The history of the People's Liberation Army begins in 1927 with the start of the Chinese Civil War and spans to the present, developing from a peasant guerrilla force into the largest armed force in the world.
The PLA traces its origins to the August 1, 1927, Nanchang Uprising in which Kuomintang troops led by Communist Party of China leaders Zhu De and Zhou Enlai (while engaged in the Northern Expedition) rebelled following the dissolution of the first Kuomintang-Communist Party of China united front earlier that year. The survivors of that and other abortive communist insurrections, including the Autumn Harvest Uprising led by Mao Zedong, fled to the Jinggang Mountains along the border of Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Joining forces under the leadership of Mao and Zhu, this collection of communists, bandits, KMT deserters, and impoverished peasants became the First Workers' and Peasants' Army, or Red Army–the military arm of the Communist Party of China. Using the guerrilla tactics that would later make Mao Zedong internationally famous as a military strategist, the Red Army survived several encirclement and suppression campaigns by superior KMT forces. But party internal politics forced the Red Army temporarily to abandon guerrilla warfare and resulted in the epic Long March of 1934 to 1935. The Red Army's exploits during the Long March became legendary and remain a potent symbol of the spirit and prowess of the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. During that period, Mao's political power and his strategy of guerrilla warfare gained ascendancy in the party and the Red Army
In 1937 the Red Army joined in a second united front with the KMT against the invading Japanese army in the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Red Army was nominally integrated into the Chinese national army forming the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army units. Although nominally cooperating with the KMT, the Communist Party of China used the Red Army to expand its influence while leading the anti-Japanese resistance in north China. By the end of the war, the Red Army numbered approximately 1 million and was backed by a militia of 2 million. Although the Red Army fought several conventional battles against the Japanese (and KMT troops), guerrilla operations were the primary mode of warfare.
Mao's military thought grew out of the Red Army's experiences in the late 1930s and early 1940s and formed the basis for the "people's war" concept, which became the doctrine of the Red Army and the PLA. In developing his thought, Mao drew on the works of the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (fourth century B.C.) and Soviet and other theorists, as well as on the lore of peasant uprisings, such as the stories found in the classical novel Shuihu Zhuan (Water Margin) and the stories of the Taiping Rebellion. Synthesizing these influences with lessons learned from the Red Army's successes and failures, Mao created a comprehensive politico-military doctrine for waging revolutionary warfare. People's war incorporated political, economic, and psychological measures with protracted military struggle against a superior foe. As a military doctrine, people's war emphasized the mobilization of the populace to support regular and guerrilla forces; the primacy of men over weapons, with superior motivation compensating for inferior technology; and the three progressive phases of protracted warfare- -strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive. During the first stage, enemy forces were "lured in deep" into one's own territory to overextend, disperse, and isolate them. The Red Army established base areas from which to harass the enemy, but these bases and other territory could be abandoned to preserve Red Army forces. In the second phase, superior numbers and morale were applied to wear down the enemy in a war of attrition in which guerrilla operations predominated. During the final phase, Red Army forces made the transition to regular warfare as the enemy was reduced to parity and eventually defeated.
In the civil war following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Red Army, newly renamed the People's Liberation Army, again used the principles of people's war in following a policy of strategic withdrawal, waging a war of attrition, and abandoning cities and communication lines to the well-armed, numerically superior KMT forces. In 1947 the PLA launched a counteroffensive during a brief strategic stalemate. By the next summer, the PLA had entered the strategic offensive stage, using conventional warfare as the KMT forces went on the defensive and then collapsed rapidly on the mainland in 1949. By 1950 the PLA had seized Hainan Island and Tibet.
When the PLA became a national armed force with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was an unwieldy, 5-million-strong peasant army. In 1950 the PLA included 10,000 troops in the People's Liberation Army Air Force (founded in 1949) and 60,000 in the People's Liberation Army Navy (founded in 1950). The PRC also claimed a militia of 5.5 million. During the 1950s, the PLA with Soviet help transformed itself from a peasant army into a more modern one. At that time, demobilization of ill-trained or politically unreliable troops began, resulting in the reduction of military strength to 2.8 million in 1953.
In December 1951, the PVA or People's Volunteer Army intervened in the Korean War as United Nations forces under General Douglas MacArthur approached the Yalu River. Under the weight of this offensive, Chinese forces captured Seoul, but were subsequently pushed back to a line roughly straddling the 38th Parallel. The war ended as a standstill in 1953. In 1962, the PLA also fought to a standstill against India in the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
Establishment of a professional military force equipped with modern weapons and doctrine was the last of the "Four Modernizations" announced by Zhou Enlai and supported by Deng Xiaoping. In keeping with Deng's mandate to reform, the PLA has demobilized millions of men and women since 1978 and has introduced modern methods in such areas as recruitment and manpower, strategy, and education and training. In 1979, the PLA fought Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War.
In the 1980s, the PRC shrunk its military considerably on the theory that freeing up resources for economic development was in the PRC's interest.
Following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, ideological correctness was temporarily revived as the dominant theme in Chinese military affairs. Reform and modernization appear to have since resumed their position as the PLA's priority objectives, although the armed forces' political loyalty to the Communist Party of China remains a leading concern. One other area of concern to the political leadership was the PLA's involvement in civilian economic activities. Concern that these activities were adversely impacting PLA readiness has led the political leadership to attempt to remove the PLA's business empire.
Beginning in the 1980s, the PLA tried to transform itself from a land-based power, centered on a vast ground force, to a smaller, mobile, high-tech military capable of mounting defensive operations beyond its coastal borders. The motivation for this was that a massive land invasion by Russia is no longer seen as a major threat, and the new threats to the PRC are seen to be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, possibly with assistance from the United States, or a confrontation over the Spratly Islands. In addition, the economic center of gravity of mainland China has shifted from the interior to the coastal regions and the PRC is now more dependent on trade than it has been in the past. Furthermore, the possibility of a militarily resurgent Japan remains a worry to the Chinese military leadership.
The PRC's power projection capability is limited; one Chinese general has characterized China's military as having "short arms and weak legs". There has however been an effort to redress these deficiencies in recent years. The PLA has acquired some advanced weapons systems, including Sovremenny class destroyers, Sukhoi Su-27 and Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft, and Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia. It is also currently building 4 new destroyers including 2 AAW Type 052C class guided missile destroyers. However, the mainstay of the air force continues to be the 1960s-vintage J-7 fighter. In addition, the PLA has attempted to build an indigenous aerospace and military industry with its production of the J-10, which currently is in production. It reportedly contains technology supplied by Israel from its Lavi fighter program as well as technology reverse-engineered from an F-16 reportedly given to the PRC by Pakistan. The PLA launched a new class of nuclear submarine on December 3, 2004 capable of launching nuclear warheads that could strike targets across the Pacific Ocean.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the PLA became extensively involved in creating a business empire including companies in areas not normally associated with the military (i.e., travel and real estate). Much of the motivation for this was to supplement the PLA's normal budget, whose growth was restricted. Chairman Mao's belief that people and groups should be self-sufficient also played a role in the PLA's varied business interests. In the early 1990s, the leadership of the Communist Party and the high command of the PLA became alarmed that these business transactions were in conflict with the PLA's military mission. The business interests of the PLA were eroding military discipline, and there were reports of corruption resulting from the PLA businesses. As a result, the PLA was ordered to spin off its companies. Typically, the actual management of the companies did not change, but the officers involved were retired from active duty within the PLA and the companies were given private boards of retired PLA officers. Military units were compensated for the loss of profitable businesses with increased state funding.
Campaigns of the Red/People's Liberation Army Edit
- 1931 to 1945: World War II
- 1945 to 1950: Chinese Civil War against forces of the Kuomintang; reoccupation of Tibet
- December 1951 to 1953: Korean War (under the official banner of the Chinese People's Volunteers, although they are PLA regulars)
- August 1954 to May 1958: Taiwan Strait Crisis at Quemoy and Matsu
- 1959: Suppression of uprising in Tibet
- October 1962 to November 1962: Sino-Indian War
- 1969 to 1978: Border skirmishes with Soviet Union
- 1974: Sea battle near Xisha Islands with South Vietnam
- 1979: Sino-Vietnamese War
- 1986: Border skirmishes with Vietnam