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People's Liberation Army

Alternate meaning: Shining Path

The People's Liberation Army (PLA; Traditional Chinese: 人民解放軍, Simplified Chinese: 人民解放军, pinyin: Rénmín Jiěfàng Jūn), including strategic nuclear forces, an army, navy and air force, serves as the military of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Its 2.3 million strong force makes it the largest army, in terms of sheer number of troops, in the world. The PLA was established on August 1, 1927, as the military arm of the Communist Party of China. It was originally named the Red Army. The People's Liberation Army's insignia consists of a round device with a design of a red star bearing the Chinese characters 八一 (pinyin: ba yi) (August 1, the anniversary of the 1927 Nanchang Uprising), surrounded by wheat ears and cog wheels. (Use of the insignia is governed by the 1984 Military Service Law.)

People's Liberation Army
Military manpower
Military age 18 years of age
Availability males age 15-49: 375,520,255 (2003 est.)
Fit for military service males age 15-49: 206,000,000 (2003 est.)
Reaching military age annually males: 10,973,761 (2003 est.)
Military expenditures
Dollar figure $25.0 billion (FY04)
Percent of GDP 1.7% (FY04)

Note: The actual amount of PRC military spending remains highly controversial. First, the military may get resources which are not listed in the official budget. Second, an agreement on the conversion factor used to convert military expenditures to dollars is quite difficult.



Within the PRC government, the PLA maintains a semi-autonomous existence. The PLA reports not to the State Council of the People's Republic of China but rather to two Central Military Commissions, one belonging to the state and one belonging to the party. In practice, the two CMC's do not conflict because their membership is almost identical. However, the chain of command above the CMC can be quite unclear. The Party CMC is subordinate to the Secretary General of the Communist Party of China while the State CMC is nominally subordinate to the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China which in practice has very little control over the CMC. This lack of clarity in overall command of the PLA can cause great amounts of confusion during times of crisis such as during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Protests of 1989. In the later case, the PLA was being given conflicting orders by the Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and the Chairman of the state CMC, Deng Xiaoping.

By convention the chairman and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission are civilian members of the Communist Party of China, but they are not necessarily the heads of the civilian government. It was the case with both Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping that they retained the office of chairman even after relinquishing their other positions. All of the other members of the CMC are uniformed active officers.

In contrast to other nations, the Minister of National Defense of the People's Republic of China is not the head of the military, and is in fact usually rather low ranking military member of the CMC.

Under the CMC are the General Staff Headquarters, the General Logistics Department, the General Armaments Department, and the General Political Department. The GPD maintains a system of political commissars which maintain a separate chain of command to insure loyalty to the party and the civilian government.

Under the General State Headquarters are the seven military area commands: Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu. The organization into MAC's has been much criticized as being obsolete and irrelevant for the 21st century, and there is wide speculation that the system will be drastically altered in the next several years.

Coordination with civilian national security groups such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is achieved primarily by leading group s of the Communist Party of China. Particularly important are the Leading group on foreign affairs, and the leading group on Taiwan.


The People's Liberation Army (PLA) consists of:

  • the Ground Force;
  • the Navy (includes Naval Infantry (Marines) and Naval Aviation);
  • the Air Force;
  • the Second Artillery Corps (the strategic missile force);
  • the People's Armed Police (internal security troops, nominally subordinate to Ministry of Public Security, but included by the Chinese as part of the "armed forces" and considered to be an adjunct to the PLA in wartime).

Terms of service

Theoretically, all citizens of the PRC have the duty of performing military service. In practice, military service with the PLA is voluntary; the main exception applies to potential university students, who may be required to undergo military training before their courses commence.


The People's Liberation Army was founded on August 1, 1927 during the Nanchang uprising when troops of the Kuomintang rebelled under the leadership of Zhu De and Zhou Enlai after the end of the first Kuomintang-Communist alliance. They were known as the Red Army. Between 1934 and 1935, the Red Army survived several campaigns lead against it by Chiang Kai-Shek and engaged in the Long March.

During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Red Army was nominally integrated into the Chinese national army forming the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army units. During this time, the Red Army used primarily guerilla tactics, but also fought several conventional battles with the Japanese and the Kuomintang.

After the end of the Sino-Japanese War, the Red Army renamed itself the PLA and won the civil war against the Kuomintang.

During the 1950s, the PLA with Soviet help transformed itself from a peasant army into a more modern one. One of the earliest operations was the reoccupation of Tibet in 1950. In December 1951, the PLA intervened in the Korean War as United Nations forces under General Douglas MacArthur approached the Yalu River. Under the weight of this offensive, Chinese forces captured Seoul, but were subsequently pushed back to a line roughly straddling the 38th Parallel. The war ended as a standstill in 1953. In 1962, the PLA also defeated India in the Sino-Indian War.

Establishment of a professional military force equipped with modern weapons and doctrine was the last of the "Four Modernizations" announced by Zhou Enlai and supported by Deng Xiaoping. In keeping with Deng's mandate to reform, the PLA has demobilized millions of men and women since 1978 and has introduced modern methods in such areas as recruitment and manpower, strategy, and education and training. In 1979, the PLA fought Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War.

In the 1980s, the PRC shrunk its military considerably on the theory that freeing up resources for economic development was in the PRC's interest.

Following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, ideological correctness was temporarily revived as the dominant theme in Chinese military affairs. Reform and modernization appear to have since resumed their position as the PLA's priority objectives, although the armed forces' political loyalty to the Communist Party of China remains a leading concern. One other area of concern to the political leadership was the PLA's involvement in civilian economic activities. Concern that these activities were adversely impacting PLA readiness has led the political leadership to attempt to remove the PLA's business empire.

PLA soldiers marching in Beijing
PLA soldiers marching in Beijing

Beginning in the 1980s, the PLA tried to transform itself from a land-based power, centered on a vast ground force, to a smaller, mobile, high-tech military capable of mounting defensive operations beyond its coastal borders. The motivation for this was that a massive land invasion by Russia is no longer seen as a major threat, and the new threats to the PRC are seen to be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, possibly with assistance from the United States, or a confrontation over the Spratly Islands. In addition, the economic center of gravity of mainland China has shifted from the interior to the coastal regions and the PRC is now more dependent on trade than it has been in the past. Furthermore, the possibility of a militarily resurgent Japan remains a worry to the Chinese military leadership.

The PRC's power-projection capability is limited and one Chinese general characterized China's military as having "short arms and weak legs". There has however been an effort to redress these deficiencies in recent years. The PLA has acquired some advanced weapons systems, including Sovremmeny class destroyers , Sukhoi-27 and Sukhoi-30 aircraft, and Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia. It is also currently building 4 new destroyers including 2 "Aegis" Type 170 class guided missile destroyer. However, the mainstay of the air force continues to be the 1960s-vintage J-7 fighter . In addition, the PLA has attempted to build an indigenous aerospace and military industry with its production of the J-10, which currently is in production. It reportedly contains technology supplied by Israel from its Lavi fighter program as well as technology reverse-engineered from an F-16 reportedly given to the PRC by Pakistan. The PLA launched a new class of nuclear submarine on December 3, 2004 capable of launching nuclear warheads that could strike targets across the Pacific Ocean.

China's military leadership has also been reacting to the display of American military might during the Gulf War.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the PLA became extensively involved in creating a business empire including companies in areas not normally associated with the military (i.e., travel and real estate). Much of the motivation for this was to supplement the PLA's normal budget, whose growth was restricted. Chairman Mao's belief that people and groups should be self-sufficient also played a role in the PLA's varied business interests. In the early 1990s, the leadership of the Communist Party and the high command of the PLA became alarmed that these business transactions were in conflict with the PLA's military mission. The business interests of the PLA were eroding military discipline, and there were reports of corruption resulting from the PLA businesses. As a result, the PLA was ordered to spin off its companies. Typically, the actual management of the companies did not change, but the officers involved were retired from active duty within the PLA and the companies were given private boards of retired PLA officers. Military units were compensated for the loss of profitable businesses with increased state funding.

Campaigns of the Red/People's Liberation Army

PLA in internal security

PRC military regions (1996)
PRC military regions (1996)

In general, the PLA has been extremely reluctant to be involved in internal security and views these sort of activities as a distraction from its primary purpose of national defense. Responsibility for internal security has been put into the hands of the paramilitary People's Armed Police, of which the PLA generally has a low opinion.

The PLA has generally not been used for internal security but was used for this purpose during the Cultural Revolution as it was the only national institution to survive the turmoil. It was also deployed to quell anti-government demonstrations in Tibet in 1989 as well as the crackdown of the Tiananmen Protests of 1989.

Because the PLA has rarely been involved in internal security, public opinion of the PLA is rather high especially when compared with the public opinion of the Communist Party of China or the PRC government.

See also: Police in China

The PLA and commercial enterprises

Until the mid-1990s, the PLA had extensive commercial enterprise holdings in non-military areas, particularly real estate. Almost all of these holdings were spun-off in the mid-1990s. In most cases, the management of the companies remained unchanged, with the PLA officers running the companies simply retiring from the PLA to run the newly formed private holding companies.

The history of PLA involvement in commercial enterprises begins in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of the socialist state-owned system and from a desire for military self-sufficiency, the PLA created a network of enterprises such as farms, guesthouses, and factories intended to support its own needs. One unintended side effect of the Deng Xiaoping reforms was that many of these enterprises became very profitable. For example, a military guesthouse intended for soldier recreation could easily be converted into a profitable hotel for civilian use. There were two factors which increased PLA commercial involvement in the 1990s. One was that running profitable companies decreased the need for the state to fund the military from the government budget. The second was that in an environment where legal rules were unclear and political connections were important, PLA influence was very useful.

However, by the early-1990s, party officials and high military officials were becoming increasing alarmed at the military's commercial involvement for a number of reasons. First, the military's involvement in commerce was seen to adversely affect military readiness and to cause corruption. Second, there was great concern that having an independent source of funding would lead to decreased loyalty to the party. The result of this was an effort to spin off the PLA's commercial enterprises into private companies managed by former PLA officers, and to reform military procurement from a system in which the PLA directly controls its sources of supply to a contracting system more akin to those of Western countries.

The separation of the PLA from its commercial enterprises was largely complete by the year 2000. It met with very little resistance, as the spinoff was arranged so that few lost out.


Nuclear weapons

In 1955, Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party decided to proceed with a nuclear weapons program. The decision was made after the United States threatened the use of nuclear weapons against the PRC should it take action against Quemoy and Matsu, coupled with the lack of interest of the Soviet Union for using its nuclear weapons in defense of China.

It was developed with Soviet assistance until 1960. After its first nuclear test on 16th October 1964, the PRC was the first state to pledge "no first use" of nuclear weapons. On 1st July 1966, the Second Artillery Corps (as named by Premier Zhou En-lai) was formed. Beijing has deployed a modest but potent ballistic missile force, including land- and sea-based intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It is estimated that the PRC has between 15-30 ICBMs capable of striking the United States with a few hundred IRBMs able to strike Russia.

The PRC's nuclear program follows a doctrine of minimal deterrence, which involves having the minimum force needed to deter an aggressor from launching a first strike. The current efforts of the PRC appear to be aimed at maintaining a survivable nuclear force by, for example, using solid-fueled ICBMs in silos rather than liquid-fueled missiles.

The PRC became a major international arms exporter during the 1980s. Beijing joined the Middle East arms control talks, which began in July 1991 to establish global guidelines for conventional arms transfers, and later announced that it would no longer participate because of the U.S. decision to sell 150 F-16A/B aircraft to Taiwan on 2nd September 1992.

It joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984 and pledged to abstain from further atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1986. The PRC acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 and supported its indefinite and unconditional extension in 1995. In 1996, it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and agreed to seek an international ban on the production of fissile nuclear weapons material. However, United States intelligence agencies claim that in the 1980s, China provided a nuclear weapon design, and HEU, to Pakistan—in effect giving them nuclear weapons.

In 1996, the PRC committed to not provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities. The PRC attended the May 1997 meeting of the NPT Exporters (Zangger) Committee as an observer and became a full member in October 1997. The Zangger Committee is a group which meets to list items that should be subject to IAEA inspections if exported by countries, which have, as the PRC has, signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In September 1997, the PRC issued detailed nuclear export control regulations. The PRC began implementing regulations establishing controls over nuclear-related dual-use items in 1998. The PRC also has decided not to engage in new nuclear cooperation with Iran (even under safeguards), and will complete existing cooperation, which is not of proliferation concern, within a relatively short period. Based on significant, tangible progress with the PRC on nuclear nonproliferation, President Clinton in 1998 took steps to bring into force the 1985 U.S.-China Agreement on Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation.

Chemical weapons

The People's Republic of China is not a member of the Australia Group, an informal and voluntary arrangement made in 1985 to monitor developments in the proliferation of dual-use chemicals and to coordinate export controls on key dual-use chemicals and equipment with weapons applications. In April 1997, however, the PRC ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and, in September 1997, promulgated a new chemical weapons export control directive.


While not formally joining the regime, in March 1992, the PRC undertook to abide by the guidelines and parameters of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the multinational effort to restrict the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. The PRC reaffirmed this commitment in 1994 and pledged not to transfer MTCR-class ground-to-ground missiles. In November 2000, the PRC committed to not assist in any way the development by other countries of MTCR-class missiles.

Land mines

The PRC remains opposed to international agreements limiting the use of landmines.


The PLA maintains a number of garrisons in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, notably at the former Prince of Wales Building, Stonecutter's Island, and at Stanley Fort . Soldiers located at these garrisons are considered to be the cream of the PLA, but are not permitted to leave their compounds, even during off-duty times, to mingle with the local populace. A contingent of local Hong Kong press was taken on a tour of the Prince of Wales compound in 2002, and every year the Stanley Fort compound is opened for inspection to the public.

Compare to: Military of Taiwan

See also

External links

  • Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the PLA
  • English edition of Liberation Daily
  • The People's Liberation Army as Organization: Reference Volume v1.0
  • Chinese Defence Today

Last updated: 02-06-2005 14:02:58
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12