Everything is ready for the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. According to the worldwide media, on October 1 the Chinese government will surprise the world by showing new military devices during the parade. New missiles, tanks, and army sections are supposed to be carried through Chang An Avenue, the main street cutting through Tiananmen Square. After seventy years and with a parade that is conceived to show China’s strength, a question seems to capture the general public: how has China – until not long ago a backward, rural country, with a mostly peasant population – changed and developed its army and associated security logic in the last seventy years, reaching the powerful military status we know today?
To answer this question, we can split the last seventy-year Chinese military history into two phases. The first one comprises the so-called Mao era of “revolutionary doctrine,” Deng era of “modernization doctrine,” and the Jiang era of “high tech doctrine.” The second, inevitably built on the previous one, comprises the era of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.
For what concerns the first phase, after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) kept the strategic revolutionary logic that had characterized its early military phases under Mao since 1927: the year of its creation. A revolutionary setting that had lasted for the next thirty years, basically until Mao’s death in 1976. The strategic logic of the time was the idea that China, along with the Soviet Union, should continue the communist revolution worldwide. A mission that turned into a solely China-led revolution when Mao realized that his Soviet comrades had decided to pull out.
In those years, the central strategic logic of the PLA, under the strategic guidance of the Communist Party of China (CPC), was the organization – at the grassroots level – and the implementation – at the national level – of the People’s War Doctrine; a doctrine which was destined to shape Chinese military and strategic development until today.
Its fundamental principles were based on the belief that people – not machines – still retained the ability to fight and win wars in the name of the Party, since as Mao put it “power grows out of the barrel of the gun”. A phrase whose meaning can be traced back to the “Warring States” period, when the political adviser Guan Zhong, for a better political and military organization of the state of Qi, suggested that Lord Huan “set up regulations within the state and lodge the military commands within the government. Mao’s phrase, linked to ancient Chinese tradition, set a crucial precedent for China’s current military development, that is, the civilian-military fusion that will be discussed below.
This strategic logic partly explains why Mao refrained from developing a sophisticated nuclear arsenal, since he believed that nuclear weapons were “paper tigers”. For this reason, the PLA at the time was mainly composed of workers, peasants, and ordinary people, whose objective was to spread the CPC’s control over Chinese territory and, with a total national mobilization, be able to repel a potential invasion of China both from land and from the sea.
At the operational level, in order to succeed the people’s war needed to apply two fundamental conditions: the principle of active defense and the principle of protracted warfare. The general idea was to wait for an attack to happen, retreat from the coasts, lure the enemy in deep in order to give it the illusion of victory, and then counterattack until the enemy found itself trapped in a protracted war, facing annihilation.
Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, from 1978 to 1992, those strategic principles and the military apparatus started to change, even if tradition was maintained. The doctrine of people’s war changed into people’s war under modern conditions. The fundamental idea conceived the establishment of a professional army and a technological apparatus in order to defend China’s coastal waters and territory outside its national boundaries. Following this strategic guideline, Deng decided to set up the famous “863 Plan” in 1986, whose objective concerned the transformation of overall Chinese technological development in order to supply the army with sophisticated weapons for war. From Deng’s era onwards, the Chinese government started to develop and implement a military strategy that goes under the label of A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial): that is, a fortified regional military system able to fend off any attacks approaching from the sea. A strategic design encouraged by Commander Liu Huaqing in 1986.
The technological variable, first introduced by Deng Xiaoping as an overarching program of national industrialization with inevitable spillover effects on the military, became a central component of military strategy under the leadership of Jiang Zemin. He can easily be recognized, in fact, as the founding father of the modern Chinese professional army and for a simple reason: the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, which exerted a deep influence on Chinese leaders, since it changed the paradigm of war due to the implementation of information warfare.
As a consequence, once in power, he immediately coined the new strategic guidance of “winning local wars under high technological conditions”. With this new military strategy in place, the Chinese government started a robust program of army, air force, navy, space, and cyber modernization. It is not a coincidence, in fact, that what became known later on in history as the 1999 “US accidental bombing” of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was actually a direct attack on the Chinese intelligence and communications wing of the embassy, since the major cyber operations in favor of Serbia were conducted from there. The development of cyber capabilities followed the historical Chinese tradition of civil-military fusion outlined above. Jiang had in fact, promoted “civil-military integration” throughout the 90s, locating the military within the civilian.
Moreover, from Jiang onwards, the Chinese national techno-military system started to elaborate new technological programs for military purposes: the creation of the so-called “trump card”, that is, the development of a military weapon strong enough to completely wipe out the enemy’s army in a single strike, or a single operational campaign.
Under Hu Jintao’s presidency it became evident that the modernization process of the army was now unstoppable. In line with his predecessor’s strategic thought, Hu Jintao simply strengthened the existent strategic guideline of “winning local wars under high-tech conditions” by rephrasing it as “winning local wars under informatized conditions”. The idea was to strengthen China’s overall digital and information system, in order to increase the strength of cyber capabilities along with the overall command structure for joint military operations. In other words, with the beginning of the new century, the military priority became the C4SIR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).
However, Hu Jintao did not stop there. He also gave the army a new boost in terms of grand strategy by promoting in December 2004 the so-called “army’s new historic missions for the new century”. The speech identified the four major missions that the army would have undertaken for the new century as China’s international commitments abroad expanded. They were: “1) providing an important guarantee of strength for the Party, 2) providing a strong security guarantee for safeguarding the period of important strategic opportunity for national development, 3) providing a powerful strategic support for safeguarding national interests, and 4) playing an important role in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development.” Hu Jintao’s approach, even if not particularly innovative, opened up new strategic and operational horizons, as attested by the famous rescue operation of Chinese citizens from war-torn Libya in 2011; a very important operation, since it shed light on China’s ability to swiftly intervene militarily (even if for humanitarian reasons) far from its center of gravity. Hence, the next Chinese president did not waste time in firmly grasping and expanding this new way of action.
Since 2012, the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, radically changed the nature of the Republic’s armed forces in two specific instances. First in 2013, with publication of the new Science of Military Strategy, an official military handbook published by the Academy of Military Sciences, through which the central government explained China’s overall national security strategy, the five-dimensional nature of war, and China’s major geopolitical challenges for the new century.
The second big transformation occurred in 2015 with issue of the tenth China’s Military Strategy White Paper. In this document, the previous “local war under informatized conditions” was changed into the apparently identical strategic principle of “winning informatized local wars”. However, the underpinning idea behind this principle was that China is now ready to expand its military efforts beyond its national boundaries: the inauguration of the first Chinese military base abroad – in Djibouti – in 2017 is a case in point.
The issue of the new White Paper was followed, a couple of months later, by one of the biggest military reforms ever embraced by Communist China with the final objective to make the PLA a professional, modern army. The reform envisaged a reduction of 300,000 PLA army units, giving the PLA a total of 2 million soldiers; the reduction and redesign of the seven military regions into five “Theatre Commands”; the transformation of the Second Artillery Force into the PLA Rocket Force; and finally the introduction, at the national strategic level of the Military-Civil Fusion program, which is intertwined with two national technological innovation programs: the Made in China 2025 (set up in 2015) and the Three-Year Action Plan to Promote the Development of a New-Generation Artificial Intelligence Industry (issued in 2017). The latter even conceives another type of fusion, between people and machines, and the progressive intelligentization of warfare.
Since then, China has witnessed unprecedented techno-military development. The A2/AD strategy was further strengthened with the development of ballistic missiles, which changed the strategic thinking of state actors both regionally and globally. The introduction of the “carrier killer” DF-21D, of the new ICBM DF-41, and the new IRBM DF-26 are just a few clear manifestations of Xi’s military transformation. The same also occurred at the maritime level, with completion of the new indigenous aircraft carrier – the Shandong – and the establishment of the maritime militia whose hybrid warfare in the South China Sea is aimed at expanding and safeguarding Chinese geopolitical interests in the region.
The upcoming seventieth anniversary, according to the historical trajectory just shown, will represent, as it usually occurs in China’s history, a mixture of transformation and tradition. Xi Jinping’s military and institutional reforms demonstrate that China is inevitably becoming a world superpower, competing directly with the US for spheres of influence, as attested by the Belt and Road Initiative, the growing need to support it through the use of the military, and by the latest National Defense White Paper issued in July 2019. However, notwithstanding this impressive transformation, Xi’s China is still a country that sticks to tradition only rhetorically. The establishment, in fact, still tries to develop the famous “trump card” of launching surprise attacks in order to compensate for the PLA’s inner weaknesses; exactly like Mao used to say back in the forties: “Use the weak to defeat the strong”.