The past month has seen a careful itinerary of events rolled out for the Chinese armed forces’ birthday. The institution known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), recognized as the largest of its kind in the world, is celebrating 90 years since its first significant battle on August 1, 1927.
A commemorative page for its 90th anniversary was released by the PLA’s English-language news site.
To mark the occasion President Xi Jinping will be at a military training facility in Inner Mongolia on the last weekend of July. The area known as the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base is a huge expanse of open terrain where the PLA conduct brigade and division-level mock battles. Xi Jinping’s visit isn’t remarkable for Chinese leaders, whose numerous official functions include visiting PLA maneuvers.
The events in Zhurihe coincide with China’s official participation in this year’s International Army Games (IAG) organized by Russia. What began as a tank biathlon three years ago is now a vast multinational enterprise and China is hosting several IAG competitions in Xinjiang. But the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s founding has no relation with China’s IAG commitments.
The PLA’s 90th anniversary dates to the 1927 rising by Kuomintang turncoat regiments in the city of Nanchang. This was an attempt by Communist sympathizers from within the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army, which was preoccupied with the Northern Expedition to subjugate China’s provincial warlords, to defeat an anti-Communist purge and seize power. Their plan was a localized coup d’etat that, like the 1911 Revolution before it, would completely undermine Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Nanjing and hasten its collapse.
Although the coup appeared successful at first, mass desertions, local resistance, and the KMT’s own resolve forced the Nanchang junta’s failure. It was another shocking defeat for China’s nascent Communists, who first organized themselves at a clandestine meeting in Shanghai in 1921. After the Nanchang disaster a separate branch of the movement under the radical Mao Zedong established a fiefdom in the remote Jinggangshan wilderness, which became a test bed for rural-based Maoist doctrine known as the Jiangxi Soviet.
Years of encirclement and bandit suppression campaigns by the KMT took its toll on the beleaguered Communists and in October 1934 the mythical “Long March” was undertaken to escape inevitable doom. The year-long trek decimated the Communists, whose remnants found a safe space among the bare hills of Shaanxi where the Yan’an Soviet was established.
The brutal Sino-Japanese War from 1937 until 1945 saw a modest revival of the Communists’ armed strength that was re-organized under the 8th Route Army. A temporary anti-Japanese alliance was formed with Chiang’s Nationalists but this had limited success. Once Imperial Japan’s stronghold in Manchuria was overrun by the Soviets in 1945 overtures were made for a lasting peace between the Communists and the Nationalists. This was for naught, and within four years–thanks to material support from Moscow and massive KMT desertions–Mao and the newly-minted People’s Liberation Army secured Northern China.
This compelled the KMT’s full withdrawal to the island of Formosa, a former Japanese colony, where they revived the Republic of China.
For the PLA to mark its 90th anniversary doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. All regimes, whether legitimate or not, mythologize their past and even portray defeats as heroic ordeals. The fanfare surrounding this latest anniversary is no different. Chinese embassies organized conferences to mark the PLA’s 90th and crowds thronged archival exhibits at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing.
These myriad events confirm Xi Jinping’s insistence on preserving the state ideology of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the military’s importance in the current status quo. Xi himself is orchestrating a series of reforms that, like so many instances prior, will once again change the PLA.