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A History of the Modern Chinese Army

Xiaobing Li

Publication Year: 2007

Since the establishment of the Red Army in 1927, China’s military has responded to profound changes in Chinese society, particularly its domestic politics, shifting economy, and evolving threat perceptions. Recently tensions between China and Taiwan and other east Asian nations have aroused great interest in the extraordinary transformation and new capabilities of the Chinese army. In A History of the Modern Chinese Army, Xiaobing Li, a former member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), provides a comprehensive examination of the PLA from the Cold War to the beginning of the twenty-first century that highlights the military’s central function in modern Chinese society. In the 1940s, the Chinese army was in its infancy, and many soldiers were rural conscripts and volunteers who had received little formal schooling. The Chinese military rapidly increased its mobility and weapon strength, and the Korean War and Cold War offered intense combat experience that not only allowed soldiers to hone their fighting techniques but also helped China to develop military tactics tailored to the surrounding countries whose armies posed the most immediate threats. Yet even in the 1970s, the completion of a middle school education (nine years) was considered above-average, and only 4 percent of the 224 top Chinese generals had any college credit hours. However, in 1995 the high command began to institute massive reforms to transform the PLA from a labor-intensive force into a technology-intensive army. Continually seeking more urban conscripts and emphasizing higher education, the PLA Reserve Officer Training and Selection program recruited students from across the nation. These reservists would become commissioned officers upon graduation, and they majored in atomic physics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Grounding the text in previously unreleased official Chinese government and military records as well as the personal testimonies of more than two hundred PLA soldiers, Li charts the development of China’s armed forces against the backdrop of Chinese society, cultural traditions, political history, and recent technological advancements. A History of the Modern Chinese Army links China’s military modernization to the country’s growing international and economic power and provides a unique perspective on China’s esttablishment and maintenance of one of the world’s most advanced military forces.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front Cover

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pp. i-iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi-xii

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xiii-xiv

The pinyin romanization system is applied to Chinese names of persons, places, and terms. This transliteration is also used for the titles of Chinese publications. Persons’ names are written in the Chinese way, with the surname first, like Mao Zedong. For some popular names of people and places, well-known spellings appear in parentheses after the first use of the pinyin, such as Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and Guangzhou (Canton). The order is reversed for a few figures and places whose names are widely known, such...

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pp. xv-xvi

Many people and institutes have contributed to this book and deserve recognition. First, I would like to thank Provost William J. Radke, Vice Provost Patricia A. LaGrow, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Pamela Washington, Interim Dean of the Jackson College of Graduate Studies and Research John M. Garic, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs Daniel P. Donaldson, and Chair of the Department of History and Geography Kenny L. Brown...

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pp. 1-12

A sultry July in Beijing, the capital of China, did not slow down the summer programs at Tsinghua University (Qinghua University, China’s MIT). The one-week symposium on arms control packed the facility with students, faculty members, and military experts.1 Sun Lizhou, a graduate student from the College of International Relations, Peking University (Beijing University, China’s...

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1. Peasants and Revolutions

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pp. 13-44

China is one of the earliest civilizations in the world, with a recorded military history of five thousand years.1 Because of China’s unique geographic setting and demographic characteristics, its military tradition has emphasized mass mobilization of peasants, or farmer soldiers, since the ancient age.2 From the first unification of China in 221 B.C. to 1949, when the PRC was founded, roughly...

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2. The Formative Years

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pp. 45-78

The Chinese Comunist Party organized its independent armed force following the white terror of 1927, the worst period in party history. The military became absolutely necessary for the CCP’s survival. The party and the army established an interdependent relationship before WWII to create a center in rural areas for revolutionary authorities. The party mobilized peasants, trained officers, and received instructions and aid from the Soviet Union. The army protected the Communist base areas and eventually seized...

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3. Transformation in Korea

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pp. 79-112

The first generation of Chinese Communist military leaders became the founders of the PRC after twenty-two years of military struggle. Having moved to center stage and gained control of the nation, they were characterized as Communist idealists and radical revolutionaries against an “old” world order, the post-WWII international system. Their alliance with the Soviet Union and North Korea pulled China into a war in Korea that changed the Chinese...

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4. Russianizing the PLA

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pp. 113-146

The Korean War transferred the focal point of the global Cold War from Europe to east Asia. After its decision to intervene in the Korean War, China quickly adjusted its position in international affairs and willingly moved to the center of the ideological and military confrontations between the two contending camps headed by the Soviet Union and the United States. The active role that China played in east Asia turned this main Cold War battlefield into a strange...

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5. Building Missiles and the Bomb

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pp. 147-175

The possibilit  y of an American nuclear attack on China during the Korean War and the first Taiwan Strait crisis posed new challenges to the Chinese military. Washington’s threat of using atomic weapons against Chinese troops in North Korea and northeast China was of immediate concern to Beijing in 1952–53. With no strategic weapons, China had to depend on nuclear protection from...

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6. Crises and Politics

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pp. 177-204

In the 1950s, as Chinese society became more radical during the anti-rightist and Great Leap Forward movements, the Chinese military experienced tremendous institutional changes. Defense Minister Peng Dehuai utilized Soviet technology, the officer reeducation and promotion system, and bureaucratic regulations to train a new “professional generation” of the PLA.1 Obviously...

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7 Border Conflicts and the Cultural Revolution

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pp. 205-240

Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, China has involved itself in two wars in Vietnam. During the French Indochina War (the First Indochina War), from 1949 to 1954, it assisted the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against French forces.1 China sought to secure its southwestern border by eliminating the Western power’s presence in Vietnam. The PLA’s military assistance to Vietnam maintained Beijing’s brooding influence in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia throughout the Cold War. The PLA’s second...

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8. Survivor and Reformer

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pp. 241-270

President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China profoundly reshaped the Cold War world. First and foremost, it ended the confrontation between the United States and China that had lasted for almost a quarter century, thereby opening a new chapter in relations between the world’s most powerful nation and its most populous nation.1 Within the context of this Sino-American rapprochement...

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9. Technocrats and the New Generation

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pp. 271-294

The PLA experienced a remarkable change in the last decades of the twentieth century. It transformed from a peasant army to a professional army under its new commander in chief, Jiang Zemin. After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Jiang became the chairman of both the CCP and CMC. In the 1990s, Jiang, as part of the third generation of military leaders, launched another round of military reforms known as the Two Transformations. First, the PLA would...

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pp. 295-300

Chinese military reform is an outcome of social and economic changes that are not only related but interdependent. China’s foremost task in its drive toward military modernization should be the successful completion of market economy reforms. To build a modern army, it must achieve sustainable industrial economic growth. In the past thirty years, with an annual growth rate of 8.6 percent, the Chinese government was able to double its defense budget...


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pp. 301-370

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 371-394


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pp. 395-413

E-ISBN-13: 9780813172248
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124384

Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2007

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Subject Headings

  • China. Zhongguo ren min jie fang jun -- History.
  • China -- History, Military.
  • China -- Armed Forces -- History.
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