An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Restructuring of the PLA in the 1950s

Mar 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The PLA had during the first half of the 1950s not been in the focus of modernization, in contrast to the industrial sector. On the other hand, it had won experience in the field of logistics and technical training during the Korean War. When the latter was ended, the Party reorganized it according to Soviet structures, and hoped to rely on the Sino-Soviet treaty of 1950 in case foreign aggression would have to be warded off.

In 1952 Xiao Hua 萧华 (or 肖华, 1916-1985), Vice Head of the Army's General Political Department (Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun zong zengzhi bu 中国人民解放军总政治部) announced a thorough modernization by the construction of a national defense industry, the reorganization of all armies, including the remainders of the Nationalist (KMT) forces, the application of Soviet knowledge (including an agreement for the production of nuclear weapons), and the introduction of compulsory military service. Even if (political) education was also mentioned, it did not play a role in the subsequent measures.

In the course of 1955 a series of new regulations was initiated, like a change of the status of officers, decorations and medals, compulsory service, and the appointment of ten marshals (Zhu De, Peng Dehuai, Lin Biao, Liu Bocheng, He Long 贺龙, Chen Yi, Luo Ronghuan 罗荣桓, Xu Xiangqian 徐向前, Nie Rongzhen 聂荣臻, Ye Jianying 叶剑英; the offices were abolished in 1965). In theory, every able-bodied male had to serve in a three-year period (five years in the navy) and had to remain in the reserve units until the age of 40. As the conscripts were more than the posts available, being a soldier was a great honour, not least because of the eminent role the PLA had played in the creation of the regime.

The earlier army of braves, heroes and volunteers was to be transformed by and by into a professional army. Insignia were introduced and created a clearer hierarchy than during the times of the Civil War. The armed forces stood under the highest command of the Chairman of the People's Republic (the President) who was concurrently Chairman of the National Defense Council (Guofang weiyuanhui 国防委员会), which was the successor institution of the Revolutionary Military Council (Geming junshi weiyuanhui 革命军事委员会). The Ministry of Defense (Guofang bu 中华人民共和国国防部) had under its authority the General Staff (Zong canmou bu 总参谋部), the General Logistics Department (Zong houqin bu 总后勤部), and the General Political Department (Zong zhengzhi bu 总政治部) [from 1998 on also the General Armament Department, Zong zhuangbei bu 总装备部]. It was responsible to the State Council, yet was in fact controlled by the Party and its Military Affairs Committee (Zhongyang junshi weiyuanhui 中央军事委员会, today called Central Military Commission).

In 1955 China was divided into 13 large military regions (da junqu 大军区: Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Kunming, Lanzhou, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia [abolished 1967], Tibet [abolished 1968; the last three with no further division into smaller units], Fuzhou [founded 1956]) which controlled one or several provinces, in that case called military districts (XXX).

The forces consisted of 30-40 armies (jun 军) with three divisions each, and a size of 50,000-60,000 troops per army. The total number of men in the various services amounted to c. 2.6 million (Guillermaz 1976: 165). Although the Chinese soldier was acknowledged to be a good infantryman, the technical aspect remained well behind Western standards. The air force (Kongjun 中国人民解放军空军) and the navy (Haijun 中国人民解放军海军) were totally dependent from Soviet support.

Due to the cost of industrialization, military expenditure was reduced and amounted to c. 2.5 billion US$, corresponding to 22 per cent of the national budget, with a decreasing tendency (Guillermaz 1976: 167). The professionalization of the army on the other hand also decreased its dependency from political matters. It was neither to a large extent employed in land reclamation (barring a few examples in Xinjiang), nor were officers and troops trained politically. This tendency changed with the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957, and fully reversed with the replacement of Marshal Peng Dehuai as Minister of Defense by Lin Biao in 1959.

At the local level the Common Program provided that defense was carried out by militia troops (minbing 民兵) who cared for law and order, helped to construct the national basis for the workers, and, in case of need, would participate in military activities. Yet the system was not carried out systematically until the late 1950s. The idea was derived from the local self-defense system (baojia 保甲) that had been valid through imperial times, and also during the Republican era 中華民國 (1912-1949).