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Reviewed by:
  • A History of the Modern Chinese Army
  • Herman Finley (bio)
Xiaobing Li. A History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. xvi, 413 pp. Hardcover $39.95, isbn 978-0-8131-2438-4.

This well-written, broad overview of Chinese modern military history provides an interesting and useful approach to understanding the domestic and geopolitical forces that have shaped China's military forces. While there are sufficient details to make Li's points, those seeking a more detailed look at wars, battles, organizations, and generals will need to look elsewhere, as the author clearly acknowledges.1

Structurally, the book is well done. The flow is logical and well paced. The maps and illustrations are appropriate and helpful. Solid scholarship, in terms of seventy pages of endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and a useful index, mark the book as a serious and useful addition to a library on the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Li's primary thesis is that to understand how the PLA has evolved, we must understand the social, economic, and domestic politics of China as well as the more traditional—and in his opinion more simplistic—model of change as a response to modernity and geopolitics.2 Throughout the book, he uses a number of vignettes of individual PLA members to put "individual soldiers and officers in the context of Chinese society culture, and tradition" (p. 5). Part of his logic for these stories is that the "insider view offers a better understanding of Chinese strategic issues and operational behaviors" (p. 6). Furthermore, although anecdotal in nature, these asides do add to the depth of his picture of the interplay between the circumstances of members of society and changes in the PLA. His own story is included (pp. 229–231). However, in this reviewer's opinion, his post-PLA scholarship provides his most germane and persuasive claim to strategic insights.3

Subsequent chapters walk through the history of China's military from its beginnings in dynastic China. Each chapter focuses on a particular period of change that has shaped or reshaped the PLA of today. For each period, the author portrays not only the organizational/technical changes that China's military pursued but also sets those changes in the context of social and political changes both domestically and geopolitically. For example, in the chapter on the Korean War (chapter 3), Li explains that the PLA had no problem mobilizing a very large military force for two very practical reasons. First, the countryside was in ruins after years of war left the peasants with few economic options. Second, membership in the PLA offered political security in a society that was already in the throes of revolutionary purification campaigns.

In each chapter, there is a political problem for which the Chinese military is poorly or only partially prepared, along with an overview of how China's leaders adapted its military forces to meet that challenge. This provides the reader with a [End Page 542] much richer way of thinking about why certain changes occurred and how they affect the thinking of China's leaders.

One of the book's strengths is its consistent interweaving of a number of threads within society that help shape the PLA of today. One of those threads is the tension among leadership personalities. A second consistent thread is the domestic and economic conditions that shape an individual's perception of choice relative to military service. Also included is the march of military technology and China's struggle to catch up with the developed world. Finally, there are external geopolitical forces that shape the war-fighting requirements that the PLA must face in a particular era. Too often, books on military modernization tend to focus on only one or two of these inseparable issues. Li does a good job of balancing this integration within the limited scope of a single volume.4

In the concluding chapter, Li suggests that his analysis has offered a characterization of the modern PLA that is the product of three elements. These include available human resources, pressures and limits to change within the military context (e.g., technology, soldiers' lifestyles, autocratic government), and the decisions...