China's Battle for Korea: The 1951 Spring Offensive

China's Battle for Korea: The 1951 Spring Offensive

by Xiaobing Li

View All Available Formats & Editions

Between November 1950 and the end of fighting in June 1953, China launched six major offensives against UN forces in Korea. The most important of these began on April 22, 1951, and was the largest Communist military operation of the war. The UN forces put up a strong defense, prevented the capture of the South Korean capital of Seoul, and finally pushed the Chinese


Between November 1950 and the end of fighting in June 1953, China launched six major offensives against UN forces in Korea. The most important of these began on April 22, 1951, and was the largest Communist military operation of the war. The UN forces put up a strong defense, prevented the capture of the South Korean capital of Seoul, and finally pushed the Chinese back above the 38th parallel. After China’s defeat in this epic five-week battle, Mao Zedong and the Chinese leadership became willing to conclude the war short of total victory. China's Battle for Korea offers new perspectives on Chinese decision making, planning, and execution; the roles of command, political control, and technology; and the interaction between Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow, while providing valuable insight into Chinese military doctrine and the reasons for the UN’s military success.

Editorial Reviews

S. P. MacKenzie

"One of the limitations of much that has been written about the Korean War in English has been a serious lack of analysis of Chinese sources. As in his previous works, Xiaobing Li shows that even in a one-party state like the PRC there is much useful material available to be interpreted by those with the requisite diligence and linguistic capability. In analyzing the 1951 spring offensive in as much depth as the sources allow from the Chinese rather than the American perspective he is making a major and very necessary contribution to the history of the Korean War." —S. P. MacKenzie, author of The Imjin and Kapyong Battles, Korea, 1951 (IUP, 2013)

From the Publisher
"A leader of the community of expatriate Chinese scholars, editor, compiler, and translator of note, Li Xiaobing has now produced the 'big book' all of us with Korean War interests expected.... China’s Battle for Korea is a major contribution to Korean War historiography and, one hopes, a promise of more books on the CPVF in English to come." —Journal of Chinese Military History

"The author has written widely on the Korean War, and his expertise shows in this detailed study of the Chinese military. Little has been published in English about the Chinese point of view and their decision-making processes; this book goes a long way toward redressing that imbalance. The author uses Chinese archival material extensively, as well as American and other accounts, to present a balanced presentation of the Korean War." —Military Heritage

"[T]his book is a compelling read that will appeal to both the generalist and the specialist." —American Historical Review

"Xiaobing Li has made a major contribution to English-language scholarship on the Korean War. The source material and other evidence assembled here will greatly benefit students and researchers.... China's Battle for Korea should be the starting point for anyone interested in the Chinese side of the Korean conflict." —Michigan War Studies Review

"China’s Battle for Korea provides a detailed and thorough analysis of the CPVF’s fifth campaign, the reasons for its failure, and the consequences for the Korean War and the Chinese military. It joins Harold Tanner’s The Battle for Manchuria and the Fate of China... as two recent additions on Chinese military history from the University of Indiana Press’s Twentieth-Century Battles series. This is an encouraging trend as works such as Xiaobing Li’s have much to tell us about the Chinese side of the Korean War." —Pacific Affairs

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Twentieth-Century Battles Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

China's Battle for Korea

The 1951 Spring Offensive

By Xiaobing Li

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Xiaobing Li
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01163-3


Beijing's Decision

MAO ZEDONG'S DECISION TO SEND CHINESE TROOPS INTO THE Korean War has been widely debated. Most Chinese military historians argue that Mao made a rational, correct, and necessary decision. China's intervention secured its northeastern borders, strengthened Sino-Soviet relations, and saved the North Korean regime. China acted as a major military power for the first time since the First Opium War in 1839–42, against Great Britain. However, some historians in China, and many more in America, challenge this view and condemn Mao for gross misjudgments and an "idiosyncratic audacity" that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers. Still others take a middle position and argue that Mao had few political alternatives in his effort to achieve full acceptance in the Communist world and to assume leadership of Asian Communist movements in the early 1950s. These scholarly efforts have laid a solid groundwork for a better understanding of the Chinese decision, yet the debate continues.

The examination of Beijing's decision to enter the Korean War reveals a new Chinese strategic culture that advocated active defense to help the North Koreans win the ongoing civil war and to protect the newly established Communist state from a possible U.S. invasion. By July 1950 the situation in Korea was beginning to worry Mao. Between July 7 and July 22, Beijing mobilized forces in northeast China, or Manchuria, leading to an important strategic shift from defense toward intervention by early August. Military preparations accelerated through September, after Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Inchon (Inch'on) landing and the collapse of the NKPA, leading to serious debates in early October and culminating on October 4 in a final decision to commit Chinese troops to help North Korea. By October 19 the vanguard units of the PLA, which were among its best forces, had crossed the Yalu River and entered North Korea. The roles of Mao and the Party Center—which included the Central Committee, Central Military Commission, and National Congress of the CCP—represented unprecedented activism in the Korean War: China was no longer playing the role of a passive spectator, or an adjunct, in global power politics. This newly vigorous internationalism revealed a profound change taking place in Communist China.

Although external Cold War factors may appear to be the only motive behind this change, the crucial strategic shift came about for significant internal reasons. Modern Chinese history has demonstrated that neither foreign invasion nor the support of an international power could create a strong, centralized national government. Instead, the government's power depended more on China's political stability and military strength than on its foreign relations. In this sense, by entering the Korean War, it is possible that Mao saw a chance to continue the Communist movement at home and to increase China's power abroad. Now that national security had been established by the Communists' winning the last battle of the Chinese Civil War (1946–49) against the GMD on Taiwan, Mao's strategic priorities were establishing the legitimacy the CCP needed as the ruling party, an economic recovery, and military modernization. His decision to enter the Korean War may also have been based on the PLA's superiority in manpower, which made Mao and his generals overconfident in their ability to drive the UNF out of the Korean Peninsula.


CCP leaders believed that Communist China had been founded, and could be maintained, by military power. By early 1950 China had the largest army in the world, totaling 5.4 million men. In contrast, U.S. armed forces had 1.5 million troops and the Soviet Union's forces numbered 2.8 million, although they had grown to 4.8 million by 1953. After the defeat of the GMD, the PLA transformed itself from a "liberation army" into a national force with two new goals: to repel foreign invasions and to defeat internal threats to the new regime. Similarly, the Chinese government's mission was to establish political order and national unity, to maintain domestic peace and tranquility, and to reorganize the military so as to be able to defend against foreign invasion. From this time forward, the PRC adopted an inward-looking governmental policy stressing national security and defensive military measures to consolidate and protect its territorial gains (map 1.1).

The year before, however, Chinese leaders had still confronted over one million GMD troops in Taiwan (Formosa) and southwestern China. After the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, Mao's first priority had been to consolidate the new state by eliminating all remnants of Jiang Jieshi's GMD forces on Taiwan and other offshore islands. In late 1949 Jiang moved the seat of his government to Taiwan. At Taibei (Taipei), the new capital city of the ROC, Jiang prepared for the final showdown with Mao in the last battle of the Chinese Civil War. Jiang concentrated his troops on four major islands: 200,000 men on Taiwan, 100,000 on Hainan, 120,000 on the Zhoushan (Chou-shan) Island group, and 60,000 on Jinmen (Quemoy). Therefore, from October 1949 through June 1950, China's military strategy was focused on its southern and coastal regions.

On October 31, 1949, in a telegram to Lin Biao (Lin Piao, 1906–71), then commander of the Fourth Field Army, Mao designed a "south heavy and north light" strategic plan for the PLA. Lin was one of the most brilliant military leaders of the CCP, becoming one of the ten marshals of the PLA in 1955 and defense minister of the PRC in 1959–71. His Fourth Field Army, the backbone of the PLA, defeated GMD forces from the north to the south in the Chinese Civil War. According to Mao's post–civil war strategy for the four field armies, the "Third Field Army would defend Southeast China with a concentration in the Shanghai-Hangzhou (Hangchow)–Nanjing (Nanking) coastal region. Its main strength should prepare to take over Taiwan Island." The Fourth Field Army should "station five of its armies in Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Guangxi (Kwangsi) as the southern defense force centered on Guangzhou (Canton), and deploy three armies along the railways in Central China as strategic reserve forces available to move either south or north." Following Mao's instructions, in late 1949 the Third Field Army, with one million troops in Southeast China, and the Fourth Field Army, with some 1.2 million troops in South China, were preparing for amphibious operations against the GMD-occupied islands to bring the Chinese Civil War to a close.

In his "south heavy and north light" strategy of 1949, Mao considered Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Tianjin (Tientsin) as the three key points for national defense. Two of these points were in the south, where preparations for an amphibious attack on Taiwan were proceeding. In the meantime, Mao stationed three armies of the Fourth Field Army in central Henan (Honan) Province as strategic reserves. These armies would be transferred to the northeast in July–August 1950 and in October would become the first wave of Chinese forces to enter North Korea. In late 1949, however, Manchuria was not one of China's key defense points, having only one infantry army, the Forty-Second, of the PLA's fifty-seven infantry armies. Northeast China, which included the three provinces of Liaoning, Jilin (Kirin), and Heilongjiang (Heilungkiang) and shared borders with North Korea and the Soviet Union, had three artillery divisions, five local independent divisions, and one public security division, totaling 228,000 troops.

In late 1949 the PLA high command followed Mao's strategy by concentrating on landing preparations against the GMD-held islands along China's southeastern coast. Mao, however, showed extra caution in this final battle in the Chinese Civil War against Jinmen and Taiwan because of a disastrous landing made by the Tenth Army Group of the Third Field Army on Jinmen, a small island group lying less than two miles off the mainland. The Twenty-Eighth Army of the Tenth Army Group had lost three infantry regiments, totaling 9,086 men, during an attempted landing on October 24 and 25, 1949. Mao asked his coastal army commanders to "guard against arrogance, avoid underestimating the enemy, and be well prepared." In the meantime, Su Yu (1907–84), deputy commander of the Third Field Army, warned the high command that it would be "extremely difficult to operate a large-scale cross-ocean amphibious landing operation without air and sea control." Su, one of the most experienced commanders of the PLA after Lin, commanded the Third Field Army and defeated GMD forces in eastern China in 1948–49. In 1955 Su was made one of the ten grand generals and became chief of the PLA general staff.

To better prepare a PLA amphibious campaign, in December the high command reorganized the headquarters (HQ) of the Twelfth Army Group, Fourth Field Army, into the HQ of the PLA Navy. Xiao Jinguang (Hsiao Kin-kuang, 1903–89), commander of the Twelfth, was appointed the first commander of the PLA's new navy. Xiao became vice minister of defense in 1954 and was promoted to grand general in 1955. It is important to note that at this time the Chinese forces were numerically and technologically inferior to GMD air and naval forces. That was partly why the Jinmen landing failed. Since the PLA had neither enough air power nor a modern navy, it would require Soviet aid.


Mao arrived in the Soviet Union on December 16, 1949, for a state visit, hoping to get the military assistance China desperately needed through an alliance between the PRC and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Stalin, however, was never an easy person for the Chinese to get along with, even though they were his Communist comrades. Frustrated after two fruitless meetings with Stalin in December, Mao was disturbed and annoyed that he was unable to meet with Stalin again for more than three weeks in January 1950. Nevertheless, during the sixty five days he spent in Moscow, Mao gained a better understanding of Stalin's intentions. Among other things, Stalin wanted to convince Mao that the Soviet Union had its own difficulties. There would be no free ride for China, which should share the responsibility for the worldwide Communist movement. Stalin made it clear that China should support Communist movements in other Asian countries.

Preoccupied with European affairs, Stalin needed Chinese help with ongoing Asian Communist revolutions: the First Indochina War in Vietnam and North Korea's attempt at national unification. In addition, Stalin had no intention of challenging the Yalta agreement, which had been signed by the Soviet Union and the United States, that created a post-WWII international system and including the Soviet Union as one of the major powers. From 1946 to January 1950, Stalin was concerned that any change in the Yalta system might cause a direct conflict between the two superpowers. In his office, Stalin told Mao: "The victory of the Chinese revolution proved that China has become the center for the Asian revolution. We believe that it's better for China to take the major responsibility in supporting and helping [Asian countries]."

Stalin engaged the PRC in the Cold War both ideologically and geographically. Whether it was the symbolic significance of the Communist group that ideologically bound China to show its duty, or simple nationalistic interest, China was required to make at least some commitment to support the Soviets in the Cold War. Even though Mao was unhappy with Stalin's demand, he understood the Soviet leader's intention and agreed to share "the international responsibility." Chen Jian points out that "in an agreement on 'division of labor' between the Chinese and Soviet Communists for waging the world revolution, they decided that while the Soviet Union would remain the center of international proletarian revolution, China's primary duty would be the promotion of the 'Eastern revolution.'"

In February 1950 Mao and Zhou Enlai signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance with Stalin in Moscow. Zhou was political, diplomatic, and military leader of the PRC, serving as its premier in 1949–76 and foreign minister in 1949–58. Zhou's most notable achievements were in the diplomatic realm. In his capacity as premier, he spent much of his time abroad, boosting the PRC's international standing. His diplomatic approach to the world, especially to the Communist bloc in the Cold War, was flexible and pragmatic. The Sino–Soviet Treaty ensured Soviet military assistance if China was invaded by an imperialist power—which the Communists probably thought was most likely to be the United States or Japan.

From the moment that Communist China came into being, Beijing's leaders regarded the United States as China's primary enemy and, at the same time, consistently declared that a fundamental aim of the Chinese revolution was to destroy the old world order dominated by American imperialists. Through endless propaganda campaigns and constant indoctrination efforts, Beijing portrayed the United States as the bastion of all reactionary forces in the world. From 1950 to 1971, the United States was thoroughly demonized by the PRC. As a result, in Mao's efforts to legitimize his "continuous revolution," the theme of "struggling against U.S. imperialism" occupied a central position. Chen Jian explains that the Maoist revolution's international aims served as a "constant source of domestic mobilization, helping to legitimate the revolution at home and to maintain its momentum." The alliance between Beijing and Moscow was the cornerstone of the Communist international alliance in the 1950s. The Sino-Soviet alliance also marked the beginning of a new stage of the Cold War in Asia. As part of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, Mao and Zhou also signed a major naval pact with Stalin. The Soviet Union agreed to arm a new Chinese naval force with warships and equipment worth $150 million, half the total aid package granted through the treaty.

Returning from Moscow in February 1950, Mao called a meeting of the PLA high command. During the discussions, Mao instructed Nie Rongzhen, acting chief of the general staff, and Su to plan attacks on Jinmen and Taiwan, with an emphasis on training airborne forces and preparing an additional four divisions for amphibious maneuvers. As one of the top military commanders and Mao's senior aide in Beijing, Nie took part in high command decision making, planned major military operations, and shared responsibility for war mobilization. He ran the PLA general staff since Zhou Enlai, its chief, was preoccupied as the PRC's premier and foreign minister and because all the members of the staff had been on Nie's former Northern Military Region Staff—they were people who had worked with Mao in the Civil War and moved into Beijing with him. In 1955 Nie became one of the ten marshals in China. On March 11, 1950, Su met Xiao Jinguang to discuss the first detailed plan to liberate Taiwan. According to the plan, the Third Field Army and the navy would deploy 500,000 troops to attack Taiwan. The three armies in the Thirteenth Army Group of the Fourth Field Army would remain as a reserve for the attack, and the Nineteenth Army Group of the Fourth Field Army would deploy its three armies along the coast as a mobile force. In all, nearly 800,000 men would be involved in the invasion of Taiwan. In April the CMC approved the Su-Xiao plan. The Third Field Army began landing training in the late spring.

In the meantime, Mao approved the Fourth Field Army's attack on Hainan Island. In April 1950, 100,000 men of the Fifteenth Army Group of the Fourth Field Army crossed the twenty-mile-wide Qiongzhou (Ch'iong-chou) Strait in the South China Sea and successfully landed on Hainan. The landing forces quickly overran the GMD garrison and captured the entire island. A month later the Seventh and Ninth Army Groups of the Third Field Army occupied the Zhoushan Islands in the East China Sea. In the late spring of 1950, the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait expected an imminent PLA attack on Jinmen and Taiwan. When the CCP held its Third Plenary Session of the Seventh Congress at Beijing on June 6–9, 1950, Mao urged the liberation of Taiwan and Tibet as the party's central tasks. Su reported on PLA preparations for invading Taiwan. The Party Center decided at the meeting that its first priority was to liberate Taiwan and Tibet, and its second was to eliminate the bandits and establish domestic stability and order. In early June the East China Command landed forces on the GMD-occupied Dongshan and Wanshan Islands. But the Korean War broke out on June 25, altering Mao's plans.


In Beijing on May 13, 1950, Mao Zedong was briefed by North Korean leader Kim Il-sung regarding a North Korean invasion of South Korea. Kim did not give Mao the attack's date, but Mao agreed with Kim's plan since it fit with Stalin's request that China promote Communist movements in Asia. The CCP leaders and PLA high command approved North Korea's bid for national reunification by force. Even before October 1949, the CCP had enthusiastically supported Communist movements in neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and especially North Korea.


Excerpted from China's Battle for Korea by Xiaobing Li. Copyright © 2014 Xiaobing Li. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Xiaobing Li is Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Geography and Director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma. He is author, editor, or co-author of China at War; A History of the Modern Chinese Army; Voices from the Korean War: Personal Stories of American, Korean, and Chinese Soldiers (with Richard Peters); Mao’s Generals Remember Korea (with Allan R. Millett); and other books and articles on the Korean War. He served in the People’s Liberation Army in China.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >