- A Military History of Modern China: From the Manchu Conquest to Tian’anmen Square
In this very ambitious book, the author aims to discuss over 350 years of China's military history in just 197 pages of text. His success is testament to his knowledge of China's history, his ability to synthesize from a wide range of original and secondary sources, and his writing ability. Worthing focuses on three periods: the imperial (1644-1911), the republican (1912-1949), and the communist (1949-2000).
The author makes a key point very early, when on page 9 he attributes the downfall of the Han Dynasty to "a combination of economic problems, natural disasters, peasant discontent, and ineffective government [including corruption]." Indeed, these factors, often accompanied by religious movements, played a prominent role in most of China's changes of government. China's current rulers are aware of these factors, explaining to a significant degree Beijing's use of the military to alleviate the summer 1998 floods and its draconian reaction to the relatively minor Falun Gong religious movement. Even more recently, during the Seventeenth Communist Party Congress, in October 2007, the overwhelming [End Page 544] focus of President Hu Jintao's speeches and remarks was on domestic economic and social concerns.
All of the elements that have troubled China's regimes were present during the 18th century-long decline of the Qing Dynasty: serious corruption amid general economic decline, religiously oriented civil rebellions—the quasi-Buddhist White Lotus Society and the would-be Christian Taipings—and the inability of the central government to cope with natural disasters or foreign interventions. All of these problems were exacerbated by an ineffective military.
The overthrow of the Qing in 1911 was followed by decades of civil war and warlordism. The period was marked by the establishment of the Whampoa Military Academy, employment of first Soviet and then German military advisors, Japan's invasion, and most significantly, the civil war between republican and communist forces that ended only in 1949, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The new regime's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has been a mainstay of the Chinese communist government since 1949, frequently employed in defense of perceived national interests: Korea, the Taiwan Strait, India, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam have all been the targets of PLA attacks. The army has also been used extensively to enforce the government's domestic dominance: Tibet and Xinjiang Provinces were invaded and indigenous forces brutally suppressed soon after the regime's establishment, while the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was a particularly notorious use of military violence against civilians.
The PLA currently is undergoing intensive modernization, following its poor showing against Vietnam in 1979 and observation of the capabilities of Western arms demonstrated during the U.S.-led wars of the past twenty years. China's current military modernization is focused on the issue of Taiwan's status and the U.S. role in resolving that situation.
Worthing has performed an impressive task, covering a long and complex period of China's military history in so few pages. This book is strongly recommended, both for the general military reader and for specialists studying Chinese national security interests and capabilities.