How the People’s Liberation Army’s massive land troops helped define modern China
The army corps played vital roles in the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square crackdown
The People’s Liberation Army’s army corps, or group armies, have played key roles in some of modern China’s defining moments – and none more so than the troops responsible for safeguarding Beijing.
In September 1971, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered General Li Desheng, who was in charge of the capital’s military units, to send several thousand troops from the 38th Army Corps to guard Beijing’s military airports after relations between Mao and his former close ally Marshal Lin Biao soured.
A day or two after that mobilisation, Lin, who then ranked No 2 in the Communist Party and wielded enormous military and political clout, purportedly tried to flee to the Soviet Union.
Lin’s aircraft never completed the journey – it crashed over Mongolia on September 13, killing all on board including Lin, his wife and son. The exact circumstances of the crash remain unclear, due to lack of surviving evidence.
Eighteen years later, the 38th Army Corps – headquartered in Baoding, Hebei province, some 160km from Beijing – was ordered to suppress the massive student-led democratic movement in Tiananmen Square in early June.
But its commander, Major General Xu Qinxian, refused to carry out the crackdown ordered by Deng Xiaoping, who was also then chairman of the Central Military Commission overseeing the PLA.
As a result, Xu was relieved of his command, and troops from the 38th Army Corps – along with units of the 27th Army Corps then based in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province – were sent into Beijing to put down the demonstrations and enforce martial order.
Xu was court-martialled and jailed for five years after the crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students and civilians were killed or wounded in the centre of Beijing.
The PLA’s ground forces comprise some 1.55 million troops. As the biggest tactical formation in the land forces, the 18 army corps are divided into two categories according to their combat capacity.
In category A with the most advanced weapons are the 1st, 13th, 21st, 27th, 38th, 39th and 54th Army Corps. The rest are in category B, which have less advanced, or even outdated, weapons.
Each of the army corps has its own headquarters, with infantry, armoured forces, artillery, air defences, chemical defences and communications staff, among others. Each group also has its own operations, political and logistics departments.
The operations department is overseen by a chief of staff responsible for ensuring units carry out operations in line with the commander’s plan.
The political department is responsible for all political, security and propaganda matters, with much of its work taken up deciding personnel assignments.
And the logistics department handles all troops support details, from fuel and barracks to medical and transport matters.