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Military Modernization in the 1970s

By the mid-1970s concerns among Chinese leaders about military weakness, especially vis--vis the Soviet Union, resulted in a decision to modernize the PLA. Two initial steps were taken to promote military modernization. First, in 1975 vacant key positions in the military structure and the party Central Military Commission were filled. (The state Central Military Commission was not founded until 1982). Nonetheless, to ensure party control of the PLA, civilians were appointed to key positions. Deng Xiaoping was appointed chief of general staff, while Gang of Four member Zhang Chunqiao was appointed director of the General Political Department.

Second, in the summer following Premier Zhou Enlai's January 1975 proclamation of the Four Modernizations as national policy, the party Central Military Commission convened an enlarged meeting to chart the development of military modernization. The military modernization program, codified in Central Directive No. 18 of 1975, instructed the military to withdraw from politics and to concentrate on military training and other defense matters. Factional struggles between party moderates and radicals in 1975 and 1976, however, led to the dismissal of Deng from all his posts and the delay of military modernization until after the death of Mao Zedong.

On Jan. 8, 1976, Premier Zhou Enlai, one of the founders of the PLA, passed away in Beijing. On Jul. 28, 1976, a strong earthquake at 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale jolted Tangshan, a port city in north China's Hebei Province. The PLA troops participated in the quake victims rescue and disaster relief operations as the main force. On Sept. 9, 1976, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Central Committee of the CPC and one of the founders of the PLA, passed away in Beijing at the age of 83. Within a month of Mao's death, military leaders headed by Minister of National Defense Ye Jianying cooperated with party chairman Hua Guofeng to arrest the Gang of Four, thus ending a decade of radical politics.

On July 31, 1977, the Central Committee of the CPC, the State Council and the Central Military Commission jointly held a grand meeting in Beijing to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. During the last 10 days of November 1977, the first electronic countermeasures experimental exercise of the PLA conducted by actual troops was held in Wuhan, the capital of Central China's Hubei Province.

The Chinese leadership resumed the military modernization program in early 1977. Three crucial events in the late 1970s shaped the course of this program: the second rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, the major civilian proponent of military modernization; the re-ordering of priorities in the Four Modernizations, relegating national defense modernization from third to fourth place (following agriculture, industry, and science and technology); and the Sino-Vietnamese border war of 1979. In July 1977, with the backing of moderate military leaders, Deng Xiaoping reassumed his position as PLA chief of general staff as well as his other party and state posts. At the same time, Deng became a vice chairman of the party Central Military Commission.

The Standing Committee of the 5th National People's Congress ratified on 07 March 1978 the Decision on the Issue of Military Service System put forward by the State Council. According to the Decision, the military service system in China would be a system which combined conscripts with volunteers, which was an important reform in China's military service system.

In 1977-78 military and civilian leaders debated whether the military or the civilian economy should receive priority in allocating resources for the Four Modernizations. The military hoped for additional resources to promote its own modernization, while civilian leaders stressed the overall, balanced development of the economy, including civilian industry and science and technology. By arguing that a rapid military buildup would hinder the economy and harm the defense industrial base, civilian leaders convinced the PLA to accept the relegation of national defense to last place in the Four Modernizations. The defense budget accordingly was reduced. Nonetheless, the Chinese military and civilian leadership remained firmly committed to military modernization.

Senior General Luo Ruiqing passed away on 3rd of August, 1978. Luo Ruiqing, a native of Nanchong, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, ever assumed the office of member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, vice premier of the State Council, secretary-general of the Central Military Commission, chief of general staff of the PLA and deputy minister of national defense.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress issued the Message to the Compatriots of Taiwan on the New Year's Day of 1979 to declare the policies of the Communist Party of China and Chinese government on the peaceful reunification of the motherland. On the same day, the Minister of National Defense Xu Xiangqian gave an order to the troop units garrisoning the front line of Fujian Province to stop cannonading the islets of the Greater Jinmen, Lesser Jinmen, Dadan and Erdan as of January 1, 1979.

The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war, although only sixteen days long, revealed specific shortcomings in military capabilities and thus provided an additional impetus to the military modernization effort. The border war, the PLA's largest military operation since the Korean War, was essentially a limited, offensive, ground-force campaign. China claimed victory, but the war had mixed results militarily and politically. Although the numerically superior Chinese forces penetrated about fifty kilometers into Vietnam, the PLA sustained heavy casualties. PLA performance suffered from poor mobility, weak logistics, and outdated weaponry. Inadequate communications, an unclear chain of command, and the lack of military ranks also created confusion and adversely affected PLA combat effectiveness.

The military modernization begun in the late 1970s had three major focuses. First, under the political leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the military became disengaged from civilian politics and, for the most part, resumed the political quiescence that characterized its pre-Cultural Revolution role. Deng reestablished civilian control over the military by appointing his supporters to key military leadership positions, by reducing the scope of the PLA's domestic nonmilitary role, and by revitalizing the party political structure and ideological control system within the PLA.

Second, modernization required the reform of military organization, doctrine, education and training, and personnel policies to improve combat effectiveness in combined-arms warfare. Among the organizational reforms that were undertaken were the creation of the state Central Military Commission, the streamlining and reduction of superfluous PLA forces, civilianization of many PLA units, reorganization of military regions, formation of group armies, and enactment of the new Military Service Law in 1984.

Doctrine, strategy, and tactics were revised under the rubric of "people's war under modern conditions," which envisaged a forward defense at selected locations near China's borders, to prevent attack on Chinese cities and industrial sites, and emphasized operations using combined-arms tactics. Reforms in education and training emphasized improving the military skills and raising the education levels of officers and troops and conducting combinedarms operations. New personnel policies required upgrading the quality of PLA recruits and officer candidates, improving conditions of service, changing promotion practices to stress professional competence, and providing new uniforms and insignia.

The third focus of military modernization was the transformation of the defense establishment into a system capable of independently maintaining a modern military force. As military expenditures remained relatively constant, reforms concentrated on reorganizing the defense research-and-development and industrial base to integrate civilian and military science and industry more closely. Foreign technology was used selectively to upgrade weapons. Defense industry reforms also resulted in China's entry into the international arms market and the increased production of civilian goods by defense industries. The scope of PLA economic activities was reduced, but the military continued to participate in infrastructure development projects and initiated a program to provide demobilized soldiers with skills useful in the civilian economy.



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