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China: Military Modernization in the 1950s and 1960s
Country Study > Chapter 14 > National Defense > Historical Development, 1927-79 > Military Modernization in the 1950s and 1960s


Large-scale Soviet aid in modernizing the PLA, which began in the fall of 1951, took the form of weapons and equipment, assistance in building China's defense industry, and the loan of advisers, primarily technical ones. Mostly during the Korean War years, the Soviet Union supplied infantry weapons, artillery, armor, trucks, fighter aircraft, bombers, submarines, destroyers, and gunboats. Soviet advisers assisted primarily in developing a defense industry set up along Soviet organizational lines. Aircraft and ordnance factories and shipbuilding facilities were constructed and by the late 1950s were producing a wide variety of Sovietdesign military equipment. Because the Soviet Union would not provide China with its most modern equipment, most of the weapons were outdated and lacked an offensive capability. Both Chinese dissatisfaction with this defensive aid and the Soviet refusal to supply China with nuclear bomb blueprints contributed to the withdrawal of Soviet advisers in 1960.

In the early 1950s, China's leaders decided to reorganize the military along Soviet lines. In 1954 they established the National Defense Council, Ministry of National Defense, and thirteen military regions. The PLA was reconstituted according to Soviet tables of organization and equipment. It adopted the combined-arms concept of armor- and artillery-heavy mobile forces, which required the adoption of some Soviet strategy and tactics. PLA modernization according to the Soviet model also entailed creation of a professional officer corps, complete with Soviet-style uniforms, ranks, and insignia; conscription; a reserve system; and new rules of discipline. The introduction of modern weaponry necessitated raising the education level of soldiers and intensifying formal military training. Political education and the role of political commissars lost their importance as the modernization effort progressed.

The military's new emphasis on Soviet-style professionalism produced tensions between the party and the military. The party feared that it would lose political control over the military, that the PLA would become alienated from a society concentrating on economic construction, and that relations between officers and soldiers would deteriorate. The party reemphasized Mao's thesis of the supremacy of men over weapons and subjected the PLA to several political campaigns. The military, for its part, resented party attempts to strengthen political education, build a mass militia system under local party control, and conduct economic production activities to the detriment of military training. These tensions culminated in September 1959, when Mao Zedong replaced Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, the chief advocate of military modernization, with Lin Biao, who deemphasized military professionalism in favor of revolutionary purity.

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. In the first campaign, PLA forces overwhelmed poorly equipped Tibetan insurgents who rebelled in 1958-59 against the imposition of Chinese rule. 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" after China announced a unilateral cease-fire. Both campaigns were limited conflicts using conventional tactics.

Data as of July 1987

Last Updated: July 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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