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Government, Defense

pro-democracy demonstrations, leader Mao Zedong, railway police, volunteer force, Cultural Revolution

The 1982 Chinese constitution vests supreme command of the armed forces in the Central Military Commission, a CCP organ independent of civilian control. The country’s military force is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which includes the national army, navy, and air force. While remaining by far the world’s largest military force, the PLA decreased in size in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985 it was 3.9 million strong; by 2001 it had a total of about 2.8 million members (an army of 1,600,000, an air force of 420,000, and a navy of 250,000), and the party announced that the army’s size would be further reduced by half a million. The PLA is a volunteer force. Since reform began, it has attempted to modernize its weapons and training, but its technological capabilities remain relatively underdeveloped, and the force is devoted chiefly to internal security. It lacks the capability to project naval or air power beyond the country’s coastal airspace and waters. However, China does have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, as well as conventional warheads, and the capability to deliver these weapons by medium- and long-range missiles.

The PLA has played a significant role in economic production; in major construction efforts such as dams, irrigation projects, and land reclamation schemes; and in disaster relief. In the 1960s, during the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA virtually ran the nation. In 1989 it suppressed the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Separate forces associated with the PLA are the People’s Armed Police and the railway police. Local militia forces, whose defense role was emphasized under former leader Mao Zedong, no longer play an important role in Chinese defense planning.

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