As American families dined on turkey and stuffing, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) was hard at work in Beijing hammering out military reforms. These reforms were then announced to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by President Xi Jinping, who also serves as the CMC chairman. The proposed organizational changes may make this round of reform the most significant since those of the 1950s, when the PLA transitioned from a revolutionary army to the arm of a party-state. First impressions of the proposals provide mostly descriptive analyses at what Xi Jinping proposed for the PLA, but what the PLA publicized does not tell the whole story. The proposed creation of a separate headquarters for PLA ground forces and reorganization of the military regions will reverberate throughout military intelligence — a subject omitted entirely in Beijing’s propaganda blitz. Once the PLA moves beyond the inevitable organizational growing pains, the Chinese military intelligence system will be better positioned to manage its responsibilities for informing policymakers and supporting military operations.
The PLA’s basic organization of intelligence includes the General Staff Department (GSD), the military regions, and intelligence departments within the PLA’s two services and one autonomous branch — respectively, the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF).
The focal point of the PLA’s intelligence effort lies within the GSD, giving any substantial change to the general staff potential to shake up the military intelligence system. The GSD’s Second Department (2PLA) manages clandestine and overt human intelligence operations (HUMINT), the latter of which includes defense attachés and at least one think tank, the China Institute for International and Strategic Studies. This department also has some responsibility for China’s satellite imagery and possibly other overhead intelligence assets, but the organizational structure of Chinese space operations is difficult to understand. The GSD Third Department (3PLA) is the national signals intelligence (SIGINT) authority, roughly comparable to the U.S. National Security Agency or the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters. Like its Anglo-American counterparts, the Third Department also has responsibilities for defending Chinese computer networks and securing government communications. The GSD Fourth Department (4PLA) is responsible for electronic intelligence (ELINT) and electronic warfare (EW), and remains the youngest GSD element, dating to sometime between 1977 and 1990, depending on the source.