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The People's Liberation Army and the People's Republic at 50: Reform at Last

  • David Shambaugh

The People's Republic of China (PRC) may not have had the opportunity to celebrate 50 years of statehood had it not been for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) – nor, for that matter, is it likely that the PRC would have come into existence in the first place were it not for the PLA (as is evident in Mao's often-cited observation that, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun!”). As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rode the military to power in 1949, the army also subsequently acted on several occasions to rescue the regime, maintain the Party in power and ergo sustain the People's Republic. The PLA has also been the designated protector of “state sovereignty” and “unifier” of China – acting to incorporate Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and border regions in the south-west and north-west during the early 1950s, and fighting several border wars against China's neighbours thereafter – and it is the PLA that is ultimately charged with ensuring both that Taiwan does not seek “independence” and that China's territorial claims in the East and South China Seas are protected.

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1. Some revisionist histories question the degree to which the CCP came to power as the result of a “revolution.” It may be more appropriate to consider the CCP's ascension to power and the establishment of the PRC as the result of a combination of the collapsing Kuomintang state and the military victory won by the PLA (then Red Army) over KMT forces on the battlefield. The revisionist view is expressed, for example, in my “The building of the civil-military state in China, 1949–1965: bringing the soldier back in,” in Cheek, Timothy and Saich, Tony (eds.), The Construction of State Socialism in China, 1949–1965 (Armonk, NY: ME. Sharpe, 1996).

2. Particularly nuclear weapons and air, sea and ground-based ballistic missiles delivery systems.

3. These are traced in Jencks, Harian W., From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945–1981 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982); Nelsen, Harvey W., The Chinese Military System (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997 and 1981); Joffe, Ellis, The Chinese Army After Mao (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

4. For a sampling of this study see Pillsbury, Michael (ed.), Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1997).

5. China has over 12,000 miles of land frontiers, over 11,000 miles of coastline, 1.86 million square miles of claimed territorial waters, and 30,000 square kilometres of naval air space to protect. Interview, PLA General Staff, 6 December 1998.

6. See Godwin, Paul H.B., “From continent to periphery: PLA doctrine, strategy and capabilities toward 2000,” in Shambaugh, David and Yang, Richard H. (eds.), China's Military in Transition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); Godwin, , “Chinese military strategy revised: local and limited war,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 519 (01 1992); Godwin, , “Changing concepts of doctrine, strategy, and operations in the Chinese People's Liberation Army, 1979–1987,” The China Quarterly, No. 112 (12 1987); Li, Nan, “The PLA's evolving warfighting doctrine, strategy, and tactics, 1985–1995: a Chinese perspective,” in Shambaugh, and Yang, , China's Military in Transition; Shambaugh, David, “The insecurity of security: the PLA's evolving doctrine and threat perceptions towards 2000,” Journal of Northeast Asian Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 1 (Spring 1994); and Johnston, Alastair I., “China's new ‘old thinking’: the concept of limited deterrence, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1995).

7. The best study of PLA demobilization is Shichor, Yitzhak, “Demobilization: the dialectics of PLA troop reduction,” in Shambaugh, and Yang, , China's Military in Transition.

8. Ding, Arthur S., “The streamlining of the PLA,” Issues & Studies (11 1992), pp. 9293.

9. Ironically, the U.S. military gives its field commanders far greater individual authority.

10. A Special Arms Department (Te hing bu) was formed under the General Staff Department and combines and fulfils procurement needs for these units.

11. Interview with former General Staff Department official, 8 December 1998.

12. Interview, National Defence University, 16 July 1998.

13. See Mulvenon, James, “Military corruption in China,” Problems of Post-Communism (03/04 1998), pp. 1221.

14. Interview, General Logistics Department, 9 December 1998.

15. Ibid. This figure rises considerably at and above the group army level, and among those who graduate from the National Defence University.

16. “Army seeks mobility in force cuts,” Janes Defense Weekly, 16 12 1998.

17. For an explication of this thesis see my “The soldier and the state in China: the political work system in the People's Liberation Army,” The China Quarterly, No. 127 (09 1991), pp. 527568.

18. The National Defence Law must also be seen as part of a larger and important process to govern military procedures through law and regulations. In the last decade nearly 120 military-related regulations have been adopted by the CMC, State Council and National People's Congress, as well as more than 1,000 rules and regulations adopted by individual PLA service arms and Military region commands. Source: China's National Defense (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 1998), pp. 1819.

19. “Air Force frontliners to see new fighter breed,” Janes Defense Weekly, p. 26.

20. “New PLAN to train, purchase vessel mix,” Janes Defense Weekly, 16 12 1998, p. 25.

21. Stokes, Major Mark A., “China's strategic modernization: implications for U.S. national security,” unpublished manuscript, 1997; and Pillsbury, , Chinese Views of Future Warfare.

22. Stokes, , “China's strategic modernization.”

23. See the articles in Shambaugh, and Yang, , The Chinese Military in Transition.

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The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
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