Chinese Strategic Thinking: People’s War in the 21st Century

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 6

Chinese Paramilitary Police

People’s war is not a static or dead theory. As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernizes through the processes of mechanization and informationization, "China is striving to make innovations in the content and forms of people’s war" (2008 China’s Defense White Paper). Contrary to the perception that people’s war relies "on ‘rifles and millet’ and overwhelming numbers (e.g. human wave attacks) with an emphasis on guerrilla warfare and protracted conflict," according to The Science of Military Strategy people’s war "is a form of organization of war, and its role has nothing to do with the level of military technology" [1]. In part to compensate for its technological shortfalls, mobilization of the Chinese population is key to supporting the country’s war effort "by political, economic, technical, cultural and moral means" (The Science of Military Strategy, p. 455).

The recently concluded annual meeting for the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC)—China’s legislature—signed the National Defense Mobilization Law, which provides a legal basis for integration of civilian resources into military operations when "the sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity or security of the nation are threatened." The law "sets out principles and organizational mechanisms for national defense mobilization, personnel and strategic material storage" and will go into effect July 1 (Xinhua News Agency, February 26). Its text is widely available, in Chinese, on the internet (, February 26).

The passage of the mobilization law underscores the continued relevance of people’s war in Chinese strategic thinking. In order to understand how the Chinese armed forces will fight Local Wars under Informationized Conditions, people’s war in its modern permutation must be considered.

People’s War

From 1998 on, every White Paper on China’s National Defense has declared that the PLA adheres to the "strategic concept" of people’s war as part of China’s "military strategy" of active defense [2]. Even after an updated war fighting doctrine was issued in 1999, people’s war has remained a basic tenet of Chinese military thought. The concept is prominent in authoritative works like The Science of Campaigns and The Science of Military Strategy where people’s war is described as "a fundamental strategy … still a way to win modern war" (The Science of Military Strategy, p. 117).

At its essence, people’s war is a strategy to maximize China’s strengths (its size and people) to defend the mainland from attack by either foreign or domestic enemies. For many decades, China’s military strategy concentrated on continental defense. By the mid-1980s, the PLA began to push its defensive envelope farther out and adopted an "offshore defense strategy." Though no specific distances were defined in official documents, "offshore defense" often overlapped with discussions of protecting China’s EEZ out to 200 nautical miles (Office of Naval Intelligence, “China’s Navy 2007,” p. 26). In a noteworthy revelation, the 2006 White Paper stated: "The Navy is … exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions."

Just weeks after a series of incidents at sea between Chinese military and civilian vessels and the USNS Impeccable and Victorious in the spring of 2009, which arguably is an example of "maritime people’s war," the official-Xinhua News Agency reported, "China will not build an offensive navy cruising the globe, but concentrate on its offshore area. Even if in [the] future the navy is modernized, the defensive nature of the naval strategy will not change." Geographic limits were set by traditional claims of Chinese sovereignty:

"In order to defend China’s territory and sovereignty, and secure its maritime rights and interests, the navy decided to set its defense range as the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. This range covered the maritime territory that should be governed by China, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as the islands in the South China Sea, which have been its territory since ancient times" (Xinhua News Agency, April 23, 2009).

Strategically Defensive, But the Offense is Decisive

Though people’s war starts from a strategically defensive posture, like Clausewitz and American and Russian/Soviet strategists, Chinese military planners understand the decisive nature of the offense. Chinese doctrine seeks to gain the initiative and take the offensive after the enemy strikes the first blow; however, it also allows for preemptive action at the tactical and operational levels: "if any country or organization violates the other country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to ‘fire the first shot’ on the plane of tactics" (The Science of Military Strategy, p. 426). After conflict has been initiated, Chinese forces will seek to shift to the offensive whenever possible.

The Science of Military Strategy outlines 10 principles of people’s war, describing a framework that seeks to integrate all types of forces (military, paramilitary, and civilian) in flexible, aggressive operations appropriate to the situation. While the PLA strives for early victory, it also acknowledges "a large-scale war cannot be won by a single decisive battle" and urges caution before initiating conflict (The Science of Military Strategy, p. 294). In combat, "five combinations" of regular and irregular forces will mix:

1.    Regular troops with the masses
2.    Regular warfare with guerrilla warfare on the sea
3.    "Trump weapons" with flexible strategy and tactics
4.    High-tech weapons with common weapons
5.    Military warfare with political and economic warfare (The Science of Military Strategy, pp. 456-57)

Fighting methods emphasize close quarters engagement, night fighting, and surprise attacks [3]. The reference to "guerrilla warfare on the sea" foreshadowed the tactics demonstrated in the spring of 2009, but as can be seen from all "five combinations," people’s war is not just guerrilla war.

Today, people’s war principles are seen in many training events practiced by the Chinese armed forces and civilian populace, especially in anti-terrorist, nuclear and chemical defense, and air raid drills. People’s war is also revealed in the extensive "socialization" or "outsourcing" of many logistics functions to the civilian sector (See "Chinese Military Logistics: The GLD System," China Brief, September 29, 2004). Civilian support is especially necessary for air and sea transport of personnel and equipment over long distances.

People’s War and Force Structure

Most recent foreign analysis of PLA modernization focuses on important improvements in main force units equipped with advanced missiles and electronics, ships and submarines, and modern aircraft and force projection capabilities. Little has been written about the 200,000 or more total personnel assigned to PLA ground force coastal and border defense units [4]. The PLA Navy (PLAN) commands six shore-to-ship missile and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) regiments and independent battalions in its coastal defense force (Office of Naval Intelligence, “China’s Navy 2007,”p.52). The Navy also maintains some 253 patrol and coastal combatants (including over 80 surface-to-surface missile boats) in five division-level units [5]. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has three surface-to-air missile (SAM) divisions, one mixed (SAM and AAA) air defense division, and nine SAM and two AAA brigades [6]. Of its total of over 1,600 combat capable aircraft, over 800 are J-7- and J-8-series fighters dedicated to local air defense [7]. A full one-third of the PLA reserve force’s roughly 40 divisions and 25 brigades is dedicated to local air defense [8]. Approximately another 100,000 People’s Armed Police (PAP) troops are assigned land and sea frontier defense missions throughout China [9].

Since 1998, PLA reserve units and the militia have been reorganized and modernized in parallel to the active duty PLA. Much of their work focuses on providing rear area security, especially air defense, for PLA active duty units as well as the civilian population; logistics support; and repair of infrastructure damaged from long-range strikes on China. Some militia units likely will be included in China’s prosecution of information war (IW).

The aforementioned forces make up a significant portion of the Chinese armed forces. Yet they will be integrated into PLA war plans for mainland and coastal defense, and the majority of them do not add to the PLA’s power projection capabilities, except as they protect the rear areas of main force deployments and, for a small fraction, in the conduct of information operations.

People’s War and Information War

Chinese strategists see information operations as a particularly useful vehicle to employ their traditional war fighting methods of stratagem, surprise and deception. A common conceit is that "The idea of winning victory by stratagem has always been the main idea of traditional Chinese strategic thinking …. U.S. strategic thinking has not shaken off its traditional model of attaching importance to strength and technology" [10].

Shen Weiguang, sometimes referred to as the "Chinese father" of information warfare, calls IW "a people’s war in the true sense of the term" [11]. Major General Dai Qingmin, a former director of the General Staff Department’s Fourth Department (for electronic warfare), notes attaining information superiority is crucial to the use of stratagem and deception in people’s war [12].

While some elements of information operations are considered "trump card" weapons (as are many other weapons and tactics), The Science of Campaigns recognizes "information warfare is a means, not a goal" [13]. Thus, the PLA aims to integrate information operations with firepower, maneuver and special operations as it conducts campaigns.

Active duty PLA forces have a variety of electronic warfare and intelligence units that are capable of both offensive and defensive information operations, including cyber operations. In recent years, training in complex electromagnetic environments has been a key task for all PLA units. Exercises frequently begin with enemy electronic jamming and cyber attacks on friendly units. Over the past decade, militia information warfare units, including both offensive and defensive electronic and cyber capabilities, have been created [14].

Yet, due to the difficulty in controlling non-military hackers and the potential for their actions to interfere with China’s strategy and political signaling, it is unlikely that the Chinese government would employ an army of civilians in a "people’s cyberwar." As a recent U.S. study concludes, "Western media reports that claim that the PRC government has recruited an ‘internet army’ from among the millions of Chinese hackers, are spurious at best" [15]. PLA and militia information warfare units, on the other hand, can expect to be very busy in future campaigns.


The principles of people’s war remain an important foundation of China’s military thinking about both peace and war. People’s war is also an important element of China’s multi-layered, integrated deterrence posture. As described in The Science of Military Strategy:

"China currently has a limited but effective nuclear deterrence and a relatively powerful capability of conventional deterrence and a massive capacity of deterrence of people’s war. By combining these means of deterrence, an integrated strategic deterrence is formed, with comprehensive national power as the basis, conventional force as the mainstay, nuclear force as the backup power and reserve force as the support" (The Science of Military Strategy, p. 222).

As an element of deterrence, people’s war is also a means for Beijing to "subdue the enemy without fighting" and attain strategic objectives: "Warfighting is generally used only when deterrence fails and there is no alternative …. Strategic deterrence is also a means for attaining the political objective" (The Science of Military Strategy, p. 224). Yet, as demonstrated off the Chinese coast in 2009, people’s war tactics may not always lead to success.

One hypothesis that could be drawn from those maritime incidents is that for people’s war to be successful, it must be conducted on a large scale for it to adequately incorporate the advantages of China’s size. A multitude of military and civilian forces allows China to "flood the zone" with activity, confusing and complicating opponents’ intelligence collection and targeting capacity. Massive deployments may also divert attention from the main effort, perhaps permitting certain movements to occur undetected. Could the harassment of the USNS Impeccable and USNS Victorious been conceived to mask other activity happening at the same time? Indeed, these events took place as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s South Sea Fleet was conducting exercises involving destroyers, submarines, and helicopters in the South China Sea (exact location not specified) (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 9, 2009).

By its nature, people’s war has a greater chance for success on or near the Chinese mainland. It becomes much less effective the further PLA forces operate from mainland. A few new weapons hold promise to extend the PLA’s operating and striking range, but the longest reach currently available to the Chinese armed forces is its information and cyber war potential. These newest capabilities still need to be exercised and tested in peacetime to work out kinks as well as determine how they would be best integrated with other forces and combat methods.

The emphasis of people’s war on some types of mobilization, such as economic and technological mobilization may not be as viable as political mobilization except in extended war scenarios. An undue reliance on the "latent capacities" of the Chinese industry likely overestimates the ability of civilian support to provide the specialized equipment necessary for modern military operations in anything but a very long war. Political mobilization and internal and external propaganda efforts to prove the "just" and defensive nature of any military activity, the Chinese armed forces are certain to be conducted.

Skeptics of the continuing relevance of people’s war to PLA doctrine may argue it is a pathetic example of political correctness run amok—simply making a virtue out of necessity. They may be correct to a degree. Yet such commentary misses the fundamental precept that the Chinese armed forces pledge their absolute loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. The political system within the forces is tasked to ensure that its allegiance to the Party is secure. As long as "the Party controls the gun," people’s war will remain the basis of Chinese strategic thinking.


1. The Science of Military Strategy, eds. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, Beijing, Military Science Publishing House, 2001 (Chinese edition), 2005 (English edition), page 454. All quotes from The Science of Military Strategy are from the English edition; Dean Cheng, “Meeting Taiwan’s Self-Defense Needs,” Heritage Backgrounder, February 26, 2010.
2. Links to all Defense White Papers are found at
3. The Science of Campaigns, cited in Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, Routledge, 2006, p. 101. The Science of Military Strategy, p. 433 also emphasizes defeating the enemy at close range. With advances in night vision technologies, the PLA may have lost much of its night fighting advantage demonstrated in the Korean War. PLA training and equipment acquisition seeks to restore the force’s capabilities at night.
4. Dennis J. Blasko, “PLA Ground Force Modernization and Mission Diversification: Underway in All Military Regions,” in Right Sizing The People’s Liberation Army: Exploring The Contours Of China’s Military, eds. Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2007, p. 309-10.
5. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2010, London, February 2010, p. 401; Directory of PRC Military Personalities, October 2009, pp. 41-55.
6. Directory of PRC Military Personalities, October 2009, pp. 61-75.
7. The Military Balance 2010, p. 404.
8.  “PLA Ground Force Modernization and Mission Diversification: Underway in All Military Regions,” pp. 313-4.
9.  “Introduction to Gong’an Frontier Defense Units,” Ministry of Public Security website, July 18, 2006, at The rest of the People’s Armed Police force concentrates on domestic internal security, law enforcement, and safety during peacetime, and could be used to augment local PLA self-defense forces during war.
10. The Science of Military Strategy, p. 135-6. This passage, written in Chinese in 2001, underestimates or overlooks many important examples of stratagem and deception executed by the Allies during World War II, especially prior to the Normandy invasion. Moreover, at the time of writing, the Chinese authors could not foresee the successful deception operations performed by American and coalition forces in future combat in Iraq. An inspiring example of Special Operations Forces working with an armored company to create the impression of a much larger force entering western Iraq in March 2003 is described in Michael R. Gordon and Bernard Trainor, Cobra II, Pantheon Books, 2006, pp. 331-37 and in Pete Blaber, The Mission, the Men, and Me, Penguin, 2008.
11. Timothy L. Thomas, Decoding the Virtual Dragon, Foreign Military Studies Office, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, 2007, pp. 78 and 158.
12. Ibid., pp. 111-2.
13. The Science of Campaigns, cited in The Chinese Army Today, p. 106-7.
14. Bryan Krekel, George Bakos, and Christopher Barnett, “Capability of the People’s Republic of China to
Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation,” Northrop Grumman Corporation, October 9, 2009, pp. 33-7.
15. Ibid. p. 50. See also James Mulvenon, “PLA Computer network Operations: Scenarios, Doctrine, Organizations, and Capability,” in Beyond the Strait: PLA Missions Other Than Taiwan, eds. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, April 2009, p. 256.