Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken on the ambitious task of transforming the People’s Liberation Army into a smaller, more modern force that is able to project power far from its shores. Here are five things to know about the PLA.
1 It’s the Party’s Army
Founded in 1927 and originally called the “Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army,” the PLA swept Mao Zedong to power in 1949 after defeating Nationalist government forces in a civil war. Despite occasional calls from individual officers to transform it into a national army, the PLA remains the armed wing of the Communist Party, with a primary mission to enforce its rule.
2 It Hasn’t Fought a War Since 1979
The PLA has fought in four external conflicts. The first was the 1950-53 Korean War, in which China backed the Communist North. The PLA then prevailed in a brief war with India over the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border in 1962 and clashed with Soviet troops over the contested frontier with Siberia in 1969. Its last war was a border conflict with Vietnam in 1979 in which both sides claimed victory.
3 It Crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests
On June 4, 1989, PLA troops opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy protesters on and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed, according to multiple witnesses. The government put the death toll at 241–including soldiers. It still refers to the bloodshed as a “counterrevolutionary riot” and bans any public challenge to that verdict.
4 It Once Ran a Huge Business Empire
When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, he won the PLA’s backing for his market-oriented economic reforms by allowing it to build a business empire spanning real estate, pharmaceuticals and nightclubs. In 1998, President Jiang Zemin ordered the PLA to give up most of its business operations in exchange for large increases in defense spending. Current President Xi Jinping is now forcing the PLA to shed its remaining commercial operations and is revamping command structures to curb military corruption.
5 It’s Going Global
Over the last decade, the PLA has built up capabilities–including nuclear submarines, anti-ship missiles, advanced fighter jets and an aircraft carrier–that are designed to prevent the U.S. from intervening in a conflict in Asia. It is also expanding its global operations with the aim of protecting China’s overseas interests, including shipping lanes, oil supplies and expatriate citizens.
Apr. 25, 2016 on the Wall Street Journal
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