The Chinese Security Dilemma in the 1950s and 1960s: Story of the Third Front

-Deba R. Mohanty, Researcher, IDSA


"We must pay close attention to Third Front construction: it's a way of buying time against the imperialists, against the revisionists...In Third Front construction, we have begun to build steel, armaments, machinery, chemicals, petroleum and rail road base areas, so that if war breaks out we have nothing to fear."

ó Mao Zedong, January, 19651


One of the most important yet least studied top security related programmes undertaken during Mao's era was the "Third Front" construction. This highly secretive programme, heavily reflecting a military orientation, began in the year 1964 and continued for less than a decade in the remote areas of south-western and western China. What is this "Third Front"? Why was it carried out? How did it progress? How much capital did it consume? Was it cost-effective? What was the philosophy behind such an idea? These are some of the queries that need elaborate explanation in order to understand such a complex programme. Before explaining what it is, a study of the development taking place during the 1950s and early 1960s is essential for the simple reason that the "programme" could not have been carried out had it not been thought of during the preceding years.

Conceptualising a complex programme like the Third Front is difficult but not impossible. If one studies carefully the developments during the early years of national reconstruction and subsequent years of economic developments, one may derive some general assumptions without going deep into details of the Chinese situation in the early years; it is desirable to note certain socio-economic and politico-security indicators to show how such a programme was contemplated by the then top leaders.

In the ides of the 1950s, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was weak on every front. Its economy was stagnant, even, in many instances, decelerating. On the political front, among others, it was still showing contradictory signs. It was also weak militarily. Apart from internal complexities, it was the contemporary international situation that led Mao and his followers to think of security dilemmas with utmost concern. In brief, the visible weakness was both a product of domestic socio-economic as well as political contradictions and a perceived external threat under the contemporary international scenario.

Two of the most important factors that considerably contributed to the security dilemma of the PRC were the already sour relationship with the United States which was then perceived as no less than a "real enemy," and the apparently sour relationship with the USSR which had promised a lot during the intial years but showed signs of cracks, especially after the death of Stalin. Though Mao had advocated a cautious relationship with all China's neighbours, its great friendship with the Soviet Union based on the international principles of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin is well known.2 The great relationship, however, did not last for long. In fact, Mao had realised this. Such a realisation is reflected in some of his writings and conversations during the period 1955-65.3 By 1956, the time had come for China to start cutting itself free of Soviet apron strings. It was also at this time that the First Five-Year Plan had shown its disastrous results. Stagnancy in the economic growth was the main worry. At this moment, Mao inverted Soviet priorities and spelled out an equation for self-reliance that would only be achieved with mass participation. The most important underline in this regard was consistent emphasis on the vast interior region that was lying unutilised.4

The importance of the Chinese interior, especially from the security front, was thought of very early, although on a different term:

"The enemy has occupied China's cities and lines of communication and bases herself on the cities to oppose us; we base ourselves on the countryside to oppose the enemy. Can the countryside defeat the cities? The answer is that it is difficult, but it can be done..."5

Mao was the chief propagator of such a fear. He thought that the Chinese countryside was perhaps the best possible alternative to any calculation by the aggressors. He thus explained the importance of the countryside in detail. This thought originated during the guerilla wars in the 1940s, but lost significance in the subsequent years of national reconstruction. But it resurfaced in the changed scenaro during the later part of the 1950s. The only difference between the earlier and later versions was that while the former was employed as a guerilla tactic to achieve political power and further consolidate the state, the latter had indeed become a domestic strategic compulsion. It was primarily aimed at facing the external threat that was talked of in so many ways.6

The nascent idea of creating a "Third Front" can be found in many letters and documents written by Mao since early 1956.7 During this time, the PRC was experiencing a high tide of the great socialist revolution that signified the shift of the Chinese revolution from the stage of bourgeois democratic revolution to the stage of socialist revolution. During such an important transition, Mao explained his most important future plans which were synthesised into ten questions, ten contradictions. Of these, the relationship between the coastal and inland industry, between economic and defence construction and between heavy and light industry draw considerable attention.8 It is, in fact, from these important questions that subsequent developments followed. And in the early 1960s, almost all the ten questions were translated in some way or the other into major programmes of action. Of these, industrialisation in the Chinese interior (the concept not in the original ten relationships, but developed at a later period), both for defence and economy, assumed much significance.

Origin and Development

Between 1964 and 1971, China carried out a massive programme of investment in the remote regions. This development programme was aimed at the creation of a huge self-sufficient industrial base area to serve as a strategic reserve in the event of China being drawn into war. This development programme was called the "Third Front."9 This programme commenced just prior to the much publicised "Cultural Revolution" and continued simultaneously. It is common knowledge that the Cultural Revolution was dominated by domestic political conflict and characterised by an economic system made dysfunctional by excessive politicisation, fragmented control and an emphasis on small scale, locally self-sufficient development.10 The Third Front, however, was a purposive, large scale, centrally-directed programme carried out in response to a perceived external threat.

The term "Third Front" was first used in a speech by Lin Biao at the "7,000 cadre conference" in January 1962.11 It is not clear whether Lin was presenting his own view or merely conveying Mao's strategic views, but the dominant perception is that he was trying to follow Mao. Lin feared a possible Kuomintang forces attack on mainland cities that could be dangerous, and also could not be resisted in the coastal cities if they were backed by the American naval power. An attack on Shanghai could be resisted at a "Second Front" around Suzhou; if necessary, withdrawal to a "Third Front" in the Huang Shan region of Anhui would take place. If this had to be realised, preparatory work should be carried out in the Second and Third Front areas in order to facilitate the process of withdrawal and the war of resistance. What is important to note is that Lin was emphasising on the viability of such a strategy that could also be carried out at a national level. By this he meant that the Third Front could be stressed well beyond Sichuan and Qinghai regions and could even cover Xinjiang.

Major changes in the Third Five-Year Plan (1966-70),12 with the directions coming straight from Mao, altered the existing emphasis on industrialisation and agriculture. It was replaced by a thrust on "basic" industry and division of the country into three major Fronts. Increasing investment in the Third Front, including the construction of a huge integrated steel mill at Panzhihua in Sichuan marked the beginning of activities in the Third Front.13 This also happened at a time when China's coastal urban region was vulnerable with the threat especially coming from an increasing American military involvement in Vietnam. Mao advocated for moving existing factories inland and constructing railway lines in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan at maximum speed, even if this involved tearing down of tracks elsewhere to obtain rails.14 This activity was carried out at such a pace that by 1971, every other economic objective, with the exception of petroleum exploitation, was subordinate to the completion of the Third Front.

The Third Front Construction

Creating an entire industrial system in the remote yet strategically secured regions (south-west and west) of China was the primary objective of the Third Front construction. The "greater Third Front" or the "big rear area" includes all the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia and the western mountainous portions of Henan, Hubei and Hunan. It was designed as a large scale industrial network, linking this entire rear area through major transport and industrial facilities.15 Within this vast hinterland, individual factories were intentionally located in particularly remote sides. In fact, large factories predominated among Third Front projects. The dispersal of productive capacity reflected the military orientation of the programme and was designed to minimise the damage from air attack. The perceived strategic necessity also accounts for the fact that it was carried out rapidly and with highest priority. A militarised system of construction management was adopted with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) construction brigades playing a major role.16

The Third Front had four distinguishing characteristics: it was large, covering more than one-third of the entire land; hastily prepared; military related; and constructed in a highly dispersed pattern. Among these, two most notable factors were its military connotations/significance and large industrial base. The construction of this Front was carried out in phases. The first phase focussed on the south-west provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gizhou. The objective was to create an entire industrial structure, beginning with mining and energy production and culminating in the assembling of sophisticated machinery including military hardware. Two vast industrial complexes were laid out: the first centred around Chongqing and extending down into Guizhou, was explicitly meant for military purposes; the second, based on the Panzhihua steel mill, culminated in a comprehensive industrial equipment capability. These plans that demanded a well-connected transport network were subsequently followed up with the construction of rail links between the existing three lines.17

Factories were moved from coastal areas, primarily Shanghai and adjoining areas, to northern Guizhou. Thus Chongqing, which had already been producing steel, had a military machine building industry. Three military electric engineering factories were already into production by 1965, and 74 machinery enterprises, an aluminum smelter and an entire rubber industry were in place by 1970. Thus, Guizhou now has a substantial capacity in precision bearings, optical instruments and grinding materials, even though it is one of China's poorest and most backward provinces.18 The South West Aluminum Processing Plant in which over 500 million yuan had been invested by 1983, stamps the huge, precision parts of aluminum and light alloy steels for air planes, missiles and ships.

One of the major projects was the integrated steel mill at Panzhihua. It is one of the largest projects to be undertaken in the history of the PRC. A thousand miles of railway lines linking Chengdu with Kunming and Guiyang were needed for the complex to function which needed a massive investment. Construction began simulataneously on all the components of this massive complex. More than 100,000 construction workers were engaged. High priority produced rapid results. The Kunming-Guiyang railway was completed in mid-1966. Work on the Chengdu-Kunming line was slow due to the difficult terrain which included 340 km of tunnels, and was completed in 1970.19 The tremendous scale of this project was matched by the high cost.20

The second phase began in 1969. It marked another phase of massive investment aimed at both the completion of many first-phase projects and focus on the area at the intersection of Hubei, Henan and Shaanxi, and extending down through western Hunan and western Sichuan and Guizhou. The objective, again, was to create an entire industrial structure. For this purpose, three main railway lines were required to connect the region to the rest of the country. The real focus of the second phase construction was machine building. The largest project of this phase was the No. 2 Automobile Plant at Shiyan in north-west Hubei. More than 140 factories and design and research institutes guaranteed the completion of No. 2. Ninety-eight per cent of the machinery installed in the plant was domestically produced. Many plants related to No. 2 Auto Plant were constructed around western Hubei. Clusters of machinery plants were built around Ankang and Hanzhong. During this period, that marked the peak of concern over war with the Soviet Union, many plants were dispersed into narrow mountain valleys and even dug into caves. The No. 2 Auto Plant was broken off into 20 major workshops that were placed in the mouths of a series of valleys extending 32 km from east to west. It has also been suggested that an attempt was made to develop nuclear production facilities in Laifeng country in south-west Hubei.21 Additional strategic facilities were located in the area around the border of Hunan, Guizhou and Sichuan.

The Chinese also include the provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai in their discussion of the Third Front. However, in these provinces, large scale construction--often with a military emphasis--began well before 1964. The railway had been built in the 1950s and China's nuclear industry was begun in that province as well. The explosion of China's first nuclear weapon in 1964, built from materials produced at the gaseous diffusion plant outside Lanzhou, and the production of plutonium at the reactor near Yumen in far western Gansu in 1967, clearly indicate that substantial investments had been made in these areas prior to the initiation of the Third Front as such.22 During the early 1970s, investments in north-west China took on all the characteristics typical of the second phase Third Front. Large scale moving and cloning of machinery enterprises from the north-east into the north-west reached a peak in 1971 and plants were dispersed into the countryside around small and medium sized cities. The north-west that had over the years consistently enjoyed a kind of military related priority in industrial construction, now enjoyed higher priority during the Third Front construction era.

The period during which Third Front construction was given absolute priority on a national level came to an end rather abruptly at the end of 1971. National investments in key projects dropped sharply. Construction teams were transferred mostly to eastern China. Priorities were reassessed both within and outside the Third Front. These steps were part of the dramatic reorientation of China's national policies that took place during the early 1970s. In brief, the fall of Lin Biao, rapprochement with the Soviet Union, reduced external threat perception, a completely new political environment, altogether contributed to the fall of the Third Front.

The Chinese have released some overall figures on the magnitude of the Third Front construction. They are staggering. Investments (in the Third Front) as a proportion to national investment during the period 1963-65 was a whooping 38.2 per cent. It reached its zenith during the Third Five-Year Plan with 52.7 per cent; in the Fourth Five-Year Plan, it was 41.1 per cent. Alternatively, Third Front areas were reported to possess 37.4 per cent of industrial fixed capital in 1977 and 40 per cent of the fixed capital in the first Ministry of Machine Building system in 1981. There are about 1,800 large and medium sized industrial enterprises in the Third Front which is more than a third of the national total of 5,000. There are also a more than 200 key-point research institutes.23

Strategic Rationale

Domestic complexities apart, it was the impact of the contemporary international environment which was central to the idea of constructing a Third Front. As mentioned earlier, China was undergoing a transitional period from a bourgeois democratic revolution to a socialist revolution which among others demanded attention primarily on socio-economic conditions of the masses. That the state leadership was not able to translate ideology into reality was quite visible, notably in the fields of economy and socio-political conditions. Adding more problems to such a scenario was the immediate external environment, that is, the complex development taking place in the Chinese neighbourhood, which compelled the Chinese leadership to contemplate on external threat perceptions.

The massive diversion of resources to the Third Front was a response by the Chinese leadership to an extremely threatening (Chinese version) external environment. It was thought that China was being sandwiched between the two superpowers and the relationship of both vis-a-vis China was a matter of serious concern. In fact, the relationship with the Soviet Union had already soured during the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, China's strategic position was altered. Increase in hostility between the two Communist giants forced China to deal with (if it so happened) its enemy/ies on its own. In other words, isolated by its prominent ally, China found itself confronted with the possibility of hostile action by either or both the superpowers. And when such a possibility was very much prominent, it was China's First and Second Fronts which were extremely vulnerable. That had left it with no option but to build its Third Front. Even if it threatened to swallow all of its national investments. It is to be noted here that the period of top priority construction of the Third Front corresponds precisely to the period when China faced potential military threats from either or both of the superpowers.

The timing of the decision to begin the Third Front clearly shows that it was triggered by the American escalation of the war in Vietnam. The location of the Third Front, however, belies common knowledge. It is quite peculiar to find that the scattered establishments in the Third Front were designed as if the threat was to come from either the south or the west which was unlikely. It was in fact the Chinese heartland which was the possible target. A few urban areas in the east and north-east were highly vulnerable. Three major urban conurbations--Shanghai, Beijing-Tianjin and Shenyang regions--concentrated a significant proportion of China's urban population and, at the same time, account for more than half of its industrial capacity.24 It was possible that all these areas could be devastated even by a limited nuclear strike. It was to this specific danger that the Third Front was a response. The basic purpose of the Third Front was thus to provide an alternative industrial base that would serve as an effective back-up to any strike on the Chinese urban centres.

It is also pointed out by many that a limited strategic attack on China was perhaps heightened by the combination of threats and vulnerability that attended the early stages of China's development of a nuclear capability. Both the superpowers had hinted broadly of the intention of destroying China's embryonic nuclear capacity. Under such a possibility, it was not unusual on the part of the Chinese leadership to think that such an action might include an attack on its industrial targets.25

By a geographical coincidence, China's south-west is the immediate rear of Vietnam. Until 1965, Yunnan province had no rail link with the rest of China but was linked to Hanoi. The Third Front programme under which there was an extensive railway linkage between Yunnan and the Chinese heartland suggests clearly that China could choose out of the different routes to deliver supplies to Vietnam. Specific military projects, including air bases and armament factories, were part of the first phase construction and were designed to be of direct assistance to the Vietnamese. Thus, the first phase of the construction had a dual military purpose.26

The period between 1966 and 1969 witnessed a marked change. Threats facing China in 1966 centred more around the Sino-Soviet hostility than the case of Vietnam. With the Americans demonstrating a determined effort to not draw China into the Vietnam War, the Chinese started facing a hostile attitude from the Sovit Union. Signing of a mutual defence pact between the Soviet Union and Mongolia in January 1966 and consequent concentration of Soviet troops in Mongolia, not more than 350 miles from Beijing, posed another threat to China's northern and south-eastern urban centres. The famous border clash of 1969 brought the threat to a level of unprecedented immediacy. Hence, contradictory to popular belief, the cause of contemporary militarisation of China was not only the pervasive impacts of the Cultural Revolution but a mixture of the revolution as well as a calculated response to external threats.

Two phases of the Third Front correspond not only to two different regions but also to two potential adversaries. The massive investment of resources devoted to the Third Front was due to the fact that a significant threat from one superpower succeeded that from the other during a period when China had almost nil expectation of signficant aid from any quarter. The end of the Third Front period followed closely on the termination of China's strategic isolation following the visit of President Nixon to China. Although domestic political and economic factors also contributed to this reversal of priority, in the changed international environment that began in 1972, top priority construction of the Third Front no longer made sense.


The Third Front construction produced some important achievements that would eventually have been required in any long-term development strategy for China. Chief among these are the creation of a railway grid linking previously isolated parts of China; the exploitation of important ferrous and non-ferrous mineral resources; and the construction of some efficient manufacturing enterprises that in other ways helped mobilisation to a great extent. However, it greatly increased the costs of industrialisation. Both cloning and shifting and re-shifting of industries further added to the costs. Needless to say that constructing railway lines, factories and other establishments in remote mountainous regions is neither easy and cheap. The cost of the entire programme--the exact cost of which is impossible to calculate given the lack of specific informationówas nevertheless very, very high, running into hundreds of billions of yuan. The investment-output ratio, it is clearly understood, was the negative side.27

In brief, the Third Front cost China dearly in economic terms. The cost of the major achievements was not commensurate with the enormous commitment of resources to the programme. What is confusing is that the programme was carried out in such a manner that it incurred heavy additional investment at every phase of work. Alternative industrialisation strategies (rationalised) could have produced what would have resulted today in the same level of development of Third Front areas combined with a significantly higher level of output. Of course, some of the excess costs were due to the military and strategic objectives of the programme which could nevertheless have been avoided or systematically chalked out. The Third Front, as one author points out, was simply too much, too soon.28

Among many of the problems faced, the Third Front today suffers from a chronic lack of capital, of technology, and of managerial skills--mainly because it is isolated from the economic dynamism of China's coastal areas. Its primary defence units are the worst sufferers. With 55 per cent of the country's defence factories located in this area, the problems in the defence units have a profound impact on the health of the defence production sector as a whole. Official statistics say that 40 per cent of the country's defence-production enterprises are in the red.29 China's arms industry is facing a critical transition period, characterised by significant trimming, commercialisation and decentralisation. These changes come in the wake of a major strategic review undertaken in the early 1980s which recognises that the long held Maoist doctrine of "people's war" was to be replaced by a doctrine enabling the Chinese military to fight "limited wars under modern high-tech conditions."30

At the macro-economic level, while economic reforms of the past 15 years have done much to improve China's overall strength, they have done more to worsen the situation of Chinese defence industry.31 Of particular concern are the enterprises in the process of conversion, a recent buzzword in the Chinese defence sector, especially those located in the Third Front.32 These problems include heavy debt, lack of capital and technology, infrastructural deficiencies, social welfare obligations, poor managerial and entreprenurial skills and under and unemployment. It is indeed a challenge for the Chinese authorities to face the current problems emerging from the legacies of the Third Front--how they respond is where the fate of the Third Front lies.



1. "Instruction Given Upon Hearing Gu Mu and Yu Qinli Report on Planning Work," Mao Zedong Sixiang Wansui, p. 606.

2. Jerome Ch'en, Mao (Englewood Ciffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969), p. 120.

3. For instance, in a conversation with the Japanese Socialist Delegation led by Sasaki Kozo, Peking, July 10, 1964, he talked about the Soviet expansionist ambitions and its possible impact on China, Ibid., pp. 120-21.

4. Denis Bloodworth, The Messiah and the Mandarins: The Paradox of Mao's China (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982), p. 114.

5. Stuart R. Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung (New York: Frederick A. Praeger: 1963), p. 288.

6. For a detailed discussion on the strategic importance of Chinese interior and military principles of Mao, see n. 5, pp. 265-293.

7. Among numerous writings, perhaps the most significant is the one entitled "On the Ten Major Relationships," written by Mao on April 25, 1956. This has appeared in two widely different versions: an official version published by Red Guard sources during the Cultural Revolution and an official version published after Mao's death. For details, see John K. Leung and Michael Y.M. Kan eds., The Writings of Mao Zedong: 1949-76 (Volume II, January 1956--December 1957, pp. 43-66), (New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1992).

8. n.7.pp. 46-50.

9. The term "Third Front" (Sanxian) is also loosely translated as "third line" or "third rank". However, because this programme was primarily of military importance and less industrial or (hence) economic, the term "Third Front" is frequently mentioned here.

10. Barry Naughton, "The Third Front: Defence Industrialisation in the Chinese Interior," The China Quarterly, no. 115, September, 1988, p. 351.

11. Hu Hua (Vice Chairman, Department of Party History, People's University), "The Chinese Communist Party in the Early 1960s," public lecture, Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, May 21, 1987. It is surprising that Lin's speech has not been published. It is this that gives rise to speculations regarding whose thought it originally was. According to Professor Hu, Lin was conveying Mao's strategic views.

12. During 1963-64, an outline of the Third Five-Year Plan was drafted which laid emphasis on agriculture, production of consumer goods, upgrading the existing industrial capacity in the coastal areas. According to Xu Yi, in the original Third Five-Year Plan, 70 per cent of investment was to go into coastal areas. This plan was rejected by Mao and a subsequent revised version laid greater emphasis on "basic" industry, import of more technology and less foodgrain. He also called for increased investments in the Third Front.

13. Fang Weizhong, Economic Chronology, p. 378.

14. n. 13, p. 379.

15. n. 10, p. 354.

16. n. 13, p. 407-8.

17. Before the Third Front period, three railway lines passed into the south-west from Shaanxi, Guangxi and Vietnam. They were not connected. The first task towards the creation of a viable transport link was to link these lines into a grid that could serve the south-west. Construction began on all three lines in 1964. The Chongqing-Guiyang link was completed in 1965.

18. For a detailed study, see Qin Weigang and Yi Hui, "Third Front Enterprises Should be Brought into Full Play," Economic Research Reference Materials, no. 51, 1982, pp. 36-45.

19. n. 10, pp. 357-58.

20. The first phase of the Panzhihua complex cost Yuan 3.74 billion. The Chengdu-Kunming railway cost Yuan 3.3 billion. The coal mining complex in Guizhou cost over Yuan 1 billion. For comparison, total budgetary capital construction in 1965 and 1966 was Yuan 16 and 19 billion respectively. See n. 10, p. 358.

21. According to the Ministry of Nuclear Industry, "The Creation and Development of a Nuclear Industry in our Country," in Guanghuy de Chengjiu, vol. 1, p. 287, "In order to ameliorate the strategic distribution of the nuclear industry, we began in 1966 to construct a nuclear industry rear base area, which was progressively put into production around 1970."

22. Harlan Jencks, From Muskets into Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945-1981, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1982), pp. 195-96.

23. n. 10, p. 365.

24. For details, see James Blaker, "The Production of Conventional Weapons" in William Whitson ed., The Military and Political Power in China in the 1970s, (New York: Praeger, 1973), pp. 219-25.

25. Gerald Segal, Defending China, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 186.

26. As a secure base for China, the Third Front could reduce China's vulnerability. It also improved China's material capability to give military aid to Vietnam.

27. For a detailed discussion on the economic impacts of the Third Front, see, n. 10, pp. 74-81.

28. n. 10, p. 81.

29. Bates Gill, "Defensive Industry: China's Arms Makers Struggle with the Market Place," Far Eastern Economic Review, November 30, 1995, p. 62.

30. SIPRI Yearbook: 1996, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 437.

31. For details, see J. Frankenstein and Bates Gill, "Challenges for Chinese Defence Industries," China Quarterly, No. 143, June 1996.

32. For a detailed discussion on various problems on Third Front in the 1990s, see, n. 29, p. 62. Also see, "Cost of Economic Reform in China: 18 Million Jobs, International Herald Tribune, July 1-2, 1995, p. 9.