UNDER the slogan "Everyone a Soldier," the Chinese Communist leaders are militarizing the people by enrolling immense numbers in the militia. This campaign exceeds the Western concept of a nation in arms, and is reminiscent of the proposals of the French revolutionaries or of Lenin. It is closely related to the "great leap forward" in economic development and to the regimented commune system. From a military standpoint, the massive training program has been described officially as creating a "human sea" or "steel wall." It also seeks to provide a highly dispersed defense against nuclear attack. The precipitate drive to create a "universal" militia demonstrates the supreme confidence and revolutionary zeal of the Communists. But it may be that they are also taking grave risks in creating localized, disciplined organizations and in training so many to use weapons of war.

The Chinese Communist Party is a militant organization, which has been at war during most of its existence. It came to power primarily by military operations, and even its peacetime projects are often described in military terms. The majority of its Politburo and Central Committee members have served as military commanders or commissars. The Party chieftain, Mao Tsetung, a recognized authority on mobile and guerrilla warfare, has written extensively on these subjects; the importance of a people's militia to a revolutionary movement runs like a thread through his writings. He has confidence in his ability to utilize armed citizens safely to further Party objectives.

After breaking with the Kuomintang, or Nationalist, Party in 1927, the Communists organized peasant militia bands; and during the war against Japan they exploited nationalism, patriotism and reform programs to expand greatly the rural militia. These part-time soldiers served as replacements for the Red Army and fought sporadically as guerrillas. By 1945 the Party claimed to have over 2,200,000 militiamen, and during the rebellion against the Nationalist Government (1945-50) it was officially estimated that the number reached 5,500,000. Victory on the mainland did not bring demobilization. In 1955 compulsory military service was proclaimed, but the militia was not abolished. The law stated that the militia would continue to preserve order and protect production. From mid-1955 to the summer of 1958, however, little was said in the China mainland press about the militia. Evidently it was playing a less important role than it had during the earlier phases of the Chinese Communist movement.


The year 1958 was one of unprecedented campaigns and conflict, both internal and external. It was the year of the "great leap forward" in economic development, of the formation of the communes, and of the Quemoy Islands crisis. It also saw the beginnings of the drive to modify and vastly increase the militia, under the slogan "Everyone a Soldier." The sacrifices demanded of the Chinese people and the regimentation forced upon them by the interlocking mass campaigns of 1958 have never been equalled even in the Soviet Union. The basic objectives, or compulsions, were to consolidate still further the totalitarian controls of the Communist Party over every aspect of Chinese life; to make China a great industrial and military power at a superhuman rate of speed; and to hasten the transition from "socialism" to a Chinese version of "communism."

The "great leap forward" in production began early in 1958, shortly before the first experimental merger of agricultural producers' coöperatives into much larger communes. Then, during the autumn, the masses of the rural populace were organized by persuasion and coercion into more than 26,400 communes; and in some areas communization of the cities also was begun. The communes were to be political, economic, social and military units; government and management were to be integrated; there was to be unified control over local agriculture, industry, commerce, education and defense. Naturally, leadership was to be provided by the Party, which thus would gain enormously in power and in means of control over the people. In December, the Central Committee temporarily modified some of the most extreme features of the communes and took one step backward on urban regimentation; it also amended the implication that the communes would provide a rapid road to Communism. The insinuation that Red China would achieve the "ultimate goal" of Communism ahead of the U.S.S.R. had not been appreciated in Moscow. Even so, if Communist China achieves its final goal in the form of communes, this Orwellian system will have little in common with Marx's vision of a withering away of the state.

On August 23, 1958, a heavy Communist bombardment of Quemoy opened the Taiwan Straits crisis. It was in the midst of these military operations and while the great drive to establish the communes was in full course that the related campaign to make "Everyone a Soldier" was begun. The Communists claimed that the Chinese masses, "aroused by U.S. provocations," demanded arms to defend the homeland. The already extensive militia system was rapidly multiplied, both in the countryside and in the urban areas.

Originally it was asserted that the enlistments were voluntary. For example, it was alleged that in the sophisticated old city of Peking 2,200,000 people "volunteered." At Chungshan University in Canton, all of the faculty and students joined the militia, "with the exception of the weak and aged professors." Although we may doubt the voluntary nature of the drive we must not underestimate the ability of the Communists to organize and control the people. They demonstrated this by the tremendous speed and size of the operation, and by carrying it through without creating effective opposition.

If fully implemented, the militia plan theoretically could provide Communist China with about 120,000,000 young men and women who had had some basic military training, plus over 180,000,000 more with at least a conception of military organization and discipline. Based on statistics from part of the provinces, one author has estimated that by the end of 1958 there already were more than 200,000,000 on the militia rolls.[i] The official statement was that there were over 30,000,000 trained militiamen, but it was admitted that only about 4,000,000 of these had had marksmanship practice with live ammunition.[ii] The great majority of the militiamen had figuratively "held a hoe in one hand and a rifle in the other," with the emphasis on the hoe.

Responsibility and credit for the campaign to make "Everyone a Soldier" lie with Mao Tse-tung. The Communist press repeatedly has stated that it is an expression of his great strategic thinking and of his views on people's war. Sometimes an attempt is made to establish the orthodoxy of the concept by saying that it represents a combination of the "universal truths" of Marxism-Leninism with the special problems of the Chinese revolution.

In its basic objectives the campaign seems to be more political and economic than military. The aim is to utilize military organization and discipline more effectively to control and mobilize the masses for production. The official line is that the establishment of a "universal" militia will promote production in all fields, simplify the mobilization and transfer of large numbers of laborers, provide for more effective indoctrination and education, and establish an inexhaustible supply of military reserves. Mao Tsetung has stated: "The establishment of militia divisions on a large scale is not purely a question of mobilization of manpower, collective action and fulfillment of production tasks. It is a question of having the masses militarize and collectivize their life."[iii] Mao is also frequently quoted as saying that the militia is a military organization, a labor organization, an educational organization and a physical training organization. The fact is that the Communists are developing agricultural and industrial armies, based on the totalitarian principle of "democratic centralism."

As always, "politics is in command." The method used is the Communist technique of interlocking controls. The Party committees and secretaries at all levels are involved; so are the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff and the military district and sub-district offices in each province. The Young Communist League, the Physical Culture and Sports Commission and other mass organizations coöperate. Theoretically, at least, the people's councils at each level play a role. Much of the training is provided by the highly indoctrinated regular army. These methods are designed to safeguard the principle propounded by Mao Tse-tung and others that the Party should control the guns and never permit the guns to control the Party.

The militia is divided into two principal types, the "basic" and the "ordinary." The first is composed of young activists, selected mainly from males between 16 and 30 or 32 years of age but apparently also including a number of young women from 17 to 22 years of age. These basic militiamen, who are supposed to receive military training on a regular schedule, will be called up to reinforce the standing forces in case of war. Furthermore, as activists they assist the security authorities, help to crush opposition and urge the other workers to meet advancing production norms. The ordinary militia is essentially an enormous labor corps consisting of all that great mass of citizens, male and female between 16 and 50 years of age, who are not basic militiamen. Excluded are counter-revolutionaries, former landlords and rich peasants, criminals, rightists and the disabled. This could be an extremely large group. The ordinary militiamen receive military training during the very limited "free time" when they are not involved in production.

The only aspect of the militia organization that is standardized is the terminology. The militia is organized into divisions, regiments, battalions, companies, platoons and squads, but the size of a unit depends on the size of the production organ with which it is associated. Normally the basic and ordinary militiamen seem to be organized into mixed units. There is a basic squad in each platoon, a basic platoon in each company, etc., and the commanders of the basic units are concurrently commanders of the next higher mixed organization. In the countryside the militia is based on the communes, while in urban areas units are formed by government organs, factories and schools, or by the now rapidly multiplying urban communes.

Since the militia is an "organization of the masses," rather than a professional army, the use of military ranks, uniforms and salutes is frowned upon.[iv] Although the appropriate leaders are sometimes called division, regimental or battalion commanders, militia "officers" are usually referred to as "cadres." Those chosen to be cadres are former regular army personnel or civilian activists, many of them Party members. Commissars are also attached to the militia units to further insure political control.

The mere fact that a totalitarian régime can enroll tens of millions of people in a military organization in a very short period does not mean that it has achieved its full objectives. The hastily enlarged militia suffered from a "degree of formalism"--a Marxian euphemism for a paper organization--and many of the units were not "pure" enough, meaning that in their enthusiasm local Party committees had conscripted some undesirable elements. The peasants in the communes were being driven so hard, what with labor, military drills and indoctrination meetings, that in December 1958 the Central Committee of the Party felt it must order that members of the communes be permitted eight hours sleep and four hours for meals and recreation. But a national militia conference, held in January 1960, decided "unequivocally" to further intensify militia work. In April, an array of top Party leaders participated in a conference of militia representatives to give prestige and emphasis to the militia campaign. Despite opposition, even within the Party, there was to be no turning back.

Reports of the conferences and stories in the press reveal that the first concern regarding the militia is still to assure complete Party control. Militia work has been placed on the agenda of Party committees. Stress is laid on the necessity to increase the political education and "revolutionary enthusiasm" of the militiamen. The principal target for propaganda is the basic militiaman. As for the ordinary militiaman, his political education can be combined with social education. Special emphasis is placed on training cadres, for they are the activists in production and the officers in time of war.

It is a question whether or not the Chinese Communists are actually arming the masses. Sometimes, speaking figuratively or for propaganda effect, official sources do proclaim that the "people" are being armed. However, the first indications are that only a minority of the militiamen are actually armed or even engage in firing practice. Most if not all of these are basic militiamen selected for their reliability. The actual situation is typified by the statement of a senior Party leader, who in a single address first bragged that only a country in which the people are the masters dares to give arms to the masses, and then called for a reorganization of the militia to assure that weapons are issued to those who are politically reliable.[v]


The official press leaves no doubt that, except in case of war, the economic roles of the militia take precedence over military ones. Labor and military training are coordinated, with priority given to labor. Military instruction is not to be given at the expense of production, nor should military organization upset organization for production. Furthermore, training should be coordinated with the work load, emphasis being placed on training during slack periods.

Nevertheless, the universal militia has important military aspects and it has close relationships with the regular armed forces, the so-called "Peoples Liberation Army" (P.L.A.). In most of the coastal areas the two have joint defense commands. Although the P.L.A. has its own training schedule and devotes a tremendous amount of time to civilian construction projects, it is said to have given "enthusiastic" assistance to the expanding militia, both in training and in providing training equipment. Today the basic militia serves as a reserve for the regular forces and in the future it will also become a basis for the national conscription and retirement programs; conscripts will be drawn from the militia and discharged servicemen will rejoin militia units as "backbone elements." Each year a campaign will be carried out to select militiamen for the regular forces, which will mean that army recruits will already have had some basic military training. In addition, the militia might relieve the P.L.A. of some of the civilian production tasks that have irked the professional soldier.

The militia campaign is linked to the modernization of the P.L.A. Also, the great increase in the size of the militia will help to solve the contradiction between a "small" peacetime army and the large forces needed in time of war; for the Chinese Communists obviously do not look on the more than 2,500,000 men of the P.L.A. as a large peacetime force. Nevertheless, a decrease in the regular army has occurred since the victory on the Mainland, and one official source declares that the reduction of the army and the expansion of the militia will enable the government to divert part of the military budget to economic construction programs.[vi] The militia provides both a large reserve and an inexpensive one; no mention has been found of any pay for its members beyond the limited rations and trivial pay that they receive for working in the fields or factories.

Militia organizations are not limited to infantry units, however, and they will become more expensive as technical troops are formed. Directives have been issued to form units of artillery, anti-aircraft, reconnaissance, signal corps, engineer, chemical warfare and civil defense. The purpose is, of course, not solely to provide reserves capable of employing modern conventional weapons but also to train skilled technicians for industry and agriculture.

So far, the training given to militia units--even to the basic militiamen--appears to be largely rudimentary, with only a small amount of specialized instruction. Though a number of part-time training schools have been established, militiamen must have little time for attendance. What arms and equipment are issued must constitute a logistical nightmare, for while the plan is to produce necessary arms in local arsenals, actually many weapons have been inherited from "revolutionary predecessors." In addition, the P.L.A. has provided a considerable amount of equipment for training purposes, and it is claimed that a number of organizations use not only rifles, but also automatic weapons and even artillery pieces.

After more than a year's experience, the Communist press has provided numerous statistics to demonstrate the advantages of using military organization and discipline to mobilize the people for production. Like the statistics regarding the "great leap forward" in production, the reports are obviously grossly exaggerated. They would be more credible if they did not include statements such as the one that a militia company commander developed a wiring machine that increased work efficiency by 50 times and solved the basic problems of machine building. It is more plausible that, among other Herculean tasks, some 71,000 militiamen in Shansi during 17 days of "bitter fighting" collected 1,900,000 piculs of manure.[vii] One of their functions is to carry out organized hunts against wild animals and birds that might endanger human beings or livestock. It is claimed that in the first half of 1959, they killed almost 7,500,000 birds and beasts of prey.[viii] The tremendous numbers of militiamen who are mobilized to work on varied public projects in industry and agriculture are indeed impressive. But one is reminded of the Chinese maxim that "Good iron is not beaten into nails; good men are not made into soldiers." In 1958 it was almost literally true that the good men of China were all soldiers making poor iron for the "great leap forward."

In purely military fields, the militia is given credit for assisting the P.L.A. in operations against Nationalist Chinese forces on the Fukien Coast and the "Yunnan frontier." They also guard factories, installations and lines of communication. Finally, at least the basic units are gradually improving their capabilities as a reserve for the regular forces. The progress is uneven but it goes on even though Communist China does not need such a large force to fight a conventional war beyond her frontiers.

To offset the Communists' distortion and exaggeration of their achievements, their concept of self-criticism provides us with valuable information regarding some of the weaknesses of their program. According to scattered official sources, the reorganization of the militia in 1959 failed to eradicate many of the faults. Thus at least part of the units are still "rather loosely organized," while others do not carry out all their tasks. The training of technical troops must be improved, as must the political screening of militiamen and their morale and indoctrination; for instance, some of the militiamen "harbor the misgiving" that following their military training they might have to go to war. As usual, the cadres are scapegoats even when the trouble lies in the Party line. It is pointed out that part of the cadres are not qualified; they are too old, or are not interested in military matters, or believe that the militia is too large. Some are despotic, while others refuse to take a firm stand. It is claimed, however, that the false belief that militia work does not have a future has been eliminated. Despite all the indoctrination and the frantic pressures put on them, some of the cadres still appear to be human; for they display conceit by comparing ranks and seniority, utilize personal relationships and even complain to the local Party committee about living conditions.

Members of the militia are not the only ones to make complaints. Even Party committees have been worried that the great militia build-up would be detrimental to production, and some popular criticisms are admitted. The harshest official attacks are aimed at rightist deviationists--including Party members and military cadres--who fail to support the campaign to make "Everyone a Soldier" and indeed oppose all mass movements. The nationwide "struggle" against rightist tendencies indicates that they must extend high up into the Party as well as down into the masses.


The first phase of the campaign to militarize the Chinese in a universal militia coincided with the Quemoy crisis. The second began in the period of the Camp David spirit and of the preparations for the summit conference. In this period the Chinese Communists adopted a militant attitude, paying only lip service to the concept of peaceful coexistence and maintaining that the threat of war still existed. Their accusations against Americans became vitriolic. The United States is now accused of leading a "camp of imperialist aggressors" and of being the "most brutal enemy" of the peoples of the world. In particular it is charged with being extremely hostile to China and with making secret preparations for war against her under a cloak of peace.

One answer to the question why Communist China wants such an immense militia is that it is to be part of a defense against atomic attack and invasion. The Chinese Communists claim that "the East Wind prevails over the West Wind"--meaning that the world balance of power has shifted in favor of the Sino-Soviet bloc. But though declaring that they are going to have nuclear weapons, they have given no public indications that they have them yet--or long-range missiles either; and there is an interesting absence of references to any expectation of receiving such weapons from the Soviets. They may well believe, of course, that if they start a war the Soviet Union would be forced to assist them with nuclear armed forces or to supply atomic weapons to the P.L.A. But unless and until they either develop or are provided with atomic arms, they must depend on other means to deter a nuclear attack.

The Chinese Communist leaders no longer pooh-pooh the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons, but they obviously still downgrade their effects, including fallout. They profess not to fear a war, and they still do not admit that an atomic war could destroy the Communist as well as the capitalist states. The basis for their confidence is this: "A sea formed by several hundred million militiamen is something which no modern weapon can destroy. This is the principal guarantee of our invincibility."[ix] And the Minister of National Defense, Marshal Lin Piao, has stated: "The imperialists are now doing their utmost to prepare for large-scale guided missile and nuclear warfare. To deal with such a war, the most important thing for us to do is to mobilize and rely on the people to carry out a people's war. We are Marxist-Leninists, we fully realize men are the decisive factor in war; we also recognize the important role modern technology plays in war. We must therefore lose no time in vigorously improving the technical equipment of our forces and in strengthening the modernization of our forces."[x]

The Party claims that the combination of regular forces and a massive militia would provide a "defense of steel," draw the "enemy into the inferno of an all-people's war" and drown him in a "great human sea." This represents a victory for Mao Tsetung's concept of a people's war, a concept based on years of struggle against the Nationalist Government and the Japanese. He maintains his belief in the continuing supremacy of men over weapons, even in the atomic age and against the views of some of the professional officers of the P.L.A.[xi]

In a similar way, at least one of the objectives in establishing the partially self-sufficient and highly dispersed communes was probably to provide a defense against atomic attack. As stated by the Minister of National Defense, the communes, combining political, economic, educational and military affairs, "are a powerful reserve to realize in a most effective way the plan of making everyone a soldier, to support the front line, protect the motherland, and lead the enemy to fatal disaster. . ."[xii]

The Chinese Communist leaders may actually believe that the semi-autarchic communes and new industrial centers widely dispersed over vast distances, plus strong conventional forces and a universal militia, would permit the régime to survive a nuclear war. Events of the last decade demonstrate that the possible death of many millions of Chinese would not deter them from engaging in such a war. Actually, the evidence indicates that they are preparing to fight a broken-back war--the type of warfare that some military specialists believe is apt to follow an initial nuclear attack.

Apparently believing that the régime could be destroyed only if China were occupied by enemy forces, they plan to prevent this by a protracted mobile and guerrilla-type war--the kind of conflict that 25 years of experience would recommend to the older Party leaders. Judging from the warfare against Japan and the Nationalist Government, the Chinese Communists could be expected to utilize vast space and manpower, dispersal, tight discipline and centralized control, combined with widely delegated responsibility. As in the war against Japan, they would certainly exploit nationalism and patriotism. They would employ the basic militia as guerrillas and in a final crisis they would probably arm the more reliable members of the ordinary militia with whatever arms were available, relying on patriotism to create support for the régime.

These military concepts may no longer be rational, but the Party leaders may well have faith in them still. Throughout modern history many intelligent military leaders and statesmen have clung to strategies and weapons systems that have proven to be outmoded. The better-informed Soviet leaders do not draw the same conclusions regarding the effects of a thermonuclear war as do their Chinese allies. Judging from their statements, the latter have much less fear of a major war--even of World War III.

Today the conventional forces of the P.L.A., supported by the militia reserves, are a threat mainly to China's non-Communist neighbors. Should the leaders of Red China obtain nuclear arms, it is of course possible that they might come to accept the view that no one can win an atomic war. It seems more likely that nuclear weapons would merely add the consciousness of possessing fantastically multiplied offensive striking power to their conviction that they, and perhaps they alone, could survive an atomic war. In that case, Communist China would truly become a menace to the whole world, her Soviet allies not excluded.

[i] Cheng Chu-yuan, "The People's Communes." Hong Kong: Union Press, 1959, p. 90-91.

[ii] New China News Agency (N.C.N.A.), Peking, Dec. 31, 1958, in "Survey of the China Mainland Press," Jan. 15, 1959, p. 8. The present article is based primarily on the "Survey of the China Mainland Press" (S.C.M.P.) and the "Current Background" (C.B.) series, both produced by the American Consulate General, Hong Kong.

[iii] Kiangsi Jih-pao, Dec. 13, 1959, quoted in S.C.M.P., Feb. 15, 1960, p. 39.

[iv] China News Analysis, "The Militia," Sept. 4, 1959, p. 6. This is a valuable, documented article concerning the role of the militia in the Chinese Communist movement.

[v] Huang Huo-ch'ing, Liaoning Jih-pao, Feb. 27, 1960, quoted in S.C.M.P., April 12, 1960, p. 13, 15.

[vi] Kiangsi Jih-pao, Dec. 13, 1959, reported in S.C.M.P., Feb. 15, 1960, p. 39.

[vii] Szechwan Jih-pao, Jan. 22, 1960, quoted in S.C.M.P., March 29, 1960, p. 38, and Shansi Jih-pao, Feb. 16, 1960, quoted in S.C.M.P., April 6, 1960, p. 23.

[viii] N.C.N.A., Peking, Feb. 8, 1960, S.C.M.P., Feb. 12, 1960, p. 4.

[ix] Huang Huo-ch'ing, Liaoning Jih-pao, Feb. 27, 1960, quoted in S.C.M.P., April 12, 1960, p. 13. See also Jen-min Jih-pao, edit., April 19, 1960, quoted in S.C.M.P., April 29, 1960, p. 5.

[x] N.C.N.A., Peking, April 27, 1960, quoted in S.C.M.P., May 6, 1960, p. 17.

[xi] Lin Piao, N.C.N.A., Peking, Sept. 29, 1959, quoted in C.B., Oct. 7, 1959, p. 8; Hsieh, Alice Langley, "Communist China and Nuclear Warfare," The China Quarterly, No. 2, April-June, 1960, p. 8, 11-12, 14.

[xii] N.C.N.A., Peking, Sept. 29, 1959, C.B., Oct. 7, 1959, p. 7.

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  • RALPH L. POWELL, Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington; Professor at the National War College, 1958-60; Counselor of Embassy, Taiwan, 1956-58; author, "The Rise of Chinese Military Power, 1895-1912"
  • More By Ralph L. Powell