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From the Founding of the People's Liberation Army to the Korean War

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was built on several millennia of tradition and a century of Western military innovations. It traces its origins to the August 1, 1927, Nanchang Uprising in which Guomindang troops led by Chinese Communist Party leaders Zhu De and Zhou Enlai rebelled following the dissolution of the first Guomindang-Chinese Communist Party united front earlier that year. The survivors of that and other abortive communist insurrections, including the Autumn Harvest Uprising led by Mao Zedong, fled to the Jinggang Mountains along the border of Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Joining forces under the leadership of Mao and Zhu, this collection of communists, bandits, Guomindang deserters, and impoverished peasants became the First Workers' and Peasants' Army, or Red Army--the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Using the guerrilla tactics that would later make Mao Zedong internationally famous as a military strategist, the Red Army survived several encirclement and suppression campaigns by superior Guomindang forces. But party internal politics forced the Red Army temporarily to abandon guerrilla warfare and resulted in the epic Long March of 1934-35 (see Nationalism and Communism , ch. 1). The Red Army's exploits during the Long March became legendary and remain a potent symbol of the spirit and prowess of the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. During that period, Mao's political power and his strategy of guerrilla warfare gained ascendancy in the party and the Red Army.

In 1937 the Red Army joined in a second united front with the Guomindang against the invading Japanese army (see Anti-Japanese War , ch. 1). Although nominally cooperating with the Guomindang, the Chinese Communist Party used the Red Army to expand its influence while leading the anti-Japanese resistance in north China. By the end of the war, the Red Army numbered approximately 1 million and was backed by a militia of 2 million. Although the Red Army fought several conventional battles against the Japanese (and Guomindang troops), guerrilla operations were the primary mode of warfare.

Mao's military thought grew out of the Red Army's experiences in the late 1930s and early 1940s and formed the basis for the "people's war" concept, which became the doctrine of the Red Army and the PLA. In developing his thought, Mao drew on the works of the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (fourth century B.C.) and Soviet and other theorists, as well as on the lore of peasant uprisings, such as the stories found in the classical novel Shuihu Zhuan (Water Margin) and the stories of the Taiping Rebellion (see Emergence of Modern China , ch. 1). Synthesizing these influences with lessons learned from the Red Army's successes and failures, Mao created a comprehensive politico-military doctrine for waging revolutionary warfare. People's war incorporated political, economic, and psychological measures with protracted military struggle against a superior foe. As a military doctrine, people's war emphasized the mobilization of the populace to support regular and guerrilla forces; the primacy of men over weapons, with superior motivation compensating for inferior technology; and the three progressive phases of protracted warfare- -strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive. During the first stage, enemy forces were "lured in deep" into one's own territory to overextend, disperse, and isolate them. The Red Army established base areas from which to harass the enemy, but these bases and other territory could be abandoned to preserve Red Army forces. In the second phase, superior numbers and morale were applied to wear down the enemy in a war of attrition in which guerrilla operations predominated. During the final phase, Red Army forces made the transition to regular warfare as the enemy was reduced to parity and eventually defeated.

In the civil war following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Red Army, newly renamed the People's Liberation Army, again used the principles of people's war in following a policy of strategic withdrawal, waging a war of attrition, and abandoning cities and communication lines to the well-armed, numerically superior Guomindang forces (see Return to Civil War , ch. 1). In 1947 the PLA launched a counteroffensive during a brief strategic stalemate. By the next summer, the PLA had entered the strategic offensive stage, using conventional warfare as the Guomindang forces went on the defensive and then collapsed rapidly on the mainland in 1949. By 1950 the PLA had seized Hainan Island and Xizang (Tibet).

When the PLA became a national armed force in 1949, it was an unwieldy, 5-million-strong peasant army. In 1950 the PLA included 10,000 troops in the Air Force (founded in 1949) and 60,000 in the Navy (founded in 1950). China also claimed a militia of 5.5 million. At that time, demobilization of ill-trained or politically unreliable troops began, resulting in the reduction of military strength to 2.8 million in 1953.

China's new leaders recognized the need to transform the PLA, essentially an infantry army with limited mobility, logistics, ordnance, and communications, into a modern military force. The signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance in February 1950 provided the framework for defense modernization in the 1950s. However, the Korean War was the real watershed in armed forces modernization. The Chinese People's Volunteers (as the military forces in Korea were called) achieved initial success in throwing back United Nations (UN) troops and, despite the PLA's first encounter with modern firepower, managed to fight UN forces to a stalemate. Nevertheless, China's Korean War experience demonstrated PLA deficiencies and stimulated Soviet assistance in equipping and reorganizing the military. The use of "human wave tactics" (unsupported, concentrated infantry attacks) against modern firepower caused serious manpower and materiel losses. Chinese air power also suffered heavy losses to superior UN forces. Finally, shortcomings in transportation and supply indicated the need to improve logistics capabilities.

Data as of July 1987

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