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The Third Front: Defence Industrialization in the Chinese Interior*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009


Between 1964 and 1971 China carried out a massive programme of investment in the remote regions of south-western and western China. This development programme – called “the Third Front” – envisaged the creation of a huge self-sufficient industrial base area to serve as a strategic reserve in the event of China being drawn into war. Reflecting its primarily military orientation, the programme was considered top secret for many years; recent Chinese articles have discussed the huge costs and legacy of problems associated with the programme, but these discussions have been oblique and anecdotal, and no systematic appraisal has ever been published.2 Since Chinese analysts have avoided discussion of the Third Front, western accounts of China's development have also given it inadequate emphasis, and it has not been incorporated into our understanding of China during the 1960s and 1970s. It is common to assume that the “Cultural Revolution decade” was dominated by domestic political conflict, and characterized by an economic system made dysfunctional by excessive politicization, fragmented control, and an emphasis on small-scale locally self-sufficient development. The Third Front, however, was a purposive, large-scale, centrally-directed programme of development carried out in response to a perceived external threat with the broad support of China's national leaders. Moreover, this programme was immensely costly, having a negative impact on China's economic development that was certainly more far-reaching than the disruption of the Cultural Revolution.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1988

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1. “Instructions given upon hearing Gu Mu and Yu Qiuli report on planning work,” Mao Zedong sixiang wansui, p. 606.Google Scholar

2. For example, Zhipei, Huang, “Discussing some problems in the construction of industry in inland areas,” Jingji guanli (Economic Management), No. 5 (1979), pp. 1415, 24Google Scholar, and Donghsheng, Chen, “An exploration of the theories and methods of industrial location,” Jingji wenti tansuo (Exploration of Economic Problems), No. 2 (1980), pp. 717.Google Scholar The term “third front” (sanxian) is often translated as “third line” or “third rank,” but, as this article will make clear, the term has a military connotation that should be retained in the translation.

3. Hu Hua (vice-chairman, Department of Party History, People's University), “The Chinese Communist Party in the early 1960s,” public lecture, Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 21 May 1987. Lin's speech has never been published. Professor Hu stated that, in his opinion, Lin was merely conveying Mao's strategic views, and was not presenting an independent point of view.

4. Weizhong, Fang (chief ed.) Zhonghua renmin gongheguo jingji dashiji 1949–1980 (Economic Chronology of the People's Republic of China) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue, 1984), p. 374.Google Scholar According to Xu Yi, in the original Third Five Year Plan, 70% of investment was to go into coastal areas, 20% to inland regions, and 10% to “intermediate” areas. “On the relation between system and production structure,” reprinted in Renmin daxue fuyin baokan ziliao: guomin jingji yu jihua (People's University Reprints: National Economy and Plan), No. 4 (1981), p. 57.Google Scholar

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18. The Deyang No. 2 Heavy Machinery Plant and Dongfang Electric Generator Plant (also in Deyang) were given priority in the 1966 plan. Weizhong, Fang, Economic Chronology, p. 399Google Scholar; Xinheng, Cui et al. , Urban Economics of Sichuan, p. 177.Google Scholar The Dongfang Turbine Factory in Deyang, and the Dongfang Boiler Factory in Zigong make up the rest of the complex: Weigang, Qiu and Hui, Yi “Third Front enterprises”; Renmin ribao (People's Daily) (overseas edit.), 15 05 1986.Google Scholar

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26. Jencks, Harlan, From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945–1981 (Boulder: Westview, 1982), p. 196.Google Scholar

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29. Aluminum smelting in particular demands ample and stable supplies of electricity and has obvious military applications in aircraft and aerospace production. There are currently three major aluminum smelters in Gansu and Ningxia, presumably built in tandem with the Liujiaxia dam. Jingzhi, Sun, China's Economic Geography, p. 166.Google Scholar

30. Gansu renkou, p. 195Google Scholar; The Hailin Bearing Factory was situated 80 km. from Tianshui, in a place where the water turned out to be contaminated, and drinking water has had to be transported by lorry ever since. Weigang, Qiu and Hui, Yi, “Third Front enterprises,” 35 Years of Qinghai, pp. 4546.Google Scholar

31. Gansu renkou, pp. 195–96Google Scholar; Guizhou jingji shouce, pp. 203, 212–13Google Scholar; Guizhou nianjian 1985, pp. 500501.Google Scholar Production of heavy industrial goods declined sharply in Guizhou between 1971 and 1973, with steel output declining especially rapidly. See Guizhou jingji shouce, pp. 180, 190.Google Scholar

32. For a discussion of the broader economic context of the Third Front period, see Naughton, Barry, “The economy of the Cultural Revolution: military preparation, decentralization, and leaps forward,”Google Scholar presented to Conference on New Perspectives on the Cultural Revolution, Fairbank Centre, Harvard University, 16 May 1987. Conference papers are forthcoming from Harvard University Press in a volume edited by William Joseph, Christine Wong and David Zweig.

33. A good account of this episode is in Suinian, Liu and Qungan, Wu, Zhongguo shehuizhuyi jingji jianshi (An Outline History of China's Socialist Economy) (Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin, 1985), pp. 383–93.Google Scholar

34. See e.g., Ziyang, Zhao (then Party head in Sichuan), “Raise ourselves to an all out effort to speed up the construction of Sichuan,” Hongqi (Red Flag), No. 1 (1978)Google Scholar, transl. in Shambaugh, David (ed.), “Zhao Ziyang's Sichuan experience: blueprint for a nation,” Chinese Law and Government, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1982), pp. 15, 2023.Google Scholar Zhao makes repeated references to Sichuan's importance as a strategic rear base area.

35. Huiqin, Chen, “A preliminary analysis,” pp. 5054.Google Scholar

36. 100 Projects, pp. 10, 1520.Google Scholar

37. Huiqin, Chen, “A preliminary analysis,” pp. 5054.Google Scholar

38. Shirong, Xie, “Military industries must be brought fully into play,” Jingji yanjiu cankao ziliao, No. 59 (1981), p. 33.Google Scholar

39. Dunjin, Chen, “A few opinions on bank loans or allocations for capital construction,” in Jingji yanjiu editorial board (ed.), Guanyu woguo jingji guanti tizhi gaige de tantao (An Exploration of Economic System Reform in Our Country) (Jinan: Shandong renmin, 1980), p. 151.Google Scholar

40. Zhengduo, Lu et al. , “The economic disruption of the 10 years of chaos,” Jingji yanjiu ziliao, No. 3 (1981), pp. 1113Google Scholar; Weigang, Qiu and Hui, Yi “Third Front enterprises.”Google Scholar

41. Changqing, Zhou, “Bring into play the function of Third Front enterprises, adjust and reform the geographic distribution well,” Jingji ribao (Economics Daily), 28 10 1985, p. 2Google Scholar; “Enterprises in the deep mountains and old forests are starting to move out,” Shijie Jingji daobao (World Economic Herald), 18 11 1985, p. 3.Google Scholar

42. Changqing, Zhou, “Function of Third Front enterprises,” p. 2.Google Scholar

43. 1985 Hubei tongji nianjian, p. 246Google Scholar; interview with responsible person at Wuhan Municipal Planning Commission conducted by Dorothy Solinger, November 1984. I am indebted to Professor Solinger for sharing the data on investment in Wuhan with me.

44. Jingzhi, Sun (ed.), China's Economic Geography, p. 94.Google Scholar In Sichuan, we have figures for industrial investment by Five-Year Plan periods. Sichuan made up the following percentages of national total (industrial) investment: 1963–65: 7·5% (9·1%); Third Plan: 13·3% (14·6%); Fourth Plan: 7·9% (9·8%), Sichuan tongji nianjian 1983, pp. 188–89.Google Scholar

45. Weizhong, Fang, Economic Chronology, p. 389Google Scholar; Dehuai, Peng, Memoirs of a Chinese Marshal (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984), p. 523Google Scholar; Guizhou jingji shouce, p. 212Google Scholar; Party History Research Room, p. 338.

46. Ling, Lin and Chongzhang, Gu, “The course of economic restructuring in Sichuan province,” Social Sciences in China, Spring 1985, pp. 187–89.Google Scholar (This is a translation of the chapter on Sichuan in Taihe, Zhou, Economic System Reform; Guizhou jingji shouce, p. 212.)Google Scholar

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49. Including military production capacity. See Blaker, James, “The production of conventional weapons,” in Whitson, William (ed.), The Military and Political Power in China in the 1970s (New York: Praeger, 1973), pp. 219–25.Google Scholar

50. It will be recalled that the Third Front strategy was originally advanced by Lin Biao as a response to a threat to Shanghai. Moreover, the division of the country into “first” and “second” fronts, with these urban areas in the first front, clearly shows the direction from which attack was most feared. This interpretation was confirmed by Hu Hua, loc. cit.

51. On the United States, see Oksenberg, Michel, “The dynamics of the Sino-American relationship,” in Solomon, Richard (ed.), The China Factor (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1981), p. 63Google Scholar; on the Soviet Union, see Segal, Gerald, Defending China (London: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 176–96Google Scholar; Kissinger, Henry, White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 183–85.Google Scholar

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54. Luo is seen as “more sensitive to American actions in Vietnam,” and demanding a “crash program of defense preparations,” which was resisted by Mao and Lin, in Harding, Harry, “The making of Chinese military policy,”Google Scholar in Whitson, (ed.), Military and Political Power in China, pp. 371, 373Google Scholar; or as “calling for greater defence expenditure” by Segal, Gerald, Defending China, p. 169.Google Scholar A similar view is presented in the chapter by Harding and Gurtov in Gurtov, Melvin and Hwang, Byong-Moo, China Under Threat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980), pp. 181–82.Google Scholar In some versions, Luo also advocated renewed co-operation with the Soviet Union. Donald Zagoria sees Luo as a “hawk” who opposed both a group of “doves” advocating all-around reduction of tensions, and an intermediate group represented by Mao, and Biao, Lin, Zagoria, , Vietnam Triangle, pp. 7083.Google Scholar See also Ahn, Byung-joon, Chinese Politics and the Cultural Revolution (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976), pp. 186–90, 203204.Google Scholar

55. Throughout 1965 and early 1966, Chineses spokesmen – such as Chen Yi and Zhou Enlai – repeatedly alluded to the American threat, and repeatedly stated that they were ready to meet it. Hong Kong, Wen hui bao of 27 01, 1966Google Scholar, said, “an early war, and a large-scale war between China and the United States seems to be inevitable.” See the classic analysis of this entire period in Whiting, Allen S., The Chinese Calculus of Deterrance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1975), pp. 175–94.Google Scholar The evidence of the Third Front is entirely consistent with Whiting's careful discussion of Chinese behaviour. On the importance of Chinese material aid to Vietnam, see also Jencks, , Muskets to Missiles, pp. 62, 146.Google Scholar

56. Renmin ribao, 10 12 1980Google Scholar, transl, in FBIS, 14 12, 1978, pp. E25.Google Scholar

57. Hu Hua, loc. cit.

58. The “low tech” image of people's war is reinforced by colourful statements by Mao about the importance of the human factor and the impotence of modern nuclear weapons. In one such statement, Mao also displayed his personal commitment to the Third Front strategy: “If there are difficulties, we must try to overcome them; if funds are insufficient, use my salary; if there is no road, we can ride a donkey to get there.” Cited by Zhao Ziyang, “Raise ourselves to an all out effort,” transl, in Shambaugh, (ed.), “Zhao Ziyang's Sichuan experience,” p. 15.Google Scholar Lin Biao has also been quoted as calling for the “donkey-ization” (luomahua) of China's defence capabilities. But China's atomic bomb long ago showed the attention Mao paid to high technology armaments.

59. This estimate is drawn from the following pieces of information. Between 1969 and 1971 (the high point), 11% of total state investment went for armaments production. Weizhong, Fang, Economic Chronology, p. 507.Google Scholar 22·8% of Sichun industrial investment 1950–81 went to military industry. Sichuan shengqing, p. 251.Google Scholar Over one-fifth of Guizhou's industrial capital stock was in military industries in the 1980s. Guizhou nianjian 1985, p. 492.Google Scholar

60. For example, the crucial Magnitogorsk steel combine in the Urals were built in an area that had produced iron and shipped it to Moscow for centuries, and in the 1950s, Magnitogorsk remained the low-cost producer for the Moscow region, even after transport costs were taken into account. Cole, J. P. and German, F. C., A Geography of the USSR (London: Butterworths, 1961), pp. 2627Google Scholar; 123–29; 199–210. About 80% of military industry capacity (but only one-third of total industrial capacity) was in the western part of the country, and more than a third of this capacity was evacuated eastward in 1941–42. Harrison, Mark, Soviet Planning in Peace and War, 1938–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 4862, 78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Linz, Susan J., “World War II and Soviet economic growth, 1940–1953,”Google Scholar and Hunter, Holland, “Successful spatial management,” both in Linz, Susan (ed.), The Impact of World War II on the Soviet Union (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985), pp. 13, 5354.Google Scholar

61. Chi, Ch'aoting, Wartime Economic Development of China (New York: Garland, [1941] 1980), Chs 1 and 2Google Scholar (This edition is unpaginated.); Qishan, Wu, “Views on the conditions of Sichuan's local industry development and future directions of development,” Caijing kexue (Financial Science), No. 2 (1957), pp. 2123Google Scholar; Fusun, Wang, “An industrial production index for North China during the war,” Jingji pinglun (Economic Review), Vol. 2, No. 14 (01 1948), pp. 911.Google Scholar Sichuan's industrial output was less than 10% producers goods in 1936, and it had only 2·9% of the nation's industrial workers, and less than 1% of industrial capital. Producers goods accounted for 40% of output by 1943. After the war, most of the immigrant workers and many of the factories returned to the coast and industrial production declined substantially. A positive legacy for later Third Front development was provided, however, by extensive surveying and development planning (including the discovery of the ore deposit that is the basis for the Panzhihua complex) and a few important enterprises, such as the Chongqing steel mill.

62. Cf. Lardy, Nicholas, Economic Growth and Distribution in China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Roll, C. and Yeh, K. C., “Balance in coastal and inland industrial development,” in U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (ed.), China: A Reassessment of the Economy (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975), pp. 8193.Google Scholar

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67. Sichuan shengqing, p. 454Google Scholar; 100 Projects, pp. 125–26.Google Scholar

68. Jian, Zhao and Kexun, Liu, “The twisted path of development,” pp. 35Google Scholar; Steel Industry Yearbook, pp. 537, 540Google Scholar and colour plate 7. Jiuquan produced 620,000 tons of pig iron and 5,900 tons of steel in 1985; Shuicheng produced 500,000 tons of pig iron and 35,000 tons of steel.

69. Encyclopedia Sinica: Mining and Metallurgy, pp. 856, 848Google Scholar, and colour plate 34; Jian, Zhao and Kexun, Liu, “The twisted path of development,” p. 5Google Scholar; Steel Industry Yearbook 1986, p. 536.Google Scholar

70. Zhuoxin, Gu et al. , “Comrade Li Fuchun's enormous contribution to economic planning work,” Renmin ribao, 22 05, 1980, p. 2Google Scholar; Xinheng, Cui et al. , Urban Economies of Sichuan, pp. 145–46.Google Scholar In December 1964 the Planning Commission under Li Fuchun was replaced by a “small planning commission” under the direction of Yu Qiuli.

71. Encylopedia Sinica: Mining and Metallurgy, p. 500Google Scholar; Sichuan shengqing, pp. 383–84Google Scholar; Xinhua reports transl, in FBIS, 18 10 1983Google Scholar and British Broadcasting Corporation, Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), Part III: The Far East (FE), 7350/BII/S.

72. Dongsheng, Chen, “An exploration of the theory and methods of industrial location,” Jingji wenti tansuo, No. 2 (1980), p. 9.Google Scholar

73. Zhengduo, Lu et al. , “The Economic disruption of the ten years of chaos,” Jingji yanjiu ziliao, No. 3 (1981), pp. 1113.Google Scholar

74. State Economic Commission, Comprehensive Transport Research Institute, “How transport became a weak link in national economic development,” Gongye jingji guanti congkan, No. 4 (1981), pp. 13.Google Scholar

75. There are other reasons for the excess dispersion of investment resources, but the succession of uncompleted investment strategies is one important cause. Cf. Naughton, “The economy of the Cultural Revolution.”

76. Rawski, Thomas, China's Transition to Industrialism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980)Google Scholar, contains an excellent discussion of these issues.

77. Zhiqiang, Hu, “We must define a strategy for developing the great south-west,” Jingjixue zhoubao (Economics Weekly), 11 08 1985, p. 2.Google Scholar

78. Binwen, Xu, “The east-west gap and a ‘one and a half priority’ strategy,” Jingjixue zhoubao, 21 07 1985, p. 1.Google Scholar

79. Fuxiang, Ge and Chunming, Wang, “A few words about technical reform at No. 2 Auto,” Zhongguo jiben jianshe (China's Capital Construction), No. 3 (1987), p. 33.Google Scholar

80. “New truck centre to open in Hubei,” China Daily, 3 12 1985.Google Scholar

81. Steel Industry Yearbook 1986, p. 547Google Scholar and passim.

82. Guizhou nianjian 1985, pp. 494–95Google Scholar; Minxue, Liu, “Decentralizing enterprises and managing the industry,” Jingji cankao, 16 10 1985, p. 1Google Scholar; “Third Front enterprises set up many windows' in coastal areas,” Renmin ribao, 21 06 1987, p. 1.Google Scholar

83. Changqing, Zhou, “Bring into play Third Front enterprises,” p. 2Google Scholar; “Enterprises in the deep mountains and old forests are starting to move out,” Shijie jingji daobao, 18 11 1985, p. 3.Google Scholar“Adjustment and reform of our Third Front enterprises is effective,” Renmin ribao, 22 04 1987, p. 1.Google Scholar The manager of a brick factory in Zhejiang wrote to the newspaper to suggest that one of the Third Front factories move to the site of his factory. He had extra room, and besides could supply bricks for reconstruction: “A response to third front enterprises moving out of the deep mountains and old forests,” Shijie jingji daobao, 16 12 1985, p. 2.Google Scholar

84. “Anhui and Shanghai remake ‘small Third Front’ enterprises,” Renmin ribao, 10 03 1987, p. 2.Google Scholar

85. This point is made forcefully by Qiu Weigang and Yi Hui “Third Front enterprises.”

86. County-level industrial systems are also notoriously unprofitable. See Yue, Li and Shengchang, Chen, “The scale structure of industrial enterprises,”Social Sciences in China, No. 2 (1981), p. 55Google Scholar; “State moves to reduce big deficits,” China Daily, 26 10 1985, p. 2.Google Scholar The discussion in the text could equally well be applied to countyrun plants.

87. Sichuan ribao, 30 10 1985, p. 1Google Scholar; “Companies poach graduates,” China Daily, 10 09 1985, p. 3.Google Scholar