Central Military Commission

The Central Military Commission (CMC) is the national military authority of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the leading military organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), responsible for directly leading the country’s armed forces – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and militia and reserve forces. The commission is known as the “Chinese Communist Party Central Military Commission (中国共产党中央军事委员会)” in the Party system, and the “State Central Military Commission (国家军事委员会)” in the state political apparatus. The two are one institution with identical membership under two names (一套机构、两块牌子).

When the PRC was founded in 1949, the People’s Revolution Military Commission of the Central People’s Government (中央人民政府人民革命军事委员) was formed as the leading military organ for the country’s armed forces. However, the PRC’s First Constitution passed in 1954 abolished the People’s Revolution Military Commission and replaced it with the National Defence Commission (国防委员会) and Defence Minister as the military organs of the state government. At the same time, the CMC was created within the Party system as its leading military organ. The PRC’s Fourth Constitution passed in December 1982 created a new body – the State CMC – as the country’s decision-making body for military affairs. In practice, the State CMC is identical to the Party CMC in membership.

The CMC is headed by a Chairman, who is the command-in-chief of the country’s armed forces. He answers to the CCP’s Central Committee within the Party system and to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in the state political system. Within the Party system, the CMC Chairman is elected during the Party Congress, which is held every five years. In the state system, the CMC Chairman is elected during the National People’s Congress, also held every five years. The position of the CMC Chairman has always been held by China’s supreme leader. From 1993 onwards, the CMC Chairman has been held by the the Secretary-General of the CCP, who is concurrently President of the PRC, for most of the time.

The CMC normally has 2 to 3 Vice Chairmen, who are uniformed officers responsible for advising the Chairman on military matters and daily management of the armed forces. There is normally a split responsibility between these Vice Chairmen, e.g. operations and training, political, logistics, and equipment and modernisation. In its history, the CMC also had the ‘First Vice Chairman’ (第一副主席) and/or ‘Executive Vice Chairman’ (常务副主席). The former was often the appointed successor to the Party Secretary-General/President, while the latter functioned as the de facto head in the daily running of the CMC. Additionally, one of the CMC members also concurrently holds the position of Defence Minister.

Composition of the CMC membership has varied significantly in the past, depending on the political climate and power balance. In early years, the CMC was a large organ that included a wide variety of senior military officials. From 1949 to 1954, it had no fewer than 28 members, shrinking slightly to 22 between 1954 and 1966, before ballooning to 52 members from 1969 to 1977, and 64 from 1977 to 1982. In fact, a CMC Standing Committee (军委常委) had to be created as an executive ‘inner cabinet’ to make important decisions.

The membership of the CMC shrunk considerably after Deng Xiaoping’s regaining of authority over the military in 1982, and there has been no Standing Committee since then. CMC members normally include the heads (and some of the deputies) of the four general departments of the PLA. Up until 1992, the CMC also had a Secretary-General (军委秘书长) and a Deputy Secretary-General responsible for the daily running of the commission, but the positions have been abolished since then. During the Hu Jintao era, the Commanders of the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery Corps also entered the CMC, a move aimed to elevate the status of these service branches.

Before 2015, the CMC exercised its control over the military through the four PLA general headquarters – the General Staff Department, the General Political Department, the General Logistics Department, and the General Armaments Department. As part of the 2016 military organisational reform, the four general headquarters were abolished and replaced by 15 functional departments within the CMC, including:

  • General Office (办公厅)
  • Joint Staff Department (联合参谋部)
  • Political Work Department (政治工作部)
  • Logistic Support Department (后勤保障部)
  • Equipment Development Department (装备发展部)
  • Training and Administration Department (训练管理部)
  • National Defence Mobilisation Department (国防动员部)
  • Discipline Inspection Commission (纪律检查委员会)
  • Politics and Legal Affairs Commission (政法委员会)
  • Science and Technology Commission (科学技术委员会)
  • Office for Strategic Planning (战略规划办公室)
  • Office for Reform and Organisational Structure (改革和编制办公室)
  • Office for International Military Cooperation (国际军事合作办公室)
  • Audit Office (审计署)
  • Agency for Offices Administration (机关事务管理总局)

In addition, the CMC directly manages a number of military institutions and units, including:

  • National Defence University (国防大学)
  • Academy of Military Science (军事科学院)
  • National University of Defence Technology (国防科技大学)
  • Joint Logistics Support Force (联勤支援部队)

The 2016 military reform also redefined the military organisational and command structure of the PLA. Under the new structure, the CMC provides a unified leadership for the PLA. Administrative management of the PLA is exercised through the headquarters of its five service branches: Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force. Combat operations is conducted through a “joint operations command system” consisting of five joint operations Theatre Commands (Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern, and Central) which replaced the original seven peacetime-focused Military Regions.

Ministry of National Defence

According to PRC writings, the Ministry of National Defence (MND) is a government department under the State Council (central government). Primary responsibilities of the MND include defence modernisation and providing unified administrative support for the armed forces. However, in practice the MND does not have its own staff or premises, and its functions are exercised by the various departments of the CMC. The position of the Defence Minister, who is also a State Councillor (senior members of the Cabinet), is held by a member of the CMC.

The first Constitution of the PRC in 1958 created the role of Defence Minister and Deputy Defence Ministers, which were undertaken by the CMC Chairman, the PLA Chief of General Staff, and other senior PLA officials. Although the MND itself as a government office was never realised, orders to the armed forces were issued in the name of the CMC internally and in the name of the MND in public domain. The MND and the position of the Defence Minister were abolished in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began, but were subsequently reinstated in 1975. During this period, the CMC and MND coexisted in official writings of the PRC.

Since 1982, the MND has been officially recognised as a department within the state government apparatus, in charge of international military exchanges, conscription, and defence education roles. However, in practice these functions have been carried out by various organs within the PLA General Staff Department (now the CMC). For example:

  • Foreign Affairs Office (国防部外事办公室) is the named used by the CMC Office for International Military Cooperation;
  • Conscription Office (国防部征兵办公室) is name used by the Military Affairs Department of the CMC Joint Staff Department;
  • Peacekeeping Office (国防部维和办公室) is set up under the  Intelligence Department of the CMC Joint Staff Department;
  • Press Affairs Office (国防部新闻事务办公室) is set up under the CMC Office for International Military Cooperation;

Military Political System

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guarantees its absolute control over the military by means of a complex political work system (政工系统). Every military organisation, including headquarters, operational units, academies, research institutes, and factories, has been assigned with the three basic elements of the political work system – the Party organ system, political officers, and the political department. The political work system sees that all Party decisions, directives, and orders are expeditiously implemented and judiciously adhered to. In addition, the political work system directly controls personnel affairs, ideological education, propaganda, discipline, and security within the armed forces.

The Party organ system runs independent from but parallel to the chain-of-command at all levels within the armed forces. Every military organisation has been assigned with a Party organ, which oversees virtually all of a unit’s work: from operations, training issues, logistic issues, cadre promotion and transfer, budget and expenditures, etc. The Party organ of a unit reports to the Party organ of the next higher-level military organisation in the chain-of-command, ultimately through the CMC to the CCP’s Central Committee. Depending on its size and status in the administrative hierarchy, each PLA organisation is assigned with one of the five types of the Party organ:

  • A “Party committee” (党委) is established in every unit at the regimental-level and above;
  • A “Departmental Party branch” (机关党委) is also established in each of the four administrative departments within the headquarters of a unit of the division-level and above;
  • A “grassroots Party committee” (基层党委) is established in every unit at the battalion-level;
  • A “Party branch” (党支部) is established in every unit at the company-level;
  • “Party cells” (党小组) are established at the platoon-level and ad-hoc working groups with more than three Party members.

Political officers are assigned to military units at every levels in the chain-of-command, from the company level up to the general departments. At the regimental-level and above, the political officer is known as “Political Commissar” (政治委员、政委). At the battalion level, it is known as “Political Director” (教导员) , and at the company level, “Political Instructor” (指导员). The political officer enjoys a status that is equal to that of the military commander. Under this dual leadership, the political officer and commander share responsibility for all military work, and are both accountable to the Party committee (or branch). In principle, the commander is responsible for the unit’s military matters: combat operations, logistics, tactical training, etc. The political officer is responsible for purely political matters: ideological education, personnel affairs, security, discipline, military-civil relations, youth work, etc. The Political Commissar exercises his roles through the political department in the headquarters, and reports to the political officer and political department of the next higher-level unit in the chain-of-command. During operations, the political officer also serves as the unit’s second-in-command, and takes over the command authority when the commander is debilitated.

The political department is established in each of the four administrative departments in the headquarters of every PLA unit at the regimental-level and above, extending to the Political Work Department of the CMC. Depending on the unit’s status in PLA’s administrative hierarchy, the political department could be either a “department” (部) , a “division” (处), an “office” (科), or a “branch” (股) . The political department is headed by a director, who reports to the Political Commissar of the unit and is a member of the unit’s Party committee’s standing committee. The primary function of the political department is to implement the decisions of the corresponding Party Committee and to secure the support of the troops for the Party’s policies through political education. The political department is subdivided into various functional sections responsible for matters relating to cadre personnel management, party affair, ideological education, security, discipline, recreation, military-civilian relations, further education, etc. At the army-level and above, the political department is also in charge of the military judicial system.

In addition, political colleges have been established to train military political officers. These include the PLA Nanjing Political College and PLA Xi’an Political College, as well as the Political College of the PLA National Defence University.

Discipline Inspection System

The Chinese military has a discipline inspection system for monitoring the actions of the Party members and Party organisations and ensuring that Party disciplines are maintained. The system is mirrored after the CCP’s discipline inspection system on the civilian side. The discipline inspection system consists of two hierarchies – the Party discipline inspection commission that runs along side the Party committee in all PLA units at the regimental-level and above, and the discipline inspection department under the political department in the headquarters at the regimental-level and above. At the division-level and below, the function of the discipline inspection department is carried out by the organisation department under the political department. At the battalion- and company-level, where there is no discipline inspection commission or political department, a specific member of the Party committee is assigned with the role of discipline inspection.

A discipline inspection commission consists of 7 to 11 people, and is headed by a secretary and a deputy secretary. Like their corresponding Party committee, the discipline inspection commission is elected during the Party Congress, subject to the approval of the next higher-level Party committee. At the regimental-level and above, the discipline inspection commission is elected every five years. At the battalion-level, it is elected every three years. At the company-level, it is elected every two years.

Military Judicial System

The Chinese military has a judicial system composed of military courts, military procuratorates, and security departments (under the political department), which exercise the power trial, procuratorial, and law enforcement and investigation respectively, in accordance with the laws regarding criminal cases within the armed forces. The military courts and military procuratorates are established within the armed forces as part of the State judicial system, meaning that they adhere to State laws. The political work system also runs military prisons in the armed forces.

The military judicial system has a three-tier structure: regional military court and military procuratorate in each of the group armies, provincial military districts, theatre ground forces, theatre air forces, and naval fleets; intermediate-level military courts and military procuratorates in each of the five service branch headquarters; the PLA Military Court and the PLA Military Procuratorate at the national level. The military judicial system is led by the political department of the same level, but exercises independent judgement.

The security departments, which are established in the political departments of PLA units at the regimental-level and above, investigate criminal cases within the armed forces in accordance with the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law. Additionally, security departments are also given the responsibilities of counterintelligence operations within the armed forces, psychological and counter-psychological warfare, service personnel vetting, protection of key targets and personnel, etc. In time of war, the security departments are responsible for the interrogation of prisoners of war.

Last updated: 1 January 2017

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