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From peasant guerrillas to high-tech troops: 80 years of the PLA
2007-07-18 00:00

When Li Shuiqing joined the Red Army at just 13 years of age in 1930, he was disgruntled with his company commander. The company, which had more than 100 soldiers, had to share a handful of rifles and dozens of spears and broadswords. Li was told, as a "Little Red Devil" - a tag given to all teenage recruits - he was too young to hold any weapon.

"Stop grumbling. As long as we follow the Red Army, the whole of China will be ours!" the company commander told Li, in a futile attempt to shake the pessimism out of the teenager.

The Communist Party-led army was only three years old at that time. Li was typical of its soldiers - mostly uneducated peasants or laborers who had no logistics or weapon supplies.


Over the next three years, Li and his fellow soldiers followed the Red Army in fighting against the troops led by the Kuomintang, then the ruling party of China. The Red Army managed to withstand four large-scale offensives by the Kuomintang troops, expanding rapidly to a force of more than 100,000 soldiers.

But in 1934, the Kuomintang launched a fifth round of attacks and captured the Red Army's revolutionary base, which triggered the beginning of the Communist's two-year "strategic retreat", now universally known as the Long March.

"The 12,500-km trek was full of hardships, bloodshed and do-or-die battles," said Li, then a company political instructor, charged with educating his troops in Communist ideology.

When Li and his soldiers were crossing the wetlands in north Sichuan Province in August 1935, food was scarce to the extreme. Li gave each soldier five broad beans over the first two days. On the third day, they frantically sliced up one cowhide belt and boiled it to eat.

"Hunger, disease and swamps killed thousands of my comrades, including my first company commander," Li said. Of the 86,000 men and women who joined the Long March, just over 7,000 survived. Li was one of them.


Under pressure to defend China against invasion from Japan, the Kuomintang was forced to collaborate with the Communists. The Communist military forces were integrated into the National Revolutionary Army led by the Kuomintang, forming the Eighth Route Army in the north and the New Fourth Army in the south. Li was a battalion officer in the Eighth Route Army.

Though better equipped, "xiaomi jia buqiang" or "millet and rifles", were the basic equipment of the military forces. The two military groups used primarily guerrilla tactics but also managed to fight a number of conventional battles with the Japanese.

"We have no food and uniforms, but enemies will deliver them to us,

we have no guns and cannons, but enemies will make them for us."

This became a famous couplet from the "Song of the Guerilla", written in 1938, and sung by Li and his fellow soldiers during the war. It is still sung today.

Following the victory over Japan in 1945, the Kuomintang-Communist collaboration collapsed and the two armies were once again embroiled in civil war.

Armed with more advanced weapons imported from the United States, the Kuomintang troops were superior to the Communist army, which now fought under a new name, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), in every aspect from weaponry and manpower to logistics.

Few people anticipated that the PLA, with its simple "millet and rifle" approach, could overwhelm the Kuomintang troops in just a few years and drive them to Taiwan. Its sweeping victory led to the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949.


Shortly after the founding of New China, Li and his troops, under the name of the People's Volunteer Army, crossed the Yalu River to join the Korean War as international forces led by the United States neared the Chinese border.

With virtually no air defenses, the Chinese troops suffered hugely from air attacks led by the U.S. forces. Thousands of soldiers were killed and the army's logistic supply was seriously damaged.

Li, then a deputy commander of the 67th army corps, said the fiercest battle occurred at Jinchengchuan in October 1951, which lasted 10 days and left nearly 15,000 Chinese soldiers killed. "But we also killed more than 23,000 enemy troops," Li said.

The 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire, served as a catalyst for the rapid modernization of the PLA.

Mao Zedong, the late Chinese leader and one of the founders of the PLA, set to work on strengthening its navy and air force, which were set up in late 1949, using technological and financial aid from the Soviet Union.

In 1956, China unveiled its first jet fighter and developed its own atom bomb in the late 1950s and a hydrogen bomb in the late 1960s.

Establishing a professional military force equipped with modern weapons and doctrines was one of the "Four Modernizations" announced by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1964.

In 1966, the PLA set up its strategic missile troops, the Second Artillery Force. Li, who entered a military academy after returning from Korea, continued his career in the Army. In 1977, Li, now a major general, was appointed commander of the Second Artillery Force.


Achievements of the army's reform and modernization were displayed at the grand military parade marking the 50th founding anniversary of the People's Republic on October 1, 1999. Li, along with other retired generals, watched the parade from the Tian'anmen Gate Tower.

Demonstrating for the first time was a squadron of 25 helicopters, the youngest branch of the PLA service, which showed that China's ground forces had incorporated an air defense system.

The performance of aerial tankers during the parade was designed to demonstrate the modernization of the PLA Air Force and its capability in long-range combat.

There were also four strategic missile formations from the Second Artillery Force, including earth-to-earth missiles, campaign and tactical missiles, earth-to-earth nuclear missiles of intermediate-range, and strategic, long-range nuclear missiles. It was the first time that China's homemade strategic missiles had been displayed to the public.

"The 1999 military parade compared with the one in 1949 was like the difference between heaven and earth," said Li, who, a division commander in 1949, led 1,800 infantrymen marching across Tian'anmen Square for the eyes of Mao Zedong.

"The weapons displayed in 1949 were omnifarious. Nearly 95 percent of them were seized from enemies. They were made by the United States, Britain, Japan..." Li said. "But 95 percent of the weapons displayed in 1999 were produced by China."

"The grand finale of the 1949 parade was the mounted troops. Their majestic appearance made everyone else envious," the 90-year old Li said. "But in the 1999 parade, the highlight was the strategic missile troops."

The cavalry, once the major fighting force, was abolished from the PLA in the mid 1980s.

With the rapid development of information technology, the PLA speeded up its modernization with an increased focus on mechanization and informatization. The PLA has announced that it will reach its goal of building "informationized" armed forces and be capable of winning informationized wars by the mid-21st century.

Experts say China's modernization of its national defense has been based on very limited resources. Despite the 17.8-percent rise in military spending this year, China's defense budget of 350.9 billion yuan (46.2 billion U.S. dollars) is only ten percent of the United States' military spending of 448 billion U.S dollars.

"Given the fact China has 1.3 billion people, 9.6 million square kilometers of territory, 22,000 kilometers of borders and 18,000 kilometers of oceanic boundaries, China's military spending, either in absolute value or proportion, still lags behind many countries in the world," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in March during the annual parliamentary session.

The money to be added to this year's defense budget will mainly be used for three purposes: to raise the salaries of military servicemen, to improve their living and training conditions - not to mention the new range of uniforms that cost more than six billion yuan - and to "appropriately increase" the spending on arms to improve the military's defense capacity.

In keeping with the modernization process, the PLA has demobilized millions of men and women since 1978. The number of its personnel declined from a peak figure of 6.27 million in 1951, during the Korean War, to 2.3 million in 2005.

Over the past 15 years, the PLA has recruited more than 30,000 doctorate and master degree holders and more than 90 percent of regiment officers in PLA's combat troops have received university education.

Ninety-year-old Li is now working on a book of his experiences during the war years from his hospital bed, dictating his memories to his secretary.

"From a Little Red Devil to an infantry division commander and then to the chief of China's strategic missile troops, I'm proud to have witnessed and experienced the changes of China's armed forces," Li said.

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