In recent years, the U.S. Navy has been dealing with challenges to high-seas and freedom-of-navigation rights from China. In 2018, the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou nearly collided with the USS Decatur (DDG-73) during her freedom-of-navigation transit of the South China Sea. But this was not an isolated incident. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has created other tense situations by following and maneuvering against U.S. warships operating in the East and South China Seas.
If the U.S. Navy is to continue operating with maximum effectiveness in carrying out its rights on the seas, it must have a deeper understanding of the PLAN’s tactical planning and decision-making. Unlike the U.S. Navy, the PLAN has political commissars assigned to its ships and submarines—their role in naval operations carefully veiled.
Duties of the Political Commissar
From PLAN headquarters to individual naval vessels, the political commissar works side by side with the military commander. Both officers strive to achieve military and political objectives set forth by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While these officers have distinct responsibilities, their duties are inevitably linked. Whether leading at the highest levels of the Central Military Commission (CMC) or on board Chinese naval vessels, commissars are conducting political work that strengthens the party’s leadership of the navy.
The PLA’s “three principles of political work” are “officers and soldiers as one, military and people as one, and breaking up enemy forces.”1 In other words, the goal of PLA political work is to build a highly disciplined force with strong esprit de corps that dedicates itself to improving the people’s livelihoods and that can bring about the disintegration of enemy ranks. According to the PLA’s political work regulations, duties of political commissars can be summed up in five clusters:2
- Party building and officer/enlisted management. Build the party’s standing among service members. Ensure the party has a strong presence in the lives of service members. Recruit, recommend, train, educate, and supervise party members. Monitor instances of malfeasance. Assist Communist Youth League organizations in the PLA.
- Propaganda and indoctrination. Propagate the party’s latest policies, organize policy study sessions, promote officially approved values to service members (i.e., patriotism, nationalism, and Marxism-Leninism’s Chinese variants), and ensure the party leaders’ political ideology is known and respected in the barracks. Monitor and shape opinion among service members.
- Shaping military lifestyle. Organize cultural and sporting events, administer science and culture education, receive feedback from representatives of service members, and ensure service members’ benefits are promptly delivered. Provide mental health services.
- Peacetime security. Maintain good relations with the local populace near bases. Conduct research on adversaries. Perform counterintelligence and operations security tasks and counter enemy psychological operations. Conduct research on political work.
- Wartime political work. Join the military commander in executing operations, rally the troops, and mobilize militia and the local population. Maintain wartime order, care for the wounded and dead and their family members, cultivate fighting spirit, execute legal, public opinion, and psychological warfare, and advance disintegration of enemy ranks. Cosign orders with the military commander.3
Since the 2014 All-PLA Political Work Conference, there has been a renewed demand for political commissars to master battle command, which the Chinese deem one of the PLA’s revolutionary traditions. In past naval battles and skirmishes, PLAN political commissars not only participated in operation planning and execution, but also personally led attacks.4 During the March 1988 Johnson South Reef skirmish, the political commissar of the PLAN frigate Yingtan took over from the captain when he fell ill and had to recuperate ashore.5 Li Chuqun, political commissar of the frigate Nanchong, led seven subordinates armed with cleavers and daggers, sailed toward Johnson South Reef in a small boat, and severed mooring lines of the Vietnamese Navy boat near the reef.6
As a result of the new requirement, PLAN political commissars must now study all aspects of naval operations and pass tests modeled on a captain’s examination to retain their positions.7 Subjects include operational command, emergency situation response, psychological offense and defense, and technical details.8 In addition, political commissars who originally worked at desk positions are rotated to various combat units of the PLAN to gain firsthand combat experience. In naval aviation, for example, political commissars in Southern Theater Command naval aviation units are training to become qualified commanders.9 In addition, “special mission aircraft”—e.g., airborne early warning, antisubmarine warfare, electronic intelligence, electronic warfare, and psychological operations aircraft—now reserve a seat for political officers to experience airborne special missions firsthand on ride-alongs.10 Comparable events aimed at boosting political commissars’ battle command skills have been under way in other branches of the PLAN.
Political commissars maintain party integrity on board PLAN vessels, but they also serve as key actors in planning naval operations. There are three distinct command-and-control characteristics of the dual command system on board PLAN vessels:
- The military commander and political commissar integrate to promote a collective leadership model. The dual-command structure gives each officer dissimilar responsibilities, but the commanding officer and political commissar share the burden of command equally.11 The commander is responsible for executing tactical military actions, and the political commissar manages the crew’s personnel readiness.
- The commanding officer and political commissar are coequals by nature of their position and grade. An important distinction that is often overlooked is that the Chinese seniority system is based primarily on grade—there are 15 grades and 10 ranks.12 The system places more importance on an individual’s grade and designated billet than rank. For example, a political commissar may outrank a commanding officer of a naval vessel or vice versa, but typically both are the same grade, and their designated positions make them coequals.13
- Political commissars manage the PLAN’s personnel system. A central promotion board does not exist, and the party committee determines all promotions. Commissars do not write a formal performance evaluation of the commanding officers with whom they serve, but they do provide input about the commanding officers’ performance to the next higher level.14 The ability to influence another person’s professional career changes the relationship dynamic. The commanding officer is incentivized to work closely with the political commissar because of certain career implications.
Party Standing Committee
The party standing committee (PSC) is the nerve center in decision-making and affects both administrative and operational matters. A 2015 Office of Naval Intelligence report on the PLAN stated, “Party committees convene to discuss specific operational objectives, such as reviewing navigation plans or improving the unit’s emergency readiness.” Chinese political work regulations state that the party committee exercises “centralized and unified leadership over the organization, personnel, and work of their units.” In addition, the PSC has responsibility to “ensure the successful completion of various tasks, such as combat, military training, and emergency operations.”
In accordance with PLA political work regulations, “all major issues in wartime/combat/operations must be decided through collective discussions by the Party committee, and their implementation has to follow by the military and political commanders in accordance with the division of labor.” During naval operations or combat, political work regulations also require convening “the Party committee in due course to listen to the reports of the combat situation, analyze the battlefield situation, adjust the combat deployment, improve the combat plan, and coordinate the cooperation between the combat operations of the various troops as time allows.”15
The PSC on board a PLAN naval vessel comprises five to six individuals: the commanding officer, executive officer (operations), executive officer (administrative/logistics), political commissar, and one or two deputy political commissars. It is chaired by the political commissar, who serves as secretary.16 PLA political work regulations state that “the secretary (political commissar), deputy secretary (commanding officer) have equal rights. Individuals cannot decide on major issues or change the committee’s decision. The secretary and deputy secretary must have a strong Party spirit and proper democratic style, be good at incorporating everyone’s wisdom, and play the role of a committee member.”17
Influence on Naval Operations
The 2018 Decatur incident provides potential insights into political commissar and PSC influence over PLAN command and control. The Decatur was operating on a set course and speed while conducting a freedom of navigation operation near Gaven Reefs in the South China Sea. The Lanzhou approached from the port quarter, transiting at a faster speed than the Decatur. In this overtaking situation, the Decatur was the stand on vessel, which is required to maintain course and speed in accordance with the rules of the road. The Lanzhou was the give way vessel, meaning it had to remain at a safe distance when passing the Decatur. However, the Lanzhou had maneuvered to within 45 yards when the Decatur determined there was a risk of collision and maneuvered away.
Three takeaways highlight the significance of the incident:
- First, the naval maneuver likely was ordered to achieve a political objective. The commanding officer was responsible for executing the maneuver, and the political commissar was supervising the mission, which was to send a message of protest against U.S. policy and naval actions.
- Second, given the possible political consequences of the maneuver, planning most likely was a result of the Lanzhou PSC’s coordination. Operating within yards of the Decatur was a calculated risk that probably involved extensive planning and discussion on board the Lanzhou, as well as with superiors.
- Third, in the dual-command system, the commanding officer and political commissar most likely were working side by side during the mission. While it is not known where the two officers were actually stationed on board the Lanzhou, given peacetime operations and the seamanship required to complete the maneuver, both were probably in the bridge or pilothouse.
The Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, and national security leaders must work to understand the political commissar’s influence in developing and planning PLAN operations. The party controls the military, and the PLAN is tasked with executing the party’s strategic visions; the political commissar, usually an inconspicuous figure among a vessel’s leaders, is a crucial link. As both the commander and political commissar of the PLAN stated in 2019, “At the cusp of international political and military struggle, [we must] resolutely implement the Party’s will in every move, and every [single] soldier must attach great importance to prevent the influence of wrong ideas, and all [our] words and deeds must resolutely abide by strict discipline and rules, so that the People’s Navy is loyal to the Party, and no warship will [ever] go off course.”18 A better understanding of these officers would certainly benefit U.S. policy makers in the defense and security realms.
1. “Renmin jundui zhengzhi gongzuo de sanda yuanze shishenme?” [What Is the People’s Army’s Three Principles of Political Work?], Chinese Communist Party News Online, www.cpc.people.com.cn/GB/64156/64157/4418380.html.
2. “Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun zhengzhi gongzuo tiaoli” [People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulations].
3. “Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun zhengzhi gongzuo tiaoli” [People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulations].
4. For example, after intercepting South Vietnamese communications on the plan to seize Duncan Island on 19 January 1974, the PLAN South Sea Fleet held an emergency operations planning session, with the Fleet Political Commissar Duan Dezhang in participation. See: Zhaoxin Li, “Wo qinli de xisha haizhan” [My Personal Experience during the Paracel Islands Battle], China through the Ages, www.yhcqw.com/34/10118.html.
5. “Yuan 531 jian zhengwei tan 3-14 haizhan: jiaozhan shi chuxian shijige guzhang” [Former Political Commissar of Hull 531 Talks About 3-14 Naval Battle: More Than a Dozen Malfunctions Amid Battle], Sina Military, 13 March 2013, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2013-03-13/1125718366.html.
6. Xiaorong Hong and Wei Li, “Zaijian, nanchongjian: huishou ‘laobing’ 44 nian suiyue” [Farewell, Nanchong. Looking Back on 44 Years of Service], China Military Online, 16 September 2013, www.81.cn/hj/2013-09/16/content_5502398_3.htm.
7. Wei Li and Canhong Zheng, “Nanbu zhanqu haijun mou zhidui jintie shizhan zuzhi zhengzhi gongzuo ganbu gangwei kaohe” [Flotilla of Southern Theater Command Navy Tests Political Work Cadres under Real War Conditions], Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, 11 June 2019, www.mod.gov.cn/power/2019-06/11/content_4843372.htm.
8. Rongrong Zhang et al., “Junzheng jietong, zhanji heyi—zhezhi qianting budui de zhenggong ganbu xiang dangdang!” [Well-Versed in Military and Political Affairs, Skilled in War and Politics—the Political Commissars of This Submarine Unit Are Very Impressive!], Sina News, 11 November 2017, www.mil.news.sina.com.cn/2017-11-11/doc-ifynsait7186735.shtml.
9. Yanxiang Wang and Guoquan Chen, “Hei, zhege feixing xunlian zhihuiyuan shi zhengwei” [Hey! The Flight Training Commander Is the Political Commissar], People’s Liberation Army Online, 26 January 2019, www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2019-01/26/content_226220.htm.
10. Andreas Rupprecht, Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Naval Aviation— Combat Aircraft and Units (Harpia Publishing, 2018), 26–29; and Yi Lu, “Zhongguo haijun shoushe ‘zhenggong zhanwei’ zhengwei suiji genfei” [Chinese Navy Establishes ‘Political Work Station’ for the First Time, Political Commissars Join Flight Missions], People’s Liberation Army Online, 21 October 2014, www.81.cn/hj/2014-10/21/content_6189154.htm.
11. Jeffrey Becker, David Liebenberg, and Peter Mackenzie, Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, December 2013), 60, www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/CRM-2013-U-006467-Final.pdf.
12. Office of Naval Intelligence, China’s Navy 2007 (Washington, DC: 2007), 1, https://fas.org/irp/agency/oni/chinanavy2007.pdf.
13. “Xi Encourages China’s Navy Soldiers to Commit to Training,” China Global Television Network, 2018, 2:47, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F0kXbPR65w.
14. Kenneth Allen, interview with Jeff Benson, Washington, DC, 21 February 2020.
15. Section 3, “Organization and Implementation of Wartime Political Work” (2006), author’s copy.
16. Becker, Liebenberg, and Mackenzie, Behind the Periscope, 56.
17. “Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Zhengzhi Gongzuo Tiaoli” [People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulations], 23.
18. Jinlong Shen and Qin Shengxiang, “Renmin haijun: yangfan fenjin 70 nian” [People’s Navy: 70 Years of Advancement], qsthery.cn, August 2019, www.qstheory.cn/dukan/qs/2019-04/16/c_1124364140.htm.
Authors’ Note: This article is adapted from the Center for Strategic and International Studies report, Party on the Bridge: Political Commissars in the Chinese Navy.