08 August 2009

People’s Liberation Army Entries in Encyclopedia of Modern China

Andrew S. Erickson, “People’s Liberation Army: Overview,” 95-108; “People’s Liberation Army: Command Structure of the Armed Services,” 108-110; “Military Regions,” 99; and “People’s Liberation Army: Military Enterprises and Industry Since 1949,” 112-15; in David Pong, ed., Encyclopedia of Modern China, Vol. 3 (New York: Scribner, 2009).

From Publisher’s website: An exciting addition to Scribner’s World History program, the Encyclopedia of Modern China is designed for academic and professional users—from advanced high school students and undergraduates to professors, journalists, and business people—as well as public library patrons. The encyclopedia showcases the work of an international body of prominent scholars, who offer accessible, original, and authoritative analysis of all aspects of the history and culture of China since 1800. In more than 2,000 pages of alphabetical entries, each ranging from 500 to 5,000 words, Encyclopedia of Modern China provides critical information on the most populous country and most dynamic trade market in the world: the people, politics, economics, religion, philosophy, traditions, art, and literature of this ancient and enduring civilization is explored from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day. Given China’s increasing role in world affairs, its modern history and culture are of great interest to many, and this work is designed to bring reliable and accessible facts and analysis to students, professionals, and others who study and interact with China and her people. Commissioned contributors from colleges and universities in China and around the world provide authoritative content and fresh scholarly analysis: Scores of tables, charts, graphs, and maps illustrate key points. A glossary appendix listing transliteration of unique names, terms, and expressions. A cumulative index, cross references, and lists of related topics in each article provide multiple access points to the cross-disciplinary content. All articles end with bibliographies, suggesting important sources for reference and further reading. A chronology of Chinese history since 1800 outlines key events in the nation’s recent history, and offers international parallels for context and perspective. An appendix of primary sources helps to enhance readers’ understanding of life in modern China. Thematic outline of contents: This navigational tool provides access to all articles by subject and theme.


People’s Liberation Army: Overview

The first entry covers the history of the PLA from its establishment in the mid-1940s, its changing organization, structures, and subdivisions (e.g. army, navy, and air forces) in a general overview, including an introduction to major leaders and historical roles played by the PLA. The entry covers the military command structures, organization, the military/strategic aspects of the political-military interface, training, ranks, operational practice, main weapon systems, specialist units, intelligence systems, equipment, engagement in main conflicts from the Civil War until the present, involvement with UN peacekeeping, and links to foreign military establishments.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is one element of the Chinese armed forces. The Chinese armed forces are composed of the active and reserve units of the PLA, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the People’s Militia. The Central Military Commission is the highest command and policy-making authority for the Chinese armed forces (sharing command of the PAP with the State Council through the Ministry of Public Security). In 2008, the PLA had about 2.3 million active-duty troops and an estimated 800,000 personnel in reserve units. The 1997 National Defense Law states that the PLA has a “defensive fighting mission, [but] when necessary, may assist in maintaining public order in accordance with the law.” The PAP, which is primarily responsible for domestic security, officially numbers about 660,000 personnel, though another 230,000 PAP personnel may be under the daily command of the Ministry of Public Security. The primary militia consists of about 10 million personnel and is tasked to provide support to both the PLA and PAP. The PLA is divided into the ground forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and the strategic-missile forces (Second Artillery). At least 200,000 PLA coastal and border-defense units and roughly 100,000 PAP troops are responsible for border defense. All elements of the Chinese armed forces engage in societal activities (e.g., disaster relief and some infrastructure development). An unknown number of civilians (technical specialists, administrative and custodial staff, administrative contractors, and local government-paid staff) also support PLA operations.

Following the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966– 1976), the PLA has become increasingly professional. Training has become increasingly sophisticated and realistic since the 1980s. Officers are being educated at a smaller number of more-advanced institutions, including civilian universities. Measures such as a National Defense Scholarship Program, initiated in 2000, have attempted to attract high school graduates to study in civilian institutions with the obligation to serve in the PLA upon graduation. This program, also known as the National Defense Student program, seeks to produce junior officers with the technical qualifications necessary for PLA modernization. Some military academies have been converted to training bases for the technical training of officers, noncommissioned officers, conscripts, and civilian college graduates, as well as small units.

The 1999 Service Law reduced the conscript service period to two years for all conscripts, but the overall quality of recruits remains low and the system is subject to corruption. The PLA has gradually increased its military exchanges, attaché offices abroad (though few have PLAAF and PLAN attachés), and educational exchanges, and has conducted a variety of joint exercises with Russia and Western nations. A limited number of port calls and the PLAN’s first global circumnavigation in 2002 by the destroyer Qingdao and the support ship Taicang have furthered diplomacy. Since 1990, when it first deployed military observers, the PLA has greatly increased its role in United Nations peacekeeping. China has contributed roughly 6,800 personnel to twenty-one United Nations peacekeeping missions since first sending military observers in 1990. In February 2008, 1,962 Chinese personnel were deployed on peace- keeping missions. These activities are supported by training facilities at the PLA International Relations Academy in Nanjing and the China Peacekeeping Police Training Center in Langfang, Hebei Province. … … …

People’s Liberation Army: Command Structure of the Armed Services

The second entry focuses on the main lines of command (and changes therein over time), with flowcharts and accompanying explanations. The entry highlights principal structural differences/similarities with other large military command structures in the world and extrapolates the potential impact thereof on deployment of troops in conflict situations.

Like all other major parts of government, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has parallel Communist Party– and state-bureaucratic structures. Every headquarters of the PLA has a party committee (dangwei) and a party standing committee (dangwei changwei). Political commissars (usually the committee secretary) and military commanders (usually the deputy secretary) make decisions using a party-committee system that brings them and their deputies into a collective decision-making process. Staff departments (e.g., command, political, logistics, armaments) support their decisions by providing information and analysis to relevant party committees and then monitor and guide implementation at lower levels.

On the party side, the Central Military Commission (Zhongyang Junshi Weiyuanhui), established in February 1930 as part of a gradual, negotiated process, makes decisions on operational policy (zuozhan fang’an) for the PLA as its party committee and determines national military strategy, as China’s national command authority. It currently has eleven members: Chairman Hu Jintao, China’s president; two vice chairs; a defense minister; four general department heads, and the commanders of the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery. The general office (bangongting) of the Central Military Commission (CMC) coordinates the general departments, services, and premier professional-military-education institutions (the National Defense University and the Academy of Military Science) to realize national military strategy. Four general departments, led by commission members, are responsible for operational command (zuozhan zhihui), and assist in the promulgation and implementation of CMC policy (e.g., by helping line officers make decisions): the General Staff Department (strategy and operations); the General Political Department (in charge of personnel, party indoctrination, internal security, and psychological operations since 1931, save for 1937–1946); the General Logistics Department (finance, supply, military-matériel industries, construction, and medical); and the General Armaments Department (in charge of weapons development, production, and acquisition since 1998). The General Staff Department’s Second and Third Departments, as well as the General Political Department’s Liaison Department, are responsible for intelligence. This bureaucratic pattern is replicated in the military regions, where communications-intercept stations are based (see Table 1).

The fact that the PLA remains a party army is revealed by its small, relatively noninfluential state-side organizations that are counterparts to party organizations. The State Council oversees the Ministry of National Defense (whose minister is a senior member of the CMC, as provided for by China’s 1982 constitution) and the state CMC (which merely approves decisions by the party CMC). The Ministry of National Defense was created specifically to interface with foreign counterparts and lacks independent authority. Party pronouncements stipulate that the PLA will remain a party army for the foreseeable future.

This system has the benefit of maintaining political consensus and avoiding rash decisions, but in comparison with Western military systems with complete civilian leadership and a single chain of command, it suffers from two major challenges aggravated by the requirements of modern warfare. First, it is sometimes difficult to divide responsibilities clearly under the unified party-committee leadership. Second, it may be difficult to decide which decisions are sufficiently important to forward to the party committee. This might slow the deployment of troops into combat situations or limit their ability to react quickly to changing conditions once there. … … …

Military Regions

The third entry details military regions and sub-regions, with explanations of changes therein during the history of the PLA.

China’s vast territory, diverse populations, and complex geography, with attendant transportation and logistics challenges, initially necessitated a regional approach to national defense, with centralized control imposed on decentralized operations. The area control of the People’s Liberation Army was originally divided into six levels (see Table 1), though terms have varied over time, restructuring has occurred, and mission overlap persists. … … …

People’s Liberation Army: Military Enterprises and Industry Since 1949

The fourth entry addresses the economic functions of the military in the civilian economy, including the establishment of non-armaments industries, state farms and services from the 1950s, and the specific issues arising from these during the reform period, as well as the transfer of PLA’s economic interests to civilian management in the 1980s-90s.

The economic activity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can be divided into four eras, as Thomas Bickford (1994) notes. From 1927 to 1949, the PLA’s economic activity supported the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politically, sustained base areas, and provided military logistical support. From 1949 to 1978, it supported Mao Zedong’s goals of rendering China self-sufficient through labor-intensive light industrialization, agricultural collectivization, and military production. From 1978 to 1998, the PLA’s economic activity helped fund the PLA itself amid declining defense budgets—at the expense of corruption and diversion. Since 1998, PLA commercialism has been severely restricted, professionalism has increased, and the PLA’s overall role in China’s economy has declined to its lowest level ever. …


The CCP established its first “bases,” the Jiangxi Soviet, in a weakly controlled interprovincial border region. A rapidly expanding and diversifying system of farming and production of munitions as well as other necessities supplied the PLA and minimized its material dependence on local peasants, whose loyalty the CCP was trying to court (e.g., by helping peasants harvest crops). After the CCP established the Yan’an Base Area in 1937, small PLA factories (many captured, some of the equipment hauled on the Long March) provided a range of goods, while soldiers (e.g., Wang Zhen’s 359th Brigade) cultivated wasteland. By the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, military enterprises had become firmly entrenched as the CCP’s “economic vanguard.”


While Mao approved the establishment of a civilian-controlled armaments industry, he preserved and nurtured PLA production as an essential component of his ideology, and on December 5, 1949, he directed the PLA to engage in major production starting in spring 1950. The PLA played a major role in China’s economy and infrastructure development, with an initial 340,000 troops dedicated full-time to agricultural construction divisions, forestry construction divisions, aquaculture, animal husbandry, and mines. In addition, three principal organizations were formed to conduct economic construction activities. …

The Xinjiang Production Construction Corps (XPCC) was founded by former PLA corps commander, commissar, and first party secretary Wang Zhen under Mao’s orders on October 9, 1954. This was part of a larger process of emulating China’s Han-era “agricultural garrisons” and Qing-era “military colonies” in establishing “construction corps” to settle, render agriculturally self-sufficient, and develop economically remote regions (e.g., Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang) while engaging in border defense and preparing to resist potential invaders. The XPCC’s initial force of 175,000 military personnel, commanded by Tao Zhiyue, was drawn from the First Field Army’s Second and Sixth Corps, former Guomindang soldiers, and former military forces of the interwar East Turkestan Republic (Ili National Army), and was subsequently augmented with young civilians. By 1956, the XPCC’s 300,000 troops were under the control of the new State Farms and Land Reclamation Ministry. In the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the XPCC supported frontline forces and furnished reserves. Following the 1962 Yining riots, in which thousands of Kazakhs and Uygurs fled to the Soviet Union, XPCC’s force rose to 1.48 million. Following Xinjiang leader Wang Enmao’s dismissal in 1968 on charges for having used the XPCC as his own regional army, the corps assumed a greater economic role and was stripped of its military designation and absorbed by Xinjiang’s provincial government in 1975. Deng Xiaoping restored the XPCC’s military role in 1981 amid fears of economic stagnation, Soviet aggression, Islamic fundamentalism, and ethnic separatism. …


Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reforms brought needed technology transfer, foreign direct investment, and export markets. During the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980–1985), defense was prioritized as the “fourth modernization,” but personnel were reduced and armaments spending declined in relative terms (from 17.5% to 10.4% of the national budget) so that resources could be focused on developing the civilian economy. As part of a major restructuring and personnel reduction, first formally discussed by the Central Military Commission in 1981 and organized by a General Logistics Department Leading Small Group established in 1982, several large organizations with largely nonmilitary, commercial functions were at least partially removed from PLA ground-force command. This move was supported by the PLA itself, whose leadership viewed the sprawling nonmartial responsibilities as impediments to professionalization.

From 1982 to 1983, the three principal economic construction organizations were transferred to civilian authority. In September 1982, the Railway Construction Corps was directly transferred to the Railway Ministry. The Capital Construction Corps, and many of its previous responsibilities, were transferred to ministries and local governments in 1983. Some of its forces (e.g., those involved in gold-mine, forestry, transportation, and hydrological work) were transferred to the People’s Armed Police, which was established in April 1983. The XPCC was moved to the joint jurisdiction of the PRC central government and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; the Wulumuqi (Ürümqi) Military Region assumed the military aspects of its duties in 1982 (after 1985, this became the Xinjiang [provincial] Military District of the Lanzhou Military Region). As a paramilitary organization, the XPCC currently employs reservists and roughly 100,000 militia and cooperates closely with People’s Armed Police forces (e.g., in border defense) in addition to playing a policing function and running prisons and labor camps. …


At an enlarged Central Military Commission session on July 22, 1998, Jiang Zemin ordered the PLA to divest itself from a majority of its civilian businesses (over 6,000) in conjunction with the downsizing of 500,000 personnel. The sensitive decision had already been made in May 1997, buttressed by a PLA leadership that favored professionalism, was tired of corruption investigations, and had been promised substantial compensation. The PLA managed to retain control of its guesthouses, some military hospitals (which earn revenue by serving civilian patients), some strategic telecommunications companies, and considerable real estate—the last under the operation of management companies, which return revenue to PLA units. Some agricultural sideline production and factories employing military dependents were retained, particularly in remote areas.

To facilitate foreign commercial relations, even XPCC units have been restructured along corporate lines, adopted a variety of civilian names (e.g., Xinjiang State Farm Organization), and reduced the use of military grades and terminology. Now tasked with both economic development and the prevention of separatism, the XPCC remains Xinjiang’s largest single employer and landowner, with 175 farms, 4,390 large and small enterprises, and one-third each of the province’s Han and arable land under its jurisdiction. In this sense, it is China’s last “Maoist” organization, combining paramilitary and diverse civil economic roles. … … …