Much has been written about China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Much of these works has focused on either uniforms, equipment, or a brief history of its involvement in the Korean War. However, anyone really interested in a first rate history of the PLA should seriously look at Xiaobing Li’s “A History of the Modern Chinese Army”. Xiaobing Li is currently a professor of history at the University of Central Oklahoma, and has once served in the ranks of the PLA. His work is wroth reading because it fill many of the “gaps” usually found in other works on the subject. These gaps are those aspects about the PLA that were either missing from other works, or briefly touched upon that one could have easily overlooked. Before going into detail, let’s examine the book’s layout in detail.
Xiaobing Li’s book was published in 2007 by the University Press of Kentucky. It is 413 pages in length, divided into nine chapters with a conclusion. However, there are over a hundred pages of notes, a bibliography, and an index. Some photographs and maps are included, and these are simplified layouts clearly describing military movements on a theater level (e.g. Korea or the South China Sea). Having described the layout, now let’s proceed on what makes this book stand out from the others.
One of these is a recurring theme about the composition of the PLA. Xiaobing Li clearly described how the PLA evolved from a peasant army of six million men to a professional, high tech, army of two million. Even more interesting was the fact that the bulk of the army were peasant farmers who were either illiterate or have only a primary school education. Many have joined the PLA because it afforded them the sense of security lacking in those turbulent times. That security was both political and economic. Another example showed how the PLA transformed itself from a army of mostly infantry to one that is now highly mechanized, but without the clutter of detailed information about weapons systems. In fact, Li has shown his focus on the human element as central to this transformation. Another example of PLA human capital was the recruitment and integration of those overseas Chinese who have been educated in the West in the areas of science and technology. The most famous of the was American trained Qian Xuesen, the so-called “Father of the Silkworm (missile)”. The most recent development is how the PLA is recruiting university graduates into their ranks not unlike the practice of direct commissioning in the US Army. Although reading about the PLA’s human capital was interesting, the most interesting aspect of the book was in the narrative of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Here, Li distinguishes himself from other books that covered PLA involvement during the Cold War. In the case of Korea, Li clearly described the motivations and political maneuvering involved in Mao’s decision to intervene in Korea. Peng Dehui, the commander of China’s “Peoples Volunteers”, was an example of the “Peasant General” who outmaneuvered and outfought the combined forces of the UN under the command of General MacArthur, but his most important contribution was to supply the tie breaking opinion that convinced the Politburo into supporting the intervention. Later he would become head of a program to professionalize the PLA (at the time with assistance from the USSR). Peng was famous for being blunt and honest with both the leadership and with the troops. Unfortunately, it was that reputation as a “straight shooter” that got him in trouble when he criticized Mao’s Great Leap Forward policies. Although he met a tragic end, Peng was not the only victim of Mao’s purges. In fact, power struggles would be a recurring feature in the next conflict, Vietnam.
One of the least known facts about the Vietnam war was that like Korea, China sent over 300,000 troops in support of North Vietnam’s struggle against the south (and the US). Unlike Korea, the troops sent to Vietnam were mostly air defense troops. They manned the antiaircraft or surface-to-air missile batteries all over North Vietnam. In addition, almost all wore North Vietnamese instead of Chinese PLA uniforms. It was because of this low key approach that historians were not aware of the full extent of this involvement until very recently. Although the intervention was considered a success, the PLA was to be wracked by tragedy.
The ten years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a violent era of violence and chaos that did more damage to the PLA as an organization than any external enemy. Much of the Peng’s efforts to professionalize the PLA were undone by his successor, Lin Biao. The biggest irony of that period was that Lin Biao, the man who helped ferment the Cultural Revolution, and who was Mao’s hand picked successor, ultimately betrayed Mao by attempting a military coup. It was these and other events (like the Tienanmen Massacre) that dealt severe setbacks to the PLA’s morale and efforts at modernization. To avoid any more spoilers, let’s summarize why Xiaobing Li’s book is worth reading.
First, this book will give the reader a clear view of how China’s modern army evolved over the last 90 years. By a series of policies, the PLA was able transform itself from a large army of peasant conscripts to a better educated, more professional force. In addition, the reader will also get a better understanding of he politics that drive this development. Lastly, this was a work written by one who has actually served in the PLA, giving the reader an “inside look” that adds an extra layer of authenticity. In other words, this book would be excellent for political analyst as well as ordinary students of history.