The Military's Role in Chinese Politics, 1949-65: Some Reflections

-Deba R. Mohanty, Researcher, IDSA



No consideration of the Party-State in pre or post-revolutionary China can neglect the central importance of the military. While scholarly analysis of China's political development has frequently ignored the influence of the military or treated it as a separate category of analysis, attempts have now been made to examine the role of the military in modern Chinese politics. The intrinsic Party-Army relations have raised quite a number of queries.1 In this article, I have tried to examine the role of the military in Chinese politics, focussing on the period 1949-65. Analysis of this period is essential because in this period not only was the role of the military in the post-revolutionary state-building process at its apex but also it more or less institutionalised the prevailing norm, thus complicating civil-military relations subsequently.

Army-Party relations during this period must be studied along a historical continuum. The military actors have long played and continue to play an important role in the national life of modern China.2 This is in fact distinct from the Western experience of military corporatism and separateness from the political arena.3 For the century before 1949, internal and external armed conflicts punctuated the life of the Chinese nation and were a preoccupation for the successive governments. Various types of civil strifes and external incursions plagued China. Very few nations on earth have known as extended a period of continuous civil conflict, invasion, and external military pressure as did China during this century.

China continued to face a range of domestic and external threats that challenged the legitimacy of the new government after 1949. Security concerns were thus frequently thrust to the forefront of the leadership's agenda. One may consider separately the domestic and exogenous security challenges albeit these had the cumulative effect of strengthening the security and coercive apparatus of state power in China. This continued throughout and after the Maoist period.4 It is not surprising thus that a harshly repressive garrison state was created and systematic terror was carried out against various segments of the population during a number of political campaigns.5 Such tactics are a central feature of totalitarian states.6 This climate continued during the 1950s and 1960s. Almost the whole of the 1950s was devoted to power consolidation of the state which was primarily carried out by the military. It again played no mean a role in the next decade as class struggle dominated domestically and a three-front national security threat confronted China externally in which the Soviet Union and the United States were the most influential actors. It was provincial warlordism which was the most stubborn challenge to national integration.

The Problem of Domestic Security

When Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949, large and important territorial units had yet to be brought under the Communists' control. With many difficulties and during the decisive Huai-Hai campaign of 1949, the central and upper regions of the Yangtze Basin had been conquered. Still, many pockets of armed resistance remained.7 Central-south and south-west China succumbed by the end of the year. The problem of localism still prevailed especially in Guangdong, Hainan, Hunan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan and Yunnan. Ethnic resistance proved more stubborn in the north-western areas of Qinghai, Gansu and Xinjiang than in the south-west. Tibet and Taiwan remained unconquered. While the former finally fell to the forty thousand force of the Second Field Army during 1951-52, preparation to liberate the latter was aborted by the outbreak of the Korean War and subsequent imposition of the US Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait.

These campaigns demanded the commitment of a large number of troops. Due to this, the conquest of the nation as planned by the Communist Party was further delayed. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces had to ensure control through sheer physical presence. It resorted to constant patrols, mass arrests, and vigilant surveillance. It not only seized control of factories, enforced land reforms, targetted dissident sections of the population but also played a leading role in reorganising regional and local governments. The problem of rural and ethnic resistance continued throughout the early 1950s. Some of this resistance was aided and supported by external actors,8 but most pockets of armed resistance were sustained autonomously. Tibetan separatists and ethnic resistance to Han assimilation in the north-west were also active. The Communist Party referrred to these various forms of internal, armed resistance with the generic term tufei (bandit). It launched its own "bandit extermination" campaigns from 1949 to 1954. These campaigns had a central attribute. These were more or less military operations. The magnitude of the operations and their excessiveness is apparent in recent and authoritative PLA sources, which claim that in 1950, a total number of 10,050,000 bandits existed on the mainland (more than 280,800 in the central-south,650,000 in the south-west, 59,000 in the north-east, and 42,000 in the north-west), but after three years and the commitment of 1.5 million troops for the bandit suppression, by 1953, more than 2.65 million bandits had been annihilated.9

The PLA claimed success in vanquishing the bandits. But armed opposition to the regime continued despite the PLA's tall claims. It was indeed so serious that in 1951 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) undertook the sufan campaign.10 Dealing with the counter-revolutionary elements was difficult. It needed more stringent methods. The sufan campaign was inaugurated in tandem with the harsh land reform initiative of early 1951 in which the Party faced stiff resistance. With the conclusion of the sufan campaign, domestic armed resistance had been quelled, thereby decreasing the PLA's role in maintaining domestic security. Its role further shifted toward border security. This was especially due to the escalating Korean conflict but also due to sporadic raids into Fugian and Tibet by external operatives—mainly the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Guomindang (GMD). Tibet remained very sensitive, particularly after the 1959 uprising that required large deployment of troops. But, in general, after 1953, the PLA's role in domestic security was transferred to the Ministry of Public Security and the People's Militia. With this, now the PLA was supposed to take care of emerging external threats.

The Problem of External Threat

Soon after its independence, China realised its vulnerability from outside. Beginning with the Korean War and ending with the escalating Vietnam War, it found itself surrounded by hostile armed forces. US and South Korean forces remained deployed in large numbers on the Korean Peninsula after the Armistice, and American forces in Japan and Okinawa joined the Japanese Self-Defence Forces in presenting a sizeable threat to China in the North-East Asian theatre. American and nationalist Chinese forces on Taiwan, Jinmen, the Prescadores, and Mazu threatened China from the east and south-east, and resulted in two major crises in the Taiwan Strait (1954-55 and 1958) that brought China to the brink of a major conflict with the United States. In the early 1960s, the United States began rapidly to build up its ground forces in South Vietnam and Thailand, while already possessing large bases in the Philippines. By 1965, the pressing threats from the south occasioned a heated strategic debate in Beijing.11 To the south-west, China faced India with whom a brief but fiery border war was fought in 1962. In brief, China confronted a national security environment of total encirclement. It was occasioned by the Sino-Soviet split and build-up of a million Russian troops on the northern border.

American troops in South Vietnam created enormous pressure on China's southern frontier. To meet this, China employed a forward defence strategy. The Korean experience had convinced Mao and the defence planners that the best defence was direct offence. Demonstrable deterrence required meeting the enemy at the border, at a minimum, and if need be, across the border. Before 1965, China pursued a border defence policy redeploying several hundred thousand troops from the Fuzhou and Chengdu Military Regions to the Canton and Kunming Military Regions, across the frontier from Vietnam. The deterrent premise was that by deploying PLA regulars over the border, the US would not push the bombing campaign north of Haiphong, and certainly not near the border. The strategy had mixed results. The US was deterred from bombing the Red River dikes but carried on carpet bombing campaigns to Hanoi, along the upper reaches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and north toward the Guangxi border. As a result of this forward deployment policy, Chinese forces suffered 20,000 casualties from American bombing.

Threatening conditions kept national security concerns at the top of the Chinese leadership's agenda. The degree to which Mao himself was preoccupied and concerned with national security issues, and personally micromanaged everything, is readily apparent in the Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong Wengao (Manuscripts of Mao Zedong Since the Establishment of the State) series. The Chairman was not a disengaged leader.12 He frequently conferred with the top military brass both informally and via the Central Military Commission (CMC). China's threatening national security environment also forced Mao to support a programme of rapid military modernisation in which defence allocations commanded a disproportionate share of the state budget. It is also apparent that an analysis of the leadership's policy agenda during the years 1949 to 1965 must take full account of security concerns, both internal and external. The leading role that the PLA played in such an environment cannot thus be taken lightly.

The Military in Politics

It is almost a fact that the military ruled China from 1949 to 1954. It is also a fact that virtually all leading Party politicians at the centre were formerly military men. Even after the dissolution of the General Administrative Regions (GARs) in 1954, the demobilisation of the servicemen after the Korean War, transfer of regional leaders to the centre in 1953-54, and centralisation of the command structure in the 1950s, the military continued to be a principal actor in both central and provincial politics. China was divided into six major administrative regions (north-west, north, east, central-south, south-west, north-west). At the same time, the country was divided into six corresponding Military Regions. The composition of each reveals an "interlocking directorate." That is, each GAR was under the control of a military and administrative committee, the composition of which was drawn directly from the five Field Armies responsible for liberating a given region. Each Field Army Commander assumed the post of Military Commander for his respective region, while the Chief Political Commissar, GAR Chairman and Vice-Chairman were either one in the same person or a close field Army associate.

The proponent of the interlocking directorate thesis is William Whitson.13 There is good reason to accept Whitson's thesis as military officers filled the GARs, Regional Military Administrative Committees (MACs), and provincial administrative structures which, in turn, dominated sub-central decision making. There are also three reasons not to presume that China had been divided into a series of military fiefdoms. First, the loyalty within each Field Army and hence region was highly personalised. Second, a central military structure had been created consisting of the People's Revolutionary Military Council and its three Central Headquarters (General Political, Staff, and Logistic Departments) which introduced a degree of centralised command but which operated separately from the State Administrative Council of the Central People's Government Council. In other words, separate chains of command and authority existed within the GARs and MACs. Third, military dominance of each region varied.14 It was strongest in the north-west, south-west, and inner Mongolia and relatively slack in the north and north-east. Reasons for such variations may be traced to the fact that these were the last regions liberated and where armed resistance was most persistent.

GARs were abolished in 1954: "M" was removed from MACs. A majority of the leading figures from these regional committees were transferred to the centre and given key positions in the central Party, state, and military bureaucracies. Six Military Regions (MRs) were also abolished and replaced with twelve new ones under the tightened control of a new National Defence Council. A Ministry of Defence was created under the new State Council and the power of the General Headquarters was strengthened. The Field Armies were formally abolished with their troops re-garrisoned and re-configured organisationally and territorially. This coincided with a massive demobilisation after the Korean Armistice. All these moves were aimed at rationalising the military command structure along more professional lines.

Professionalisation in the PLA continued during the middle of the 1950s although the 1955 debate on defence construction led to a renewed emphasis on "revolution" over "modernisation." This debate also occasioned the early signs of Mao's disenchantment with the Soviet model of defence modernisation. Peng Dehuai's replacement by Lin Biao in 1959 surprisingly changed little in terms of personnel and policy. The only significant personnel changes took place in the General Logistics and General Political Departments. However, Lin left the regional commands largely intact. Despite a renewed emphasis on political study in the armed forces, Lin actually continued—and even accelerated—many of the professionalising trends begun under Peng.15 The nuclear programme continued to receive top priority and the military budget continued to increase rapidly with new weapons systems coming onstream in the early 1960s. In brief, there was a remarkable continuity of personnel and policy in the PLA. This was quite contrary to the conventional wisdom that the ascent of Lin Biao meant a radical departure from the Pengist lines.

The military's role in central politics roughly commenced during the period 1954-55 when many of the leading regional and Field Army Commanders were transferred to the centre and given jobs in the central Party and government apparatus. While many military leaders moved into formal Party and government roles, it must be recognised that their appointments and their continuing source of power derived from informal career affiliations already established through long-term experiences shared in the evolution of their own Field Armies.16

The PLA representation in the Central Committee and the Politbuto hovered between 30 and 45 per cent between 1949 and 1965.17 These figures are high enough to sustain the interlocking directorate thesis. They were to rise to even higher percentages at the Ninth and Eleventh Party Congresses. This is a very high percentage of active duty military on these elite bodies. But the point worth emphasising is that these were active-duty officers, Generals and Marshals. When one considers that Mao and most other members of the ruling "civilian" elite also had military backgrounds, interlocking directorate seem an understatement.

During the pre-1949 germination period of Chinese Communism to the early 1980s, the Party-Army relationship was a symbiotic one.18 This symbiotic pursuit was sustained by an extensive and elaborate system of Party penetration of the armed forces. The net result is that the politicisation of the PLA during the pre-1949 struggle fostered an organisational structure, ethos, and uniquely socialised military that in the post-power seizure environment set the PLA apart from the militaries of democratic and other socialist states.

The China case has been used by many to create a separate analytical category for the "revolutionary soldier" as distinct from the "professional soldier."19 Because the revolutionary soldier is the product of a national liberation movement, an essential symbiosis exists between the soldier and political revolutionary in pursuit of state power. Ample evidence of this is found during Mao's period. The web of informal relationships between Mao and Zhou, on the one hand, and the ten Marshals and the former Commanders, on the other, guaranteed that the military had a significant input to policy making above and beyond the high representation of active-duty PLA personnel on the CC, Politburo, or NPC. Despite considerable rhetoric about "the Party controlling the gun," the PLA was easily able to advance its interests. The principal venue for doing so was the CMC.20

The CMC was dominated by the ten Marshals and Mao throughout this period. Both Defence Ministers were Marshals.21 Under both Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao, the PLA acted as a powerful bureaucratic lobby. After the consolidation of the CCP power and the recognition of civilian and military organs in 1954, the PLA employed a variety of typical bureaucratic tactics to pursue and advance its corporate interests until the Cultural Revolution forced it thoroughly into the political arena.22 These tactics included formal and informal lobbying, the formation of coalitions with civilian institutions and elites to advance policy packages in which the PLA had an interest. As a result of these tactics this was a period of sustained professionalisation for the armed forces. On the whole, in the pre-Cultural Revolution phase of the PRC the PLA, as an institution and leading military elites enjoyed high prestige and privileges.

Role of the Military in Policy Implementation and Modernisation

The extent to which militaristic themes and values were propagated by the Communist Party during the formative years of the PRC can be seen in a variety of political campaigns and the campaign method of policy implementation. The PLA served as both a source and subject of numerous political campaigns. Some of these campaigns were targetted at the military while others were carried out in the civilian sector by the military. Some involved the use of force, like "Resist America and Aid Korea," "Bandit Suppression," "Liberate Tibet," and "Annihilate Counter-revolutionaries." Many did not. Some were ideological, emulation, or production campaigns. Several campaigns aimed to boost production for the war effort. The "Learn from the PLA" campaign paralleled the Socialist Education Movement. The campaign style of policy implementation itself derives from the CCP's military experience. To some extent, campaigns are quintessentially Leninist, that is, they unfold sequentially in a downward fashion through organisational hierarchies. Campaigns were frequently employed by Mao to leapfrog over the bureaucratic layers, precisely to avoid the Leninist apparatus and to take the campaigns straight to the roots of society. The campaign approach bore many similarities to Maoist military tactics: scout the enemy; send in some advance units to probe its defence; move surreptitously but systematically and quickly to surround the enemy; and overwhelm the target with superior firepower and human wave tactics.

Defence modernisation during this period is no less a decisive factor. Between 1949 and 1965, the PLA grew from a force of light infantry weapons to a comprehensive order-of-battle, including atomic weapons. Nuclear and strategic submarine programmes were particularly concerted efforts of devoting resources and concentrating expertise to achieve a desired goal during times of enormous resource scarcity. No less can be said about China's conventional force development programmes. By concentrating resources, despite paucity of funds, China was able to build a comprehensive military-industrial complex that produced a full inventory of weaponry in a relatively rapid fashion.

Debates about military modernisation among CCP political elites during this period were closely tied to the broader issue of military professionalism versus the military as a multi-functional tool of the Party. Mao always favoured the latter while a number of military Commanders23 advocated for a slim, professional military with advanced weapons. It is not that Mao was not opposed to advanced weaponry but he emphasised men over weapons as the decisive element in war and, with the Third Front,24 a more diversified industrial base. Mao also believed much more strongly in political indoctrination of the rank-and-file troops and the maintenance of a systematic commissar system to ensure Party control over the Army.


War and a vulnerable national secuirty environment characterised this entire period. Military men, in and out of uniform, staffed the central and regional administrative structure and intervened in the political arena frequently. The intervention was viewed as quite legitimate because of the Army's symbiotic relationship with the Party. Because of this and the Party's military past, the civilian elite often pursued a policy implementation approach—the campaign—that drew upon tactics previously learnt from the battlefield. Almost all the campaigns involved the PLA directly or indirectly. Militaristic values were propagated regularly. Also, the PLA enjoyed a defence budget much larger in percentage terms as a proportion of overall expenditure than most countries. These indices of military involvements in normally civilian activities suggest a reconceptualisation of the development of the Party-State and state socialism in China during the 1949 to 1965 period. The Party-State's formative years were spent at war and it matured in a society with a strong militarist tradition. State power was gained through the barrel of the gun and once in power, lessons learnt during the formative years were not forgotton. This complex issue has been debated till today. However, any consideration of the development of the Party-State in China during this period must bring in the role of the military that may pave the way for a better understanding of the later development in China.



1. The Party-Army relations in China have been re-examined in recent years. This has encouraged many scholars to see it as a departure from earlier versions of the study of political development. For a detailed discussion, see Nina Halpern, "Studies in Chinese Politics," in David Shambaugh ed., American Studies of Contemporary China (Washington, DC: M.E. Sharpe and Woodrow Wilson Centre Press; 1993), pp. 120-37.

2. The role of the military in the national life of modern China is best described in Hans Van de Ven, "Militarism in Republican China," China Quarterly, no. 150, June 1997.

3. For a classic typology, see Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambrige, MA; Harvard University Press; 1957).

4. David Shambaugh, "Building the Party-State in China, 1949-65: Bringing the Soldier Back In" in Timothy Cheek and Tony Saich eds., New Perspectives on 5. n. 4, p. 127.

6. On the role of terror in totalitarian regimes, see Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, (New York: MacMillan; 1968).

7. These pockets were mostly in the mountainous regions of Henan, Hubei, and Anhui. Also many parts of south China remained unconquered.

8. These external actors included US Intelligence Services, the exiled Nationalist regime on Taiwan, the across-the-border warlords along the Burmese frontiers. See n. 4, p. 128-29.

9. n. 4, p. 129.

10. Sufan campaign means the suppression of counter-revolutionaries. It was started after earlier operations like "bandit suppression" that failed to achieve their objectives.

11. The debate resulted in the dismissal of Chief of Staff Luo Ruiqing in 1965. This also led to the deployment of 320,000 PLA regulars into North Vietnam and Laos over the next three years as part of the forward defence policy Luo had actually argued for. This is an interesting instance where one loses one's job for winning the debate.

12. Contrary to popular belief, the documents in the Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao show that Mao was micromanaging the Korean and Taiwan conflicts on an almost hourly basis.

13. For details, see William H. Whitson, The Chinese High Command (New York: Praeger; 1973).

14. This point is explained by John Gittings. See John Gittings, The Role of the Chinese Army (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 268-70.

15. Jaap Van Ginneken, The Rise and Fall of Lin Piao (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp. 127-31.

16. n. 13, p. 102.

17. David Shambaugh, "The Soldier and the State in China," China Quarterly, no. 127, September 1993.

18. For a detailed study, see n. 17. Also see Srikant Kondapalli, The People's Liberation Army: Evolving Dynamics, Delhi Paper-4 (New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, September 1996.

19. n. 17.

20. The CMC was also known from 1949 to 1954 as the People's Revolutionary Military Commission and from 1954 to 1956 as the National Defence Commission.

21. It was only in 1980 that a real civilian (Geng Biao) was appointed Defence Minister.

22. Harry Harding, "The Role of Military in Chinese Politics," in Victor Falkenheim, Citizens and Groups in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1987), pp. 237-41.

23. Notable among them were Peng Dehuai, Su Yu, Liu Bocheng, and Nie Rongzhen.

24. For a detailed study of the Third Front, see Barry Naughton, "The Third Front: Defence Industrialisation in the Chinese Interior," China Quarterly, no. 115, September 1998.