The Study of the Chinese PLA: Dialectical and Non-dialectical

I have been a political scientist for more than twenty years. Scholarship means the following things to me: whether your presentation is logical, whether you have made contribution to the literature, whether or not your writing is closer to reality, whether you have access to first-hand information, and so on and so forth.

Many academics, experts and practitioners know that Chinese Communists apply a version of dialectics when they play politics and when they conduct military affairs. Yet, their words and deeds still have been non-dialectically presented. This calls for deep concern when we study the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), unless writers target on the non-dialectical readers, who are mostly in the West. However, this author’s concern is still that we must be closer to reality.

It does not matter whether a Chinese PLA watcher is a Chinese or non-Chinese. It is not possible for their non-dialectical writings to help us to capture a closer-to-reality picture, at least at the macro-level. In this article, I will first cite or quote statements, remarks, comments, etc. made by several seasoned experts on the Chinese PLA. The issue that I am going to talk about is simply People’s War, something which is very basic.

An Indian researcher detected tension, struggles and resistance in the Chinese PLA’s structural reorganization and reform process.[i] To shore up the argument, Srikanth Kondapalli gathered the following facts. In September 1981, the avowed aim of the Chinese PLA was modernization, regularization and revolutionization (xiandaihua, zhengguihua and geminghua respectively). The September 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has altered these goals to read revolutionization, modernization and regularization of the armed forces. In April 1986, Deng Xiaoping amended this configuration by changing it into regularization, modernization and revolutionization. In an enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC)[ii] in November 1989, Deng stated that the task of the Chinese PLA was to work for the revolutionization, modernization and regularization.  The 14th National Congress of the CPC in October 1992 altered the priority again by stating the tenth major task of the Congress as looking forward to a ‘modernized, regular and revolutionary’ armed forces. In August 1994, this kind of arrangement gave way to a ‘revolutionary, modernized and regularized’ Chinese PLA. In March 1995, Jiang Zemin stated in the preparations for the Ninth Five-Year Plan the objectives of the armed forces as ‘modernized, regulated and revolutionary military’.

You Ji was educated in mainland China. Yet, his approach is non-dialectical. Some of what he wrote disturbed me.[iii] He mentioned three schools of thought in the Chinese PLA since early 1990s: the People’s War, the high-technology warfare and the Xinjunshigemin [Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)]. He said the number of military officers and soldiers subscribing to the People’s War thesis is the smallest, adding their argument cannot be entirely dismissed. At present, the majority of the PRC generals belongs to the second school of thought. And true believers of the RMA school of thought is small, since the RMA is still in its formative years with its initial phase extended to 2030. In a word, they favour modernization but reject its wholesale Westernization.

David L. Shambaugh’s best-selling 2002 book and others focused on modernization of the Chinese PLA.[iv] In short, all of them did not dwell on issues related to revolutionization and regularization.

I will, then, show my dialectical model of thought and action, and I will make a critique of the above in terms of my framework:[v]

Figure 1

1 2 3 4 5 A B C D E

           time/space sequence (1)

           time/space sequence (2)


           time/space sequence (n)

People’s War, which existed before the creation of the PRC, is equivalent to the spectrum of Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, and Non-People’s War, A, B, C, D and E (which constitute another spectrum). By way of giving an analogy, 1, as a green-coloured light bulb, has 100 watts. 5 can be regarded as having only 1 watt. And 3, which is in the middle of 1 and 5, can have 50 watts. Similarly, the red-coloured E light bulb has 100 watts; the C bulb, 50 watts, and the A bulb, only 1 watt. Another way of saying the same thing is as follows: 1 is equivalent to 100 per cent of People’s War and 5, 1 per cent of People’s War; by the same token, E is 100 per cent Non-People’s War and A, 1 per cent of Non-People’s War. All the numbers as a spectrum are in the safe zone, whereas all the Letters, as another spectrum, are in the danger zone. In each Number or Letter, there is basically three stages of development: nascent, ascendant, and mature.  So, none of the Numbers and Letters are static.  Similarly, 5 is considered nascent; 3, ascendant; and 1, mature.  As to E, it is considered as mature; C, descendent, and A, moribund. Whenever making a move, one only thinks about one Number or Letter.

In May 1953, another way of saying ‘People’s War Versus Non-People’s War’ has been publicized, to wit, ‘Revolutionization [or Number 1], Modernization [or 3], and Regularization [or 5] Versus Non-revolutionization-modernization-regularization’. This was done before the signing of the July 1953 armistice in the Korean peninsula. In other words, the Chinese PLA’s experience in the Korean War taught them a lesson, that is, it must be trained and be able to fight a conventional war. Hence, Beijing, at that time/space sequence, first emphasized regularization. After making some preparations, at the Liaodong Peninsula, in November 1955, the army, navy and air force, under the active defence strategy, conducted a conventional war game, involving more than 48,000 regular troops.

Because People’s War must be understood in terms of a spectrum, it is a mistake for You to say that ‘[t]he idea of people’s war is regarded as still valid in some circumstances, e.g., in a territorial conventional war against an invading enemy’ (my emphasis). No, People’s War applies to all circumstances. Fighting information warfare is also a part of People’s War. In other words, People’s War is not a philosophical blueprint but a practical roadmap from time/space sequence (1) to (n). At time/space sequence (n), Non-People’s War will be defeated by People’s War. In short, it is valid in all circumstances, from time/space sequence (1) to (n), the latter of which could be 100 years from now.

Deng Xiaoping saw the importance of military modernization. However, modernization, again, is only part of the People’s War spectrum. In my model, it is equivalent to 3.  Therefore, Shambaugh (or, for that matter, Chander K. Kapur)[vi] has only acquired a partial understanding or picture of the Chinese PLA’s framework of thought and action.

RMA should be understood in the following order: revolutionization, modernization and regularization. That is to say, at time/space sequence, say (100), the CMC decided on emphasizing, for example, the information warfare. This is something revolutionary to the Chinese PLA, because it is unprecedented. But, at the time/space sequence (101), CMC participants’ mind shifted to modernization, and they would, for example, order some military personnel to procure or buy new technology from abroad and to conduct (further) research and development related to information technology and even weapons like electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. And, once the hardware has arrived or manufactured, the Chinese PLA will be regularized by being able to use them to fight against their (potential) enemies. Thus, it is not the same as what You said: ‘In the next few decades PLA watchers will see continuing reforms within the Chinese armed forces along the line of RMA’.

You cited the definition of the Chinese PLA National Defence University’s definition on the RMA: military thinking of the officers, military technology, military equipment, strategic theory and force structure. In other words, each of them is regarded as a revolution. What this means, by applying my dialectical model and by using the example in the previous paragraph, is that, at time/space sequence, say (100), military thinking of the CMC has been focusing on information warfare. At time/space sequence, say (201), it is military technology; at time/space sequence (405), it is military equipment, and so on and so forth. In a word, there are at least five revolutions that we can speak of or identify.

After having presented everything dialectically, it is possible to have, as pointed out by Kondapalli, tension, struggles and resistance but only at the micro-level. For example, when supporters of the RMA school of thought argued with the second school of thought, as mentioned in the You paper, they resented each other for not giving the other side, for example, face, which is something that many, if not most, Chinese cherish in public. However, it was correct for You to say that the Chinese PLA will sinify the RMA or that the three schools of thought have not created deep cleavages in the PRC military forces, simply because revolutionization, modernization and regularization are in the safe zone, and because the military officials and soldiers in the second and third schools of thought know that they are a part of the People’s War school or spectrum.

In sum, this article is an exercise in decoding and deciphering, if not having succeeded in

doing so, the Chinese (Communist) dialectical mind, which can be traced back to the Yin

and Yang plus the Five Elements,[vii] and I have attempted to set the record straight by

giving a fuller, dialectical picture of the Chinese PLA’s People’s War. On important

occasions, only a certain figures can say People’s War, such as chairman of the Central

Military Commission (CMC), Minister of Defence, those empowered by the CMC, etc.

All others can only utter one or two of the three at any time/space sequence: revolutionization, modernization and regularization.  After studying some forty different cases, this author concluded that a dialectical remark is just the opposite of a non-dialectical remark or, at best, they must meet only half-way or be half-opposite, depending on the time/space sequence.

As a final reminder, since the early 1980s, the PRC armed forces have been taught Maoist

military dialectics. Starting from the twenty-first century, books published by the Chinese PLA, such as Mao Zedong Junshi Sixiang Yu Gaojishu Tianjianxia Jubu Zhang Zheng

(Mao Zedong’s Military Thought and Limited/Local War Under High-technology

Conditions),[viii] are still based on People’s War. In short, People’s War has never been

abandoned or even put aside for a second, unless we see the demise of the CPC, meaning

that even as an opposition political party, People’s War will still be alive.



Peter Kien-hong Yu

Graduate School of International Affairs, Ming Chuan University, Taiwan

Peter Kien-hong Yu received his PhD in Politics from New York University in October 1983 and joined the Ming Chuan University in Taiwan in August 2003. Prior to that, he was with the National Sun Yat-sen University and the National University of Singapore. In addition to academic journal articles, he has nine books published in the West, such as Taiwan’s Security in the Post-Deng Xiaoping Era (2000) and The Crab and Frog Motion Paradigm Shift: Decoding and Deciphering Taipei and Beijing’s Dialectical Politics (2002). His book, Hu Jintao and the Ascendancy of China has been published in February 2005, Part I of which deals with the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China.

[i] See his article, ‘Structural Reorganization of the PLA: Issues and Problems,’ Strategic Analysis, Vol.XVIII, No.11 (February 1996), pp.1491-1492. See also his book, China’s Military:  The PLA in Transition (New Delhi: Knowledge World Press, 1999).

[ii] For a dialectical analysis of the Central Military Commission (CMC), see the first part of my book, Hu Jintao and the Ascendancy of China: A Dialectical Study (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International Academic Publishing, 2005).

[iii] See his article, ‘Revolution in Military Affairs: A Guide for Chinese Military Modernization,’ Australian Denfence Force Journal (hereinafter ADFJ), No.144 (September/October 2000), pp.41-59. See also id., The Armed Forces of China (London:  I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999).

[iv] David L. Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military (Berekely, CA.: University of California Press, 2002).  See also Chander K. Kapur, Chinese Military Modernization (New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2003). The retired Indian Lieutenant General in Chapter 6 on page 120, PLA in Decision-making, said: ‘The actual functioning of China’s national policy framing apparatus is not very integrated, systematic or highly formalised.’ This is a non-dialectical observation.

[v] For a fuller understanding of my dilectical framework, see my books, The Crab and Frog Motion Paradigm Shift: Decoding and Deciphering Taipei and Beijing’s Dialectical Politics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002) and Hu Jintao and the Ascendancy of China: A Dialectical Study (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International Academic Publishing, 2005). Carl G. Jung, a well-known, non-Chinese psychologist made the following penetrating remarks: ‘Just as causality describes the sequence of events, so synchronicity to the Chinese mind deals with the coincidence of events. The casual point of view tells us a dramatic story about how D came into existence, it took its origin from C, which existed before D, and C in its turn had a father, B, etc. The synchronicity view on the other hand tries to produce an equally meaningful picture of coincidence. How does it happen that A‘, B‘, C‘, D‘, etc., appear all in the same moment at the same time and in the same place? It happens in the first place because the physical events A‘ and B‘ are of the same quality as the psychic events C‘ and D‘, and further because all are the exponents of one and the same momentary situation. The situation is assumed to represent a legible or understandable picture'.  Cited in  ibid., p.ix.

[vi] See note 4.

[vii] Yin and Yang are supposed to be harmonious. As such, Yin could be 1 and Yang, 5 and vice versa. But, if we say Yin Versus Yang and vice versa, then the former is 1 and latter, E, suggesting tension, struggles, and resistence in the relationship. In other words, at time/space sequence (n), whatever E stands for will be eliminated, co-opted, disappeared, etc.

[viii] Li Nan recommended me to read this book.

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