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Armed forces

Twenty years ago, soldiers in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spent as much time on “political work” and reading Party speeches as military training.

Reforms introduced since the 1980s have made the armed forces much more professional.

They have shed one million men in a bid to concentrate on quality not quantity. Emphasis is being put on better training, better weapons and better pay.

Nevertheless, the military’s position as defender of the Party means it will never be de-linked from politics.

Officers and men still have to declare their loyalty to Party principles, study its teachings and read leaders’ important pronouncements.

PLA officers are also Party members, and there is a separate Party machine inside the military to make sure rank and file stay in line with Party thinking.


In keeping with its more professional role, the PLA has lost influence over non-military affairs. It was forced by Jiang Zemin to give up a vast business empire. It also appears to be losing clout at the top of the Party, where there is no PLA representative on the Politburo Standing Committee.

Some analysts think PLA generals are happy with this, so long as they retain influence over the areas which really matter to the military – specifically the Taiwan issue and relations with America.

There have been suggestions that on at least one of these – US relations – military thinking is different to the Party leadership’s. Senior military figures are thought to be far more wary of US intentions in the region, especially regarding Taiwan.

These tensions became clear during the 2001 dispute over a US spy plane. The military appeared to try to draw out the row even though Party leaders wanted it resolved.


1.8 million-strong army

14,000 tanks

470,000-strong air force

2,500 fighter planes

250,000-strong navy

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