As a prelude to A Brief History of Asian Stealth, Part 2 (which will focus on the People's Republic of China and its People's Liberation Air Force), one needs to understand the history of the PRC's aerospace industry. In order to understand that, one needs to understand the motivations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution - and how it not only failed in its goal, but in fact sent the PRC back in both industrial developments and resulted in massive atrocities committed against China's own people. Understanding, or at least mentioning, those atrocities is an important part of understanding the effects of the Cultural Revolution, just as the Holocaust is integral towards understanding Nazi leadership and government policies. However, this article will primarily focus on the Cultural Revolution's industrial ramifications.

A (Very) Brief History of China

The genesis of China's Cultural Revolution lies ultimately in the dying days of China's great Empire. Throughout large chunks of the timeline of human civilization, the Chinese Empire was arguably the most advanced society on Earth. The most common and popular understanding of early Chinese history is a mix of fact and epic myth, and is among the most romanticized of societal origins: the Three Kingdoms period of warring factions who were mini-empires in their own right, and then eventually the unification of various disparate lands and people under Emperor Xin/Chin (whom we derive the name "China" from). From the Three Kingdoms period all the way to the year 1900 is where the classic impression most Westerners have of ancient China comes from: Shaolin Monks practicing both martial arts and mystic meditation, Imperial generals seemingly invincible in their Sherlock Holmes-like deduction of their enemy's forces; great learned scholars recording the secrets of the universe.

Like the Roman Empire, the Chinese Empire was unusual in its stability and longevity; but also like the Roman Empire, it could not last forever, and eventually fell. Whether benign or simply bad, history shows that authoritarian governments eventually fall to internal and external pressures. In the case of China, it involves a very complex and diverse mix of forces. Pressure from Western governments who wanted to open up China for commercial development - and topple the ruling dynasty that was resistant to such commerce - was certainly one of those forces. There was also immense internal social pressure from very large portions of the population, particularly the peasant class, who felt that the dynastic tradition of government was failing them. More directly, the Empire of Japan began engaging China in open conflict as early as the turn of the 20th century, particularly in a number of key but little-known naval skirmishes; because Japan had earlier exposure to the West, they had access to more advanced weapons technology and had few issues with sending China's few modern iron-hulled warships to the bottom of shallow harbors and rivers (or in many cases, capturing them).


The whole point of this is to show that China had very little history or tradition with the type of mass-industrialized developments that characterized not only the West at the time, but pretty much every technological and cultural advancement since 1900. China didn't open up until the turn of the 20th century, and by then they were embroiled in both a brutal civil war and an equally brutal external conflict with Japan, ultimately culminating into the Second Sino-Japanese War - what we in the West mostly refer to as World War II. Superior Japanese technology and tactics meant very little in the way of stopping them, and Chinese cities were decimated along the way. It wasn't until the advent of British, Indian, Australian and particularly American involvement that military forces capable of repulsing the Japanese were available in-theater. Even then, upon the surrender of Japan, the brutal civil war that raged before the Japanese intervention - between the Communists and those who can be accurately described as wanting "something else" - nearly immediately resumed.

The Formation of the People's Republic of China

The Communist forces were, generally, far better organized than their Nationalist counterparts in nearly every criterion imaginable. The Nationalists had a number of things going for their side, to be sure. For starters, a surprisingly large number of very highly-trained, professional soldiers (and particularly, fighter pilots) left over from Imperial Japan were available to the Nationalists. Most of these were ethnic Chinese who felt loyal to the Nationalists; others were Koreans or even Japanese who were opposed to Communism, particularly those who felt Communist China had ramifications for the Korean Peninsula (which was indeed the case). The Nationalists also had the backing of the Western Powers, particularly the UK and the US. However, the Nationalists lacked clear leadership. Yes, Chiang Kai-shek is often recognized as the leader of the Nationalist forces but it was a very loosely defined leadership. Many of the so-called generals that lead the Nationalist army were glorified warlords hoping to escape domestic persecution by securing positions of leadership. Moreover, the Nationalists had very poorly-defined end goals, including for what kind of government they wished to establish. In contrast, the Communists had very clearly defined military and political goals which helped them secure more than enough domestic support to overwhelm the Nationalists. They also had the backing of the Soviet Union which was more than happy to help "export" Communism through any means they felt they can get away with. The Western Powers were (understandably) war-weary after WWII; while the Soviets shipped the Communist Chinese high-grade military kit including tanks and aircraft and even military "advisers," the Nationalists were often forced to contend themselves with hand-me-down Western equipment or even whatever the Japanese had surrendered and abandoned in-theater, usually in less than ideal condition (think Craigslist-quality). Given these conditions, it was somewhat inevitable that the Nationalists would be forced to retreat to the island of Formosa and establish their own nation-in-exile/refuge, surrendering the mainland completely to the Communists.

Finally Entering the 20th Century

Throughout an approximately fifty-year time period of near-constant war not only with Japan but with itself, there was understandably little opportunity for China to develop a manufacturing industry on par with the Western Powers. Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the People's Communist Party (and the de facto leader of the People's Republic) wanted to change that. Like Western Europe under the Marshall Plan, Japan and (South) Korea rebuilt and gained powerful manufacturing industries through direct American involvement and investment. Likewise, the People's Republic would receive assistance and investment from the Soviet Union - but Mao felt it important for the People's Republic to be largely responsible for its own industrial development. Furthermore, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic, the largest Communist nations by both land area and population, began to see each other as rivals on the international stage.


Mao's strategy for an industrialized China was known as the "Great Leap Forward" and "The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution" - an ambitious series of plans that would not only form China's industry into a supermodern economic powerhouse but reform China's culture to match. Large segments of the popular were re-organized to accommodate the development of industrial raw materials such as steel, often at a cottage level. Attempts were made to wipe out much of China's cultural heritage, particularly its religious heritage. Just as with Josef Stalin's "Five-Year Plans" that over-focused on industrial development at the expense of agriculture and sought to destroy societal elements he considered "undesirable" (resulting in what's basically Ukraine's own Holocaust), Mao's "Great Cultural Revolution" resulted in mass deaths from starvation, mass resistance from both the popular level and within the Communist Party's own ranks, and very little actual industrial development to show for it. The resistance towards Mao's plans were met with suspicion, paranoia and ultimately mass-executions. Wikipedia estimates that the number of Chinese citizens killed during the Revolution might equal or even exceed the number of Chinese deaths during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Having to Rebuild from Having to Rebuild

The "Cultural Revolution" didn't just leave the People's Republic with a net-zero gain; they had in fact lost much of their ability to self-industrialized as many of the brilliant minds most capable of engineering China's industry were murdered during Mao's Purges. This isn't referring to merely a few particularly gifted men within China's intelligentsia; this is literally tens of thousands of engineering students and other scholars - many who avoided murder but were nonetheless displaced. This left the People's Republic in an obvious quandary. The solution wasn't so much obvious as it was forced upon them - and the effects are still very visible today.

When Sino-Soviet relations were still warm, the Soviet Union gave the PRC advanced military technology, just as they had in order to help them win over the Nationalists. This equipment included, among other things, MiG-19 and MiG-21 interceptors; Tu-16 bombers; T-54/55 series tanks; AK-47s; blueprints for various warships and even submarines (and the weaponry to arm those warships). Upon delivery, all of the above were arguably the most sophisticated weaponry available to any military power. Then Sino-Soviet relations chilled, coinciding with the Cultural Revolution, and the People's Liberation Army found itself cut off from the weaponry gravy train. However, the military leadership felt that they were more than within their capability to simply copy these weapons - and later, improve upon them.

Thus, the Soviet's MiG-21 became the Chengdu J-7; the Tu-16 became the Xian H-6; the T-54 became the Type 59 and so on. They further re-purposed the MiG-19 design (also "remade" into the J-6) into a dedicated light attack-bomber called the Q-5/A-5 and developed the Shenyang J-8, a highly evolved twin-engine variant of the J-7 which became the equivalent to the Soviet Su-15 heavy interceptor. The problem was, the Cultural Revolution had set them so far back that by the time many of these aircraft were able to enter full production, they had become almost hopelessly obsolete and the Soviets had long moved on (to MiG-29s and Su-27 Flankers). For example, the H-6 reached initial operational status in the early 70s, but by then it was horrifically vulnerable to even a medium air defense network (the USAF had already been attempting a successor to the B-52 for years, already failing the Mach 3+ XB-70 and looking into what eventually became the B-1B; the Soviets began equipping their Tu-16s and Tu-95s with advanced long-range missiles that the Chinese initially lacked access to). The J-7 didn't reach full production capability until the 1980s, the same time frame the US began the export of the F-15 and F-16 fighters, the former in particular having improved Beyond Visual Range intercept/shoot-down capability with its advanced radar compared to the Vietnam War-era equipment the People's Liberation Air Force fielded. Perhaps the most antiquated "new" warplane in the Chinese fleet was the Harbin H-5 which was arguably obsolete upon initial manufacturing efforts and powered by WWII legacy-design jet engines. Its internal bombload of 3,000 kilograms is only a thousand more than the total warload of the smaller, faster and more flexible Q-5.

The legacy of the Cultural Revolution could go towards explaining why the Chinese have an interesting habit of copying Western car designs. Given the lack of industrial capability and the murder/displacement of much of their engineering talent, copying the best of what was available (often, if not usually illegally) wasn't just the most expedient means to ensure the viability of their armed forces, it was about the most practical option left on the table. The long gestation and manufacturing periods for much of this equipment - long after what most of the develop world would consider obsolescence - further suggests towards the endurance of this legacy. The story of Chinese aerospace is very different today. They have demonstrated not one but two stealth fighter designs, equal to the number the USAF currently has operational and one more than Russia has been able to demonstrate in the 21st century. That will be further discussed in A Brief History of Asian Stealth, Part 2 - The People's Republic of China.