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Third-Front / Third-Line

Third-Front" (san xian) construction was a strategic policy in the modern history of China.Third-Front In the early 1960s, in the face of a complicated international situation, to preserve the nations strength Chairman Mao Zedong decided to relocate many heavy industries and military factories to the southwestern and northwestern hinterland areas. This extensive industrial move was historically known as the Third-Front Construction. In Maos view, Chinas eastern coastal areas were the strategic First Front; the central areas were the Second Front; while the regions far to the west were the Third Front.

After China implemented reform and opening policies in the 1980s, as the eastern coastal areas became hotbeds of economic growth, some of the hinterland military factories shifted to produce civilian products, and others were abandoned to ruin. These industrial concentrations, from Guizhou to Lanzhou to Xian, are today Chinas interior rust belts.

The most decisive virtue of self-sufficiency was that, beginning in 1963, it coincided with the national security considerations of China. The worsening Sino-Soviet political relationship and the growing military presence of the United States in Vietnam convinced Mao that regional economic self-sufficiency was key to Chinas being able to engage in a protracted defense of its territory. Mao and his generals envisaged three lines of defense (coastal, central, and western), and they decided in 1964 on a massive construction of military-industrial complexes in western China, the third line of defense, popularly translated as the third front.

As the United States expanded its role in the Vietnam War, Mao feared the conflict could spread to China and result in a nuclear attack. The fate of the conventional arms industries and R&D received a setback in 1964 when Mao Zedong launched his Third Line strategy. Drawing on the USSRs shift of its defense industrial base east of the Ural Mountains in World War II, Maos Third Line strategy was to move industrial and R&D facilities from the coastal areas to Chinas northwest and southwest interior. Construction of the third line was done to meet the needs for war preparedness with strategic arrangements made by the state.

This massive relocation and construction process began in 1965. Over the next decade, 1.6 million workers built research facilities, factories, roads and railroads in remote parts of central and northwest China. Ultimately, at least 483 factories and 92 research institutes were constructed [by one estimate], and thousands of technical and scientific personnel were assigned to work in them. The third line bases under the Seventh Ministry were numbered from 61-68; defense industry test bases were numbered 20-27. For example, the 066 Base, developer of the DF-11 SRBM, was established in 1969.

Chinas central leadership developed third line facilities to augment key space and missile research and production centers in Beijing and Shanghai. In March 1965, the CCP Central Committee approved a Seventh Ministry plan for diversifying design, R&D, and production in third-line bases deep inside China, such as Sichuan, Hunan, Shaanxi, and Guangxi. The initial decision to construct space launch centers coincided with the March 1965 decision to develop third line industries.

Much of China's nuclear research was conducted in Sichuan because of the Third Line policy decision. Readjustment of strategic deployments, accelerated construction of the plutonium production line and accelerated construction of the third line became the most urgent tasks of nuclear industry construction for a period of time after 1964.

In accordance with the spirit of instructions by central authorities and the actual situation in the nuclear industry, the Second Ministry of Machine Building Industry, issued a report on construction in the nuclear industry in third line areas. The special commission of the central authorities agreed with the report of the Second Ministry of Machine Building Industry and decided to begin selecting plant sites in 1964 and to strive to construct a new group of nuclear industry scientific research and production base areas.

Third-Front industrial projects tended to be located in inaccessible sites such as low-lands surrounded by mountains - a practice that gave rise to the expression shan, san, dong which may be translated as "in mountains, in dispersion, in caves." To minimize the vulnerability of the third-front industries to air attacks, Lin Biao, then the Defense Minister and Maos designated successor, instructed that these projects be located in mountains, in dispersion, and in caves.

Maoist rhetoric hammered home the notions of "self-reliance" and "self-sufficiency" for all parts of China: regions should be self-reliant in the event that vulnerable locations came under attack; industries should be thoroughly self-sufficient, from the assembly of raw materials to the production of the final product. Official policy thus discouraged horizontal and vertical linkages in industrial production outside of the loci of production.

The virtues of the self-sufficiency principle helped to ensure that the First Five-Year Plan (195357) allocated 56 percent of state investment to the interior provinces, and that the Second Five-Year Plan (195862) allocated 59 percent. As the concern for national security grew in the early 1960s, the Third Five-Year Plan (196670) allocated 71 percent of state investment in the interior provinces, with the bulk of it in Sichuan, Hubei, Gansu, Shaanxi, Henan, and Guizhou.

Between 1965 and 1980 the government invested over 200 billion yuan in central and western regions, dubbed the third front. More than 1,000 factories and military plants were built in or relocated to mountainous central and western locations as part of the decade-long third front construction campaign, which included the Chongqing nuclear base, and millions of young workers followed. Only the offspring of workers, peasants and other members of the proletariat who could be true revolutionaries were allowed to join the third front construction. Participation was a sign of a good family background.

Furthermore, many companies in Shanghai and other coastal cities were relocated to the mountains in Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hubei, where highways and railroads were deficient or nonexistent, water and electricity were in short supply, and the sources of raw materials were far away. A significant proportion of the relocated factories could not produce anything for many years, and the equipment rusted into junk.

Geography played a notable facilitating role in the successful conversion and growth of Chinas shipbuilding industry. The shipbuilding industry paid a heavy price for the ill-conceived Third Front initiative of the 1960s, but the obvious geographic constraints in building deep-draft ships somewhat minimized the effects of the inland industrialization movement (especially when compared to other defense sectors). The largest and most productive of Chinas shipyards remained along the coast.

China Income Distribution MapThe Third Line strategy was yet another in a series of Maoist missteps. The lives of workers and research staffs were disrupted, and widely separated institutes and factories led to uncoordinated projects and severe production difficulties. Many in the third line industries suffered due to an overzealous attempt at a hasty expansion. Due to the poor standard of schools in the third front area, the large majority of the offspring of those who moved west in the 1960s and 1970s were unable to receive a good education even though their parents were experts in their fields.

One reason for the failure of the PLA to develop modern weapons systems was the general isolation of highly secret defense facilities, even from one another. R&D institutes were separated from manufacturing facilities, preventing cost-benefit analysis at the development stage related to production costs and weapons ultimate performance.

Postmortem studies of third-front industries concluded that only half of the factories built performed to design specifications and the rest were either only partially completed (30 percent) or not completed at all (20 percent). Fully one-third of the total investment was wasted. One such example of wastage was the Second Automobile Company, built in the mountains of Hubei. The parts and assembly plants were scattered over the mountainous region, transportation between the plants was poor, and the plants were far away from their input suppliers and the final consumers of their products.

Given the large amount of wastage that occurred in the industrialization of the interior provinces, it is no wonder that even though the interiors share of fixed assets went from 28 percent in 1952 to 57 percent in 1983, its share of the gross value of industrial products rose only from 31 percent to 41 percent. The primary causes of the higher productivity of the coastal industries were that the coastal provinces had deeper pools of management and technical expertise, better linkages between the industrial enterprises and the local economies, and a more developed infrastructure.

It has been estimated that 100 yuan of fixed asset investment in 1978 yielded 70 yuan of output from the third-front enterprises, compared to 141 yuan from the coastal enterprises. The profit rate in 1978 was 9 percent for the third-front enterprises, compared to 23 percent for coastal enterprises.

From 1972 to 1978, China reduced its discrimination against investments in the coastal provinces and increased its economic interaction with the capitalist economies. This policy shift occurred because the government realized that Chinas economy and technological capacity was falling further behind the rest of the world. If this negative trend was not reversed, China might not be able to defend itself. Furthermore, because the Soviet Union was fast becoming a bigger threat than the United States, an invasion through the traditional land route by the Soviet Union had become much more likely than a coastal landing by armed forces supported by the United States. The national security justification for the third-front industries was hence undermined. Economic modernization required the import of foreign technology, and this necessitated that China increase its export earnings.

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Page last modified: 12-05-2014 20:22:11 ZULU