China’s army serves the people and builds communism
Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Wilfred Burchett

China’s army serves the people and builds communism

First Published: Guardian, May 26, 1971.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The visitor to China cannot fail to be struck by the extensive role being played by members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). From the lowest level revolutionary committees, which run the state administration, and economic enterprise to the Politburo of the Chinese Communist party, PLA members are very prominent.

However, nothing could be further from the truth then to conclude that since the cultural revolution China has become “militarist” in any sense of the word. This is because of the nature of PLA as guided by Mao Tse-tung and Lin Piao and the role they assigned it in the revolution and society from the founding of the old Red Army. Characteristically, after the line of Chairman Mao and his supporters won out in the cultural revolution, one of the first actions was the establishment of the May 7 cadres’ schools based on a revolutionary college of the Yenan period, the Anti-Japanese Military and Political College which had been directed by Lin Piao.

Work and study

At the entrance to the May 7 cadres’ school that I visited there was a replica of some ideographs written by Mao which had adorned the old Yenan college: “On the one hand we study; on the other we take part in productive labor.” From its first days the Red Army stressed the closest possible ties between the army and the people.

In a much-quoted speech of November 1943, “Get Organized,” Mao Tse-tung stated: “Our troops must observe the correct principles that govern relations between the army and the people, between the army and the government, between the army and the party, between officers and men, and between military work and political work .... Officers must cherish their men and must not be indifferent to their well-being or resort to corporal punishment; the army must cherish the people and never encroach upon their interests; the army must respect the government and the party and never assert ’independence’ .... ”

This anti-militarist line has been rigorously adhered to at all times. The respect accorded to the people distinguished the Red Army from every other military force ever known by the Chinese people. Within the Red Army itself there was strict discipline on the battlefield combined with democracy in the barracks. Elected committees handled food and tobacco rations and any problems that arose. On an absolutely equal footing, officers and men discussed together everything from grievances to military tactics, evaluating and criticizing every military action after its conclusion. Differences between living conditions of officers and enlisted men was reduced to a minimum. At harvests Red Army troops helped the peasants, they loaned horses and provided manpower in the plowing season, and in general did everything to demonstrate that they were “of and for” the people. This assistance was in addition to the rent and tax reductions instituted wherever they took power.

When the more than 1500 cadres from East Peking municipality arrived at the site of their May 7 cadres’ school in October 1969; many of them must have been dumbfounded to find only an infertile stretch of land without buildings or equipment; As the old Red Army would have done, they turned to the local peasants for help. The latter made room in their own homes until dormitories and classrooms Gould be built. It was the first close contact with peasants for the “three-gate” cadres – the post-liberation generation whose contact with the people was characterized by the passage from the gate of their homes to the gate of their school and from there to the gate of their office. By necessity they had to begin practicing the “three withs” – living, eating and working with the peasants.

But who was going to construct the school’s buildings, the state? I was assured that this would have been done if requested, even though that had been the Liu Shao Chi “capitalist” way. However, the older cadres favored doing it according to the former “self-reliant” PLA way. Since the Peking city wall was being dismantled at the time, they suggested borrowing handcarts from the peasants and hauling large bricks being salvaged from the East Peking section of the wall for building materials. After constructing the dormitories and classrooms, they moved from the peasants’ homes and eventually built a factory for producing buckets, equipping it with scrap and discarded materials that had been transformed into machines for bending, cutting and stamping metal by the resourceful PLA veterans. They leveled the land, dug irrigation channels and from the first season became self-sufficient in food production, having a surplus to sell to the state by the second season.

Chairman Wang, the cheerful veteran PLA cadre who headed the school’s revolutionary committee explained: “Many of the cadres had been victims of the ’three divorces’ – divorced from labor, divorced from the masses, divorced from practice. They knew how to live in a house but not how to build a house. They knew how to appreciate food but not how to produce it. Now they know how to build houses and how to produce food. Above all they have been re-educated by the workers, peasants and soldiers and have developed the closest ties with them.”

This capacity of creating from almost nothing with bare hands was typical of the PLA. Wherever their units went they started food production and then possibly lines of handicrafts or small industry.

Mao set new tasks

In February 1949 when the PLA was getting ready to cross the Yangtse river and sweep south to wipe out the rest of the Kuomintang forces in a series of huge encircling movements, Mao Tse-tung outlined the PLA’s new tasks ,as a reversal of the old strategy of “first the rural areas, then the cities.” In a telegram to the General Front Committee charged with the southern offensive, he wrote:

“The army is not only a fighting force, it is mainly a working force. All army cadres should learn how to take over and administer cities. In urban work they should learn how to be good at dealing with the imperialists and Kuomintang reactionaries; good at dealing with the bourgeoisie; good at leading the workers and organizing trade unions; good at mobilizing and organizing the youth; good at uniting with and training cadres in the new liberated areas; good at, managing industry and commerce; good at running schools, newspapers, news agencies and broadcasting stations; good at handling foreign affairs; good at handling problems relating to the democratic parties and people’s organizations; good at adjusting relations between the cities and rural areas and ’solving the problems of food, coal and other daily necessities and good at handling monetary and financial problems. The occupation of eight or nine provinces and scores of big cities will require a huge number of working cadres and to solve this problem the army must rely chiefly on itself. The army is a school. Our field armies of 2,100,000 are equivalent to several thousand universities and secondary schools. We have to rely chiefly on the army to supply our working cadres .... ”

Stratification reemerged

The PLA actually did furnish the core of the post-liberation cadres who brought to their new jobs revolutionary ardor, frugality and discipline together with close contact with the people, characteristics that impressed foreigners when Shanghai, Nanking and other big cities were taken over. But as the years went by revolutionary ardor diminished as social stratification increased, age took its toll and the young “three-gate“ cadres lacking experience of revolutionary struggle increased in number. Also army equalitarianism suffered in 1955 when Defense Minister P’eng Teh Huai introduced a western-type system of ranks, uniforms and insignia based on the Soviet army. Those of us in China at the time thought the old revolutionary traditions had gone forever, shrugging it off as an inevitable part of peacetime evolution.

Now it is evident that this was symbolic of the social stratification against which the cultural revolution was later directed. It was significant that on the eve of the cultural revolution in May 1965, Lin Piao, who had succeeded P’eng Teh Huai as defense minister in 1959, abolished the system of ranks and distinctions by uniforms and put the PLA on its near-egalitarian basis of the former revolutionary days. Lin Piao also restored “politics in command” after P’eng Teh Huai had downgraded political and ideological considerations in favor of technical competence within the army.

Vital to understanding the role played by the PLA in the Chinese cultural revolution is that Mao Tse-tung and Lin Piao always seem to have regarded the PLA as a sort of pilot project for the future state. “We must look upon the field armies with their 2,100,000 people as a gigantic school for cadres,” said Mao Tse-tung in March 1949. The democracy and egalitarianism of the PLA; its concept of “serving the people” as the highest aim; its spirit, self-sacrifice and discipline; its blend of high political and ideological consciousness, technical competence and self-reliance and its versatility in coping with production tasks all made the PLA a model for the whole people called upon to build a new communist society.