The People's Liberation Army is the armed forces of the People's Republic of China. Consisting of five branches, the PLA is one of the largest and fastest modernizing military forces in the world. Since its establishment in 1927, the PLA has participated in seven major conflicts and multiple domestic crackdowns.
Central Military Commission Chairman: Xi Jinping
Minister of National Defense: General Wei Fenghe
Chief of Joint Staff Department: General Li Zuocheng
Personnel: 2,040,000 (Active)
The People’s Liberation Army is one of the most powerful military forces in Asia, boasting over 2,000,000 men, advanced platforms, and sophisticated weapon systems. Today, it is seeking to challenge regional rivals, such as the ROK Armed Forces and Japan Self-Defense Forces, while also competing against great powers, such as the armed forces of the United States and Russian Federation. While these objectives are attainable, this has not always been the case. In fact, the PLA has developed from a guerrilla force made up of peasants into one of the most lethal fighting forces in the world.
The PLA traces its historical lineage to August 1, 1927, when Communist leaders Zhou Enlai and Zhu De rebelled against the leadership of the United Front. After being defeated by opposition troops, the survivors of the insurrection were forced to flee towards the Jinggang Mountains on the border of China’s Hunan province. When the rebels finally regrouped, Mao Zedong and Zhu formally established the First Workers’ and Peasants’ Army, otherwise known as the Red Army.
For the most part, the Red Army relied heavily on guerrilla tactics to combat the Kuomintang from 1927 through 1934. When internal disputes rocked the Communist Party in 1935, the fighting force foolishly abandoned this tact and adopted a conventional stance. As a result, the Red Army suffered a string of costly defeats, and was forced to abandon much of the territory it had gained since the start of the hostilities. This strategic failure would come to be known as the Long March. The defeat, however, was not terrible for every Chinese communist. Some men took the initiative and gained political power, but none as successfully as Mao. During this period, Mao's use of guerrilla warfare gained him popularity in the party, respect from the Red Army, and trust of the civilian populous.
When the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Chinese territory, the Communist Party and Kuomintang were forced to abandon their internal dispute and join in an alliance known as the Second United Front. By taking the lead in combat operations in Northern China, an area largely held by Japanese troops, the Red Army was able to expand simultaneously increase its influence amongst the civilian population and build up its combat power while the Kuomintang remained largely stagnant. By the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Red Army had nearly 1,000,000 active personnel and was backed up by a militia force of nearly 2,000,000.
Combat experienced gained during the war proved of great use to the leadership of the Communist Party. Following the collapse of the Second United Front alliance, the People’s Liberation Army, formerly known as the Red Army, took the offensive against the Kuomintang and forced the opposition into a defensive pocket. By 1949, the Kuomintang was forced to withdraw from mainland China and establish itself on Taiwan.
The next time the PLA saw combat was on the Korean Peninsula, during which it proved that throwing infantry against technologically advanced forces was still a viable tactic as a last ditch resort. However, the experience was costly, as nearly 920,000 Chinese troops were killed or injured. Chinese leaders realized that serious advances needed to be made in regards to armor, aircraft, and infantry loadouts if the People’s Republic was to remain influential in Asia.
In the fall of 1952, large amounts of military aid and advisors from the Soviet Union began to flow towards the People’s Liberation Army. Small arms, indirect fire platforms, fighters, and destroyers were the main areas of concern for Communist Party leadership, and as such, these areas of defense were modeled after Soviet equipment and platforms. Moscow, however, was not completely trusting of its southern neighbor, and limited its aid to largely defensive armament. When the Soviets refused to supply the PRC with nuclear weapon blueprints in 1960 and ideological differences began to come to the surface, Soviet advisers were withdrawn and technological aid halted. At the same time, the leadership of the Communist Party and PLA commanders came into serious clashes. These centered around the interference of the Communist Party in military affairs. Commanders argued that ideological education inhibited the development of a professional fighting force, while the CPC feared that by separating indoctrination from military training it would lose control of the armed forces. As a result, Mao was forced to unseat some of the main advocates of military modernization with less able and unmotivated leaders. His decision would have negative consequences for the PLA throughout the coming decades.
During the Cultural Revolution, the PLA became deeply immersed in domestic Chinese politics. From 1966 to 1968, training and recruitment virtually ceased as the joint force was required to re-establish internal order and authority as a result of brutal crackdowns. From 1967 through 1969, the commanders of the PLA were targeted themselves by Mao’s purge, and as a result, the PLA was left like a lifeless chicken. When Soviet and Chinese troops engaged in combat along the Sino-Russo border in 1969, Beijing was forced to halt political usage of the PLA and ordered the resumption of training and recruitment. Although the border skirmishes never developed into a broader conflict, the short war proved instrumental in getting the PLA back on track and dislodged the from murky domestic political swamp that gripped China.
By 1975, years of neglect threatened to result in the collapse of the PLA as a cohesive organization. In order to address the issue, the PRC fully staffed the Central Military Commission while simultaneously establishing the “four modernizations” as a national priority. The four modernizations ordered the PLA to withdraw from domestic politics, contrite of military training, enhance procurement mechanisms, and ensure Chinese lethality in the years of to come. As a direct result of these policies, the military was able to throw off the rot that had held it captive for the last fifteen years.
In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief war that lasted less than two weeks. Although the conflict revealed further Chinese weaknesses, it offered forth useful lessons for the PLA’s commanders as they embarked on a major modernization campaign in the 1980s.