Husband and wife officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pause on their climb up Mount Huang, Anhui Province. The PLA, numbering more than three million members, is one of the largest military forces in the world. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the ground, air, naval, and strategic forces of the Communist Chinese military. The PLA has been instrumental in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) success in carrying out the revolution and in governing the country. Since the 1980s Chinese leaders have embarked on a series of reforms to professionalize and modernize the PLA.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is one of the largest military forces in the world. In fact, its army, with more than 3 million members, is the largest in the world. It also has a fairly large navy and air force. Its nuclear forces, although small compared with those of the United States and Russia, are the fourth largest. However, many of the PLA’s weapons and equipment are antiquated and limited in their capacity to project military force beyond China’s borders.

The origins of the PLA date back to 1 August 1927, when the Chinese Communists established the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army to fight a guerrilla war against the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975). During the Maoist period (1949–1976) the PLA was transformed from a loosely organized guerrilla army into a professional fighting force closely resembling the Soviet model, although some tension existed between those who wanted further professionalization and those who wanted the PLA to remain a revolutionary organization.

The former group included Marshal Peng Dehuai, the PRC’s first Defense Minister who was relieved of his post by Mao in 1959 after he criticized Mao for launching the Great Leap Forward. The latter group included Mao and Lin Biao, the Defense Minister who replaced Peng and was an important supporter of Mao during the Cultural Revolution until 1971, when Lin was declared dead after a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia. The official story is that Lin was fleeing to the Soviet Union after his plot to kill Mao had been uncovered.

Historically the PLA has been heavily involved in governance of the country, although it has always remained subordinate to rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Top CCP leaders, including Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), historically have had extensive experience in, and connections with, the Red Army. The PLA is one of the three pillars of power in the Chinese Communist political system, alongside the CCP and the Chinese government. The PLA enjoys equal rank with the State Council, the highest governmental body, and answers only to the Military Affairs Commission of the CCP. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party, not the government, commands the PLA. In fact, CCP control over the PLA has been so important that the only official position held by Deng Xiaoping, China’s preeminent leader during the 1980s, was that of chairman of the Military Affairs Commission. Another indication of the PLA’s involvement in domestic affairs is that until recently it ran a vast industrial and commercial empire that numbered over 10,000 enterprises with profits estimated at around $5–10 billion a year. The growth of these enterprises was accompanied by high levels of corruption.

When Deng Xiaoping became China’s top leader in 1978, he began a series of reforms to professionalize and modernize the PLA in order to disentangle it from domestic affairs and redirect its mission toward external security from other countries. That reform continues into the twenty-first century, with one milestone being reached shortly after Deng’s death in 1997 when the PLA was ordered to transfer most of its commercial and industrial holdings to civilian control. Under the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations, China has made major investments in upgrading its military force. The defense budget has risen consistently and significantly since 1989, a trend that has caused concern among China’s neighbors. China has purchased major weapons systems from Russia and Israel, and made substantial progress in developing its own military hardware. In 2007, China unveiled its new J-10 fighter bomber and is expected to introduce its own nuclear attack submarines in the near future.

Further Reading

Joffe, E. (1987). The Chinese army after Mao. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scobell, A. (2003). China’s use of military force: Beyond the Great Wall and Long March. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Shambaugh, D. (2004). Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, problems and prospects. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Li Xiaobing. (2007). A history of the modern Chinese army. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Source: Shieh, Shawn. (2009). People’s Liberation Army. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1747–1748. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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