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The People's Liberation Army in the Cultural Revolution

The ascension of Lin Biao and the complete withdrawal of Soviet assistance and advisers in 1960 marked a new stage in military development. The Soviet withdrawal disrupted the defense industry and weapons production, particularly crippling the aircraft industry. Although the military purchased some foreign technology in the 1960s, it was forced to stress self-reliance in weapons production. Lin Biao moved to restore PLA morale and discipline and to mold the PLA into a politically reliable fighting force. Lin reorganized the PLA high command, replaced the mass militia with a smaller militia under PLA control, and reformulated the Maoist doctrine of the supremacy of men over materiel.

Lin stated that "men and materiel form a unity, with men as the leading factor," giving ideological justification to the reemphasis on military training. Political training, however, continued to occupy 30 to 40 percent of a soldier's time. At the same time, Lin instituted stricter party control, restored party organization at the company level, and intensified political education. In 1964 the prestige of the PLA as an exemplary, revolutionary organization was confirmed by the "Learn from the PLA" campaign. This campaign, which purported to disseminate the military's political-work experience throughout society, resulted in the introduction of military personnel into party and government organizations, a trend that increased after the Cultural Revolution began.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PLA fought one internal and one external campaign: in Xizang against Tibetan rebels, and on the Sino-Indian border against India. The Sino-Indian border war broke out in October 1962 amid the deterioration of Sino-Indian relations and mutual accusations of intrusions into disputed territory. In this brief (one month) but decisive conflict, the PLA attacked Indian positions in the North-East Frontier Agency (later called Arunachal Pradesh), penetrating to the Himalayan foothills, and in Ladakh, particularly in the Aksai Chin region. After routing the Indian Army, the PLA withdrew behind the original "line of actual control" [LOAC] after China announced a unilateral cease-fire. Both campaigns were limited conflicts using conventional tactics.

On March 5, 1963, Mao Zedong issued his autograph "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng" to call on Chinese people to follow the example of Lei Feng, a soldier of the PLA who was selfless, modest and devoted to the CPC and a model of serving people wholeheartedly. In June 1964, the contests of military skills were kicked off in all the combat units of the PLA. On October 16, 1964, China successfully conducted the explosion test of its first A-bomb.

On June 1, 1965, the PLA cancelled the military rank system and all the officers and men began to have new-type military uniforms. On July 1, 1966, the leading organ of the Second Artillery Force of the PLA was founded in Beijing. On October 27, 1966, China got a success in its first nuclear missile launching test.

In May 1967, the Inner Mongolia Military Area Command was downsized to be a provincial-level military command under the organization of the Beijing Military Area Command. In December 1968, the Tibet Military Area Command was downsized to be a provincial-level military command under the organization of the Chengdu Military Area Command. On Dec. 8, 1973, the Central Military Commission made a decision to re-establish and newly set up a total of 41 military educational institutions of higher learning.

On June 17, 1967, China succeeded in detonating its first H-bomb. On Jan. 30, 1970, China successfully launched a long-range ground-to-ground guided missile which was developed independently by China. On Apr. 24, 1970, the blast-off of China's first artificial earth satellite was a success.

The PLA played a complex political role during the Cultural Revolution. One of Mao's initial visions of the Cultural Revolution included the PLA as a central unifying institution which was not only involved in defending the nation, but also led the people in educational and cultural life. From 1966 to 1968, military training, conscription and demobilization, and political education virtually ceased as the PLA was ordered first to help promote the Cultural Revolution and then to reestablish order and authority. Although the Cultural Revolution initially developed separately in the PLA and in the party apparatus, the PLA, under the leadership of its radical leftist leader, Lin Biao, soon became deeply involved in civilian affairs.

In early 1967 the military high command was purged, and regional military forces were instructed to maintain order, establish military control, and support the revolutionary left. Because many regional-force commanders supported conservative party and government officials rather than radical mass organizations, many provincial-level military leaders were purged or transferred, and Beijing ordered several main-force units to take over the duties of the regional-force units. In the summer of 1967, regional military organizations came under leftist attack, Red Guard factions obtained weapons, and violence escalated. By September the central authorities had called off the attack on the PLA, but factional rivalries between regional- and main-force units persisted. Violence among rival mass organizations, often backed by different PLA units, continued in the first half of 1968 and delayed the formation of revolutionary committees, which were to replace traditional government and party organizations. In July 1968 Mao abolished the Red Guards and ordered the PLA to impose revolutionary committees wherever such bodies previously had not been established.

Worries over military factionalism caused the leadership to curtail the Cultural Revolution and to initiate a policy of rotating military commanders and units. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the enunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet military buildup in its Far Eastern theater, and Sino-Soviet border clashes in the spring of 1969 brought about a renewed emphasis on some of the PLA's traditional military roles. In 1969 Lin Biao launched an extensive "war preparations" campaign; military training was resumed, and military procurement, which had suffered in the first years of the Cultural Revolution, rose dramatically. Military preparedness was further advanced along China's frontiers and particularly the Sino-Soviet border when the thirteen military regions were reorganized into eleven in 1970.

The PLA emerged from the more violent phase of the Cultural Revolution deeply involved in civilian politics and administration. It had committed 2 million troops to political activities and reportedly suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. Regional military forces were almost completely absorbed in political work. PLA units did not withdraw fully from these duties until 1974. Following the sudden death of Lin Biao in 1971, the military began to disengage from politics, and civilian control over the PLA was reasserted. Lin's supporters in the PLA were purged, leaving some high-level positions in the PLA unfilled for several years. PLA officers who had dominated provincial-level and local party and government bodies resigned from those posts in 1973 and 1974. Military region commanders were reshuffled, and some purged military leaders were rehabilitated. Military representation in the national-level political organizations, following an all-time high at the Ninth National Party Congress in 1969, declined sharply at the Tenth National Party Congress in 1973.

Along with the reassertion of civilian control over the military and the return to military duties came a shift of resources away from the defense sector. Defense procurement dropped by 20 percent in 1971 and shifted from aircraft production and intercontinental ballistic missile development to the modernization of the ground forces and medium-range ballistic missile and intermediate-range ballistic missile development.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:46:10 ZULU