When dealing with Chinese navy or coast guard ships, foreign naval commanders have learned to take into account the dual command structure of Chinese crews. In effect, Chinese warships except for smaller (less than 2,000 tons) ones, have dual commanders and a naval command system that is more premeditated and slower to respond to unexpected conditions.
This comes as a surprise to many Western naval officers. Although the Chinese military has achieved many visible signs of modernizing, like new weapons, equipment, uniforms, tactics and officer training, it is still having problems in several key areas. When it comes to leadership there are problems with the political officers.
The Chinese long ago borrowed the concept of the political officer (“Zampolit”) from the Soviet Union. The political officer represents the Communist Party and has the authority to overrule any order a military commander gives. In reality, the political officer usually acts as a combined morale and special events officer. The political officers are primarily responsible for preventing anything happening in their unit that would embarrass the party. For naval zampolits that meant watching out for signs of mutiny or sailors planning to seek asylum in a foreign port.
Unlike the Russian naval zampolit, the Chinese counterpart, called a political commissar is considered the equal of the regular naval commander and his superior when it comes to a “special mission”, like deliberately harassing foreign warships or opening fire on anyone. The political commissar is the same rank as the ship captain and can overrule the ship commander at any time and in any situation. It was not always that way.
An important change took place in 2018 when naval political commissars were given equal authority with the captain as “mission commander” and is expected to replace the captain if the captain is disabled by injury or sickness. The normal second-in-command (the XO or executive officer) becomes the XO for the political commissar and the captain and third, not second, in command. The practical problem with this is that the captain and XO have spent their entire careers (fifteen or more years) learning how to run a ship and supervise the crew. In contrast, the political commissar learned enough tech stuff to be more annoying. The political commissar was a professional busybody, scold and snitch. The political commissar can end the career of the captain, XO or any other officer by simply making a series of uncomplimentary reports.
The 2018 change was part of a program that began in 2016 throughout the military as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) sought to improve its control over the military. In the navy that meant the political commissar had the ultimate responsibility for achieving goals assigned to a ship. The captain is not the true commander of the ship in the Western sense. He is there to see that technical details are well taken care of and that would include taking change during very bad weather or some kind of technical (fire, explosion) problem aboard ship. The political commissar is expected to personally undertake particularly dangerous leadership missions, although only those he is qualified to deal with. That means political commissars have led boarding parties in dangerous situations but not entrusted with command during damage control situations.
The full impact of the 2016-18 “reforms” to improve CCP control of the military are still working themselves out in the navy. Western, especially American, captains are being warned that their Chinese counterparts will probably not react as quickly to an emergency or unexpected situation that that should be taken into account, or taken advantage of.
Another reason for the 2016-18 reforms was to reduce corruption in the military. In theory, political officers are supposed to prevent their commanders from getting involved in fiscal corruption, but often it's the other way around, with the political commissars getting involved in illegal money-making schemes first. The CCP is trying to purge the political officer ranks of dishonest and unreliable elements. It is slow going. This has caused more friction between commanders and their political officers. That tends to reduce the effectiveness of the unit these two officers are in charge of. There is no easy solution to this problem.
Russia got rid of the zampolits in the early 1990s but a decade later brought them back to assure the loyalty and reliability of the armed forces. Like the Chinese political commissars, the new Russian zampolits are officially there to ensure that morale and troop welfare do not suffer under poor leadership. The post-communist zampolit has not been a big success. Then again, neither was the communist era zampolit.
There’s another leadership problem China has to deal with, a problem similar to the one that seriously hurt Japan's effort against the United States during World War II. This is the fact that the Japanese Army then, like the Chinese Army now, is the senior service to the extent that generals can overrule admirals and generally interfere in navy matters that the army generals really know little about. This is already causing China problems and there is no solution in sight. This is particularly true when it comes to joint training. In wartime, this “army runs the show” sort of thing is a serious problem, just read any history that covers the Japanese army and navy relationships during World War II.
An offshoot of the army domination problem is that there is little real joint (all services working together) planning. Currently, the Chinese army tells the navy and air force what it wants done and that is the end of that. The Chinese understand that their next war will likely be in the Pacific, not mainland China. The navy should be in the lead here but it isn’t. Worse, naval officers who spend their entire careers learning how to run a ship, eventually as captain, have to accept being second-guessed or overruled by a less experienced (in running a ship) political officer.
Another old custom, from before modernization began, is local government having control, actually shared control with the army, of about 40 percent of army personnel. These are mostly support and security (border and key facilities inside the country) that local officials play a role in supporting. Dealing with this problem has been put off for a long time because the local (especially provincial) officials don’t want to give up control of all these local units. It’s mainly about power in a bureaucracy but these support units provide many opportunities for corruption, which cannot be admitted openly. The army is aware that a lot of the officers assigned to these local units got their job because of support (often paid for) from a local politician. The army wants to get rid of a lot of these officers in general and specifically weed out all unqualified officers. But because so many officers have political sponsors, this is a delicate task to carry out. There is growing urgency about this because the surplus of staff and support officers is in sharp contrast to a shortage of officers in combat units.
While China has decades of experience with political commissars working with army commanders that same system at sea is quite different and even the Chinese are not sure how it should work on a ship.
Another leadership problem is the development of NCOs. Russia downplayed NCOs after the 1930s civil war and China followed that model until, in the late 1990s, they realized the Western custom of developing experienced NCOs was a major asset. It takes time to develop these NCOs and it will be another decade before Chinese NCOs catch up with their Western counterparts in years of experience. After that, the NCO quality gets better with each generation if the NCOs are allowed to do their jobs. Chinese NCOs, especially the navy “chiefs” (Chief Petty Officer, or senior NCOs) who play a disproportionate role in the daily functioning of warships, don’t have to worry about a commissar watching what they do and criticizing or countermanding decisions. Chiefs and political commissars tend to leave each other alone “for the good of the ship.” The problem is that chiefs don’t take command of the ship in emergencies. That’s what the officers are for.
Junior officers on ships who are members of the CCP depend a lot, like non-CCP officers, on the chiefs. It is unknown exactly what impact this has on naval officers with good records as CCP members and then decide to become political commissars. All navy political commissars start their careers as junior officers and becoming a political commissar is an option for naval officers who are active CCP members. CCP membership is not mandatory and CCP leaders know that many officers join simply for whatever advantages can be gained by being a party member. Young naval officers willing to be active in CCP matters are seen as potential political commissars and that could lead to higher rank in the CCP and government in general. This was how it was supposed to work with the soviet zampolits but, just as the Chinese are discovering, many of those eager young party members are more opportunist than anything else.
In China senior commanders have done staff analysis of the combined impact of all this and the conclusion is not something they want to publicize. While Chinese forces have gotten much better since the 1990s they still have a serious “combat capability” gap with potential opponents; especially the United States. How much of this has to do with the political commissars and the dual command system is unclear but the current consensus is that the dual commander system may improve political control but it does little for improved operation of the ships.