With the new fantastic hardware the PLA is acquiring, from aircraft carriers and stealth fighters to anti-ship ballistic missiles, it is easy to ignore the common Chinese soldier. Despite the historical emphasis on People’s War and reliance on China’s number one strength, its sheer mass of people, it appears that the PLA has focused less on quantity and more on the quality of its individual fighting men and women.
Recent images taken from the last two years show PLA infantry clad with goggles, padding, body armour, MOLLE vests, new backpacks and modern radios. Other images indicate that Chinese soldiers are making increased use of night vision and NBC protection equipment in exercises. While such equipment is taken for granted in most Western militaries, PLA infantry have tended to lack such “luxuries”, or at least were not issued with these items on a regular basis. It now appears that modern equipment has started to trickle down to regular units across several military regions.
Other images have shown PLA infantry undertaking combat exercises with devices that are equivalent to Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems (electronic training aids presently being used by several Western armies). The availability and proliferation of such complex training equipment will undoubtedly enhance the quality of Chinese soldiers, offering them more opportunities to engage in realistic combat training.
It will take time for the entire PLA ground force to receive up-to-date personal equipment. For instance, it has taken over a decade for the 5.8 mm calibre and its compatible family of small arms such as the Type-95 and Type-03 assault rifles to reach most units. Despite the formidable challenge of furnishing a multi-million-man army with new equipment it appears that the PLA leadership is taking the task seriously as it tries to close the gap between the PLA and foreign armies.
The quest to improve quality is at the expense of quantity. China still possesses by far the world’s largest military. Yet the reality is the PLA has experienced sizeable reductions in its ranks. Significant reductions by as many as one million personnel were experienced in the eighties. The military experienced a 200,000-man reduction in 2005. In addition, according to the Minister of National Defence General Liang Guanglie in 2010, China will reduce its military reserves from 600,000 to 510,000. These cuts come at a time when the PLA is more interested in hiring educated personnel. According to Liang, 80 per cent of PLA officers have four years of higher education and, since 2010, more than 100,000 college graduates joined the armed forces.
 “China downsizes army by 200,000”, Gov.cn: Chinese Government’s Official Web Portal (10 January 2006) < http://www.gov.cn/english/2006-01/10/content_152715.htm>
 “DM: China Has 510,000 in Military Reserves”, CRI English.com (original article from Xinhua, 28 December 2010) < http://english.cri.cn/6909/2010/12/28/1821s612394.htm>
Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at www.securitychallenges.org.au).
Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 11 post(s) on Asia Security Watch