Li Xiaobing, A History of the Modern Chinese Army [Lexington,
Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007]
Reviewed by Yu Maochun, Professor of East Asia and Military History,
United States Naval Academy
Li Xiaobing's new history marks a major achievement in the study of the Chinese Communist armed forces, collectively known as the People's Liberation Army, or the PLA, primarily for the simple reason that there has been a glaring shortage of anything readable in Western languages on the inner logic and historical evolution of the PLA. A former PLA soldier himself, Li has unique advantages in producing such an impressive tome. First of all, he has gathered a large and unparalleled pool of primary and secondary sources, Chinese or otherwise, for writing this book. The result is a well-researched, richly documented book that adds authenticity to many of its claims. Secondly, Li's prior service in the PLA has clearly given him an intimate perspective on the social life and cultural transformation of the PLA, which makes the book unique in that it is the first attempt in a Western language to reveal the history of the PLA as "a soldier’s story."
The nine chapters are chronologically arranged with the central theme of a profound transformation of the PLA from a peasant army to a high-tech army. While all chapters add something important to Western lore of the PLA, any reader with a decent knowledge of PLA history will notice that two chapters stand out as particularly valuable and refreshing, i.e. chapter four entitled "Russianizing the PLA," which deals with the PLA's efforts under Marshal Peng Dehuai to professionalize the Communist armed forces after the model of the Soviet Red Army; and chapter nine called "Technocrats and the New Generation," which documents the origins and manifestations of the current drive of building the PLA's capabilities for a "high-tech war." There have been several studies on the latter topic, but few have provided insights as provocative and important as Li has on this timely subject.
There is no question Li's book is an important pioneering work from a Chinese perspective. As with any pioneering work, it has much room for improvement. As a first example, the title, "A History of Modern Chinese Army," is misleading, because "modern Chinese army" should also include the massive Chinese Nationalist Army, as well as all the armed forces in "modern" Chinese history, which most historians believe started with the Opium War in 1840. The book does not address either. Instead, it should be more properly titled as "A History of Chinese Communist Army." Yet, a major area of concern is the book's conceptual frame that treats the PLA as a "normal" armed force marching from its meager peasant tradition to a high-tech, multi-service modern entity, without stressing its singular trait of being a Communist army. This is important because ideological fanaticism has shaped the most fundamental features of the PLA. Its absolute and abject subservience to the Chinese Communist Party's whims and demands has wreaked havoc throughout the history of the PRC on the PLA's efforts to modernize, and remains the most significant obstacle to fully morphing itself into a truly "modern" army. In addition, the PLA is not entirely a defense force per se, for it is more importantly an internal security force ready to enforce the Communist Party's order to crack down on any domestic dissent, as fully demonstrated in incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In essence, the question still has to be answered: Can the PLA truly be modernized while continuing to be a tool of the Chinese Communist Party, not an instrument of national defense free from ideological and Party exigencies?
But for serious readers, Li's book is a monumental accomplishment and an excellent volume to be added to the library.