over the past few years, the PLA has published a considerable amount of information about its strategic, campaign and tactical levels of theory. For example, the NDU Press published The Science of Campaigns and Teaching Materials on the Science of Combined-Arms Tactics in 2000 and The Science of Air Force Strategy in 1995, while the AMS Press published The Science of Strategy in 2001. The four Defence White Papers also provide a good overview of the PLA's doctrine.


Various scholars at the AMS also publish articles in foreign journals. For example, Yao Yunzhu published an excellent article on 'The Evolution of Military Doctrine of the Chinese PLA from 1985 to 1995' in The Korean Journal of Defence Analysis, which cites other PLA articles on the subject.(7)


Organizational Structure

Since the late 1990s, PLA and civilian publishers have published several books about the PLA's organizational structure, to include comparisons with other countries. The PRC's Defence White Papers and World Military Yearbooks have also provided an increasingly better view of the PLA's organizational structure.


Normally, PLA books about its structure look at the administrative and operational command structure, as well as the structure of the services and branches, logistics and technical support structures, research institutes And schools. Some of the more recent books, periodicals and newspapers have included information about the new structure following the 200,000-man force reduction initiated in late 2003.


Several PLA books also provide information about the PLA's grade and rank structure, which is essential to understanding the overall structure of the PLA.(8)


Education and Training

One of the PLA's most open areas is information about its professional military education system, which is Changing almost daily.(9) The reason for this openness is that the PLA wants to recruit and retain the right people into its force, as it shifts from a military of quality to one of quantity and technical competence.


Although no single PLA book discusses the PLA's unit training situation, a compilation of the information available in the PLA Daily and various PLA journals and periodicals provides a fairly accurate picture of today's reforms and capabilities.


Lack of Transparency Issues

Although the PLA has become more transparent in many areas, several foreign governments have pressed China to provide greater transparency in some key areas concerning the PLA's force structure. Specifically, the PLA is still opaque about its orders of battle, weapon systems, budget, pay scales and personnel force structure.


Orders of Battle

The order of battle for each service and branch is composed of two basic parts: units and weapon systems or equipment, such as radar systems. Some foreign governments contend the PLA does not provide adequate transparency on either subject.


Concerning unit transparency, every PLA unit at the regiment and above level has a true unit designator, such as the 24th Infantry Division, and a five-digit military unit cover designator (MUCD), such as the 12345 Unit, which is intended to keep that unit's identity secret.(10) As such, the PLA does not publish an open list of its units using either their true unit designators or MUCDs.


The PLA's weapon systems and equipment can be divided into three basic types: foreign-purchased systems with some domestic co-production; reverse-engineered foreign systems with Chinese characteristics; and domestically developed and produced systems. With the exception of information about weapon systems China's defence industry is trying to export, the PLA does not provide public information about its weapon systems, nor does the PLA allow some foreign military representatives to visit units with those systems.


This has become a matter of principle and contention in some cases, especially when the foreign militaries have accessto those same systems, such as Sukhoi aircraft, in other parts of the world. Furthermore, much of the technical data about those systems is available in a wide variety of open publications, such as the Jane's Defence series.



One need only read the myriad of articles following the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Conference in Singapore in June 2005 about the debate between the United States and China concerning the PLA's budget to understand that this is a very contentious issue.


A subset of this debate concerns the PLA's lack of transparency about the breakdown of personnel by service, branch, specialty, grade and rank, to include pay and allowances for each category. These items are a matter of public record in the US. For example, Air Force Magazine has an annual USAF Almanac, which has 130 pages of detailed information about every aspect of the USAF, including the force structure, people, specialties, education level, pay and allowances, budget, equipment, grades and insignia, major commands, worldwide installations and weapon systems. Biographies of all US military flag-rank officers are available on the Internet.



By comparing the baseline of the 1980s, When the PLA provided almost nothing publicly about itself and had virtually no interaction with foreign militaries, to the 2000s, where the PLA has published literally hundreds of publicly available books and periodicals about itself, as well as having The PLA Daily online in Chinese and English, it is clear the PLA has become quite transparent in many areas.(11)


Kenneth Allen

Senior Analyst, CNA Corporation




2 'Rumsfeld Questions China's Military Buildup.'

3 See Kenneth Allen, 'Survey of English-Language Books on the PLA,' RUSI, Chinese Military Update, February 2004,Vol 1, No. 7.

4 See and


6 See

7 Yao Yunzhu, 'The Evolution of Military Doctrine of the Chinese PLA from 1985 to 1995,' The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis,Vol 7., No 2, (Winter 1995), p 57-80.

8 See Kenneth Allen, 'PLA Officer and Enlisted Corps Recruitment, Ranks, and Grades,' RUSI,Chinese Military Update,Vol 1, No 1, June 2003.

9 See

10 See James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang, eds., 'Introduction to the PLA's Administrative and Operational Structure,' in The People's Liberation

Army as Organization, RAND, 2002.

11 See See also Kenneth Allen, 'Survey of English- Language Books on the PLA,' RUSI, Chinese Military Update,Vol 1, No 8, February 2004.

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