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Reviewed by:
  • A History of the Modern Chinese Army
  • Gary J. Bjorge
A History of the Modern Chinese Army. By Xiaobing Li . Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8131-2438-4. Photographs. Notes. Index. Pp. xvi, 413. $39.95.

In his introduction, the author presents a clear description of what this book is about: "This book seeks to elucidate the origins of and changes to the Chinese military by examining the PLA's [People's Liberation Army] experiences from 1949 to 2002 [, and] although it is a military history survey it includes diachronic discussions to explore the reasons for change, constraints on the implementation of reforms, and the outcome of these efforts" (p. 3). He also points out a number of factors that make research on these topics difficult for Western military historians, including very limited access to Communist sources, linguistic and cultural barriers, a Cold War mentality, and an American-centered methodology (p. 4). The inference is that as a PLA veteran he was able to avoid such obstacles to research and understanding and has produced a work of special value to those interested in the past development and continuing transformation of the Chinese military. The wide variety of sources used by the author, especially the large number of personal interviews, and the breadth of information in this work provide justification for such a viewpoint.

Fortunately, despite the statement that the book examines PLA experiences from 1949 to 2002, it actually begins with an overview of events prior to 1949 that set the stage for what followed. The first two chapters, "Peasants [End Page 1304] and Revolutions," and "The Formative Years," which together take up 25 percent of the book, discuss the role of the peasantry in wars and rebellions from ancient times to the twentieth century and show how the PLA emerged as a peasant army from China's agrarian society. Subsequent chapters describe the PLA's efforts to move away from being a peasant army to become a modern force. These chapters also show how this modernization was influenced by shifts in Communist Party of China (CCP) policies, the Chinese economy becoming more industrialized, Chinese society becoming more urbanized, and the Chinese people becoming more highly educated. The result is not only a study that chronicles PLA modernization and transformation, but an example of how a military relates to and reflects the society from which it comes.

The book follows a familiar chronology in describing the transformation of the PLA since 1949. The Korean War experience is presented as an impetus to modernize. The 1950s are described as a time of extensive Russian influence, the introduction of much new weaponry, and a significant expansion of military institutions. The 1960s and 1970s are seen as decades of internal turmoil and less emphasis on modernization, except for a continuing commitment to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The war with Vietnam in 1979 is viewed as another impetus to modernize, but the 1980s are characterized mostly by Deng Xiaoping's emphasis on overall economic growth as opposed to more military spending. The 1990s are described as a period during which Jiang Zemin promoted greater education and technical competency in the military, continued Deng's emphasis on quality over quantity, and began increasing the military budget every year by a double digit percentage. These policies, the author notes, have continued under Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, and have led to concerns around the world regarding China's attitude toward the use of military force to settle disputes, especially China's dispute with the Taiwanese government over Taiwan's future status.

Regarding the dramatic increase in PLA strength that he describes in this work, the author takes a sanguine view: "the PLA should . . . provide new military capabilities, because there are disharmonious factors and unstable elements in China and in the world" (p. 296). However, he notes that "Beijing's military aggression" created the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995– 96 (p. 287) and he seems to have concerns about the PLA escaping CCP control. For example, on p. 296, he writes that "to keep the military under control, a continuing coalition between the PLA and the CCP is necessary...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1304-1306
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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