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People's Liberation Army

The People's Liberation Army (PLA 人民解放軍) (including strategic nuclear forces, army, navy, and air force) serves as the military of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It's 2.8 million strong force makes it the largest army in the world. The PLA was established in the 1920s 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 five stars and the Chinese characters "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.)

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 Commission, 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.

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 the retained the office of chairman even after relinquishing their other positions.

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 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, with great success, remove the PLA's business empire.

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. However, the mainstay of the air force continues to be the 1960s-vintage F-7 fighter[?]. In addition, the PLA has attempted to build an indigenous aerospace and military industry with its production of the F-10[?], which 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. However, this effort has met with limited success as evidenced by the purchase of military arms from Russia and the delay in showing F-10 prototypes in November 2002 at an airshow in southern China.

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.

Table of contents

Campaigns of the Red/People's Liberation Army

PLA In Internal Security

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.

Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Policy

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 in October 1964, 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 several hundred IRBMs able to strike Russia.

The PRC's nuclear program appears to follow 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, but announced in September 1992 that it would no longer participate because of the U.S. decision to sell F-16A/B aircraft to Taiwan.

The PRC was the first state to pledge "no first use" of nuclear weapons. 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.

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.

Military branches

People's Liberation Army (PLA), which includes the Ground Forces; Navy (includes Naval Infantry (marines) and Naval Aviation); Air Force, Second Artillery Corps (the strategic missile force); 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)

Military manpower

Military age: 18 years of age

Availability: males age 15-49: 363,050,980 (2000 est.)

Military manpower - fit for military service: males age 15-49: 199,178,361 (2000 est.)

Military manpower - reaching military age annually: males: 10,839,039 (2000 est.)

Military expenditures - dollar figure: $12.608 billion (FY99); note - The actual amount of PRC military spending remains highly controversial. First of all, the military may get resources which are not listed in the official budget. Second, it is difficult to get agreement on the conversion factor used to convert military expenditures to dollars.

Military expenditures - percent of GDP: 1.2% (FY99)


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.

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