by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.
According to the Military Balance 2019, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may possess the largest active-duty tank fleet on the planet, with about 5,800 tanks in operational service. However, Chinese tanks remain relatively little known in the Western world. Therefore, in a two-part series, we will first briefly survey the operational history of mainland Chinese tank forces, and the development of indigenous Chinese tanks through 1990. Then, in a second part, we will look at the organization and role of contemporary PLA tank units, and review Chinese tanks currently in PLA Ground Force, Navy and Air Force service, as well as models exported abroad.
Tank Warfare in a Changing China
Before the 1930s, Chinese warlords in a strife-torn China acquired a handful of armored cars and few dozen French Renault FT-17 tanks. Following a false-flag attack on a Japanese rail line near Mukden in September 1931, the FT-17s were seized by Japanese forces. Japanese light and medium tanks subsequently spearheaded offensives into Chinese territory, occupying Manchuria and providing fire support for an assault on the Great Wall of China in 1933.
Initial Chinese attempts to deploy the Vickers and Panzer I tanks to blunt Japanese attacks on Shanghai and Nanjing respectively ended in costly defeats in 1937. In 1939 the Nationalist Chinese 200th Mechanized Division, equipped with Soviet-origin T-26s and BA armored cars, engaged and defeated a Japanese cavalry-mechanized force in the Battle of Lanfeng. The tank elements were later detached into the independent 1st Armored Regiment (3 battalions of 36 tanks each), which decisively stemmed a larger-scale Japanese offensive in the Battle of Kunlun Pass. Meanwhile, in October 1939 Japanese and Soviet mechanized armies engaged in a swirling Battles of Khalkin Gol, Mongolia. The decisive Soviet victory there had an enormous impact, leading Tokyo not to support the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and later facilitating the continued independence of the state of Mongolia from China.
During World War II, the Nationalist’s 1st Regiment served on the Burma campaign in 1942 and received dozens of M3 Stuart light- and M4 Sherman medium-tanks through the Lend-Lease program. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Chinese forces captured nearly 300 Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light and Type 97 tanks, and Type 94 tankettes. To support the Nationalist’s war against the Communists, the U.S. also transferred LVT(A)-4 amphibious vehicles, more Shermans, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers.The People’s Republic Gets Its First Tanks
The PLA got its first tank in December 1945, the “Gongchen” (“Hero”), when the PLA captured Japanese Type 97 Chi-Ha Shinhoto tanks in Shenyang. Additional Type 97s were eventually formed into the “Northeast Tank Regiment”, supplemented by captured Nationalist tanks. However, the story is part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) folklore, and its fine details seem somewhat fantastical.
As the Communist chased the Kuomintang from the Mainland, ROC tanks saw action opposing PLA amphibious landings on Nationalist-held islands. At the decisive Battle of Guningtou, a handful of M5 Stuart light tanks fortuitously patrolling the beach of Kinmen Island crushed a PLA amphibious landing — an incident which may explain the PLA’s commitment to fielding amphibious tanks ever since.
Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, between 1950 and 1955 the PLA purchased over 2,800 tanks from the Soviet Union which were formed into 67 armored regiments. These include 1,800 T-34-85 tanks, 700 SU-76 self-propelled guns, various heavy self-propelled guns, and IS-2 tanks.
The PLA T-34-equipped 1st and 2nd Tank Regiments were deployed in the Korean War. Unlike the breakthrough role initially assumed by North Korean T-34s, PLA tanks were primarily used in small numbers for infantry support and rarely clashed with U.N. tanks. Generally, T-34-85s performed well against U.S. M24 light tanks and the M4 Easy 8 Sherman medium tanks but were outclassed by the heavier M26 Pershing.
The First Chinese-Built Tanks
In 1956, the Soviet Union began transferring technology for its then-excellent T-54A tank as part of a Sino-Soviet friendship agreement, which led two years later to the Type 59 tank (or WZ-120), produced in the Factory #617 of Inner-Mongolia First Machine Group Company Limited in Baotou.
Other first-generation Chinese tanks that followed include the Type 63 amphibious tank (derived from the Soviet PT-76) and the Type 62 light tank, a much lighter version of the Type 59. Both were armed with 85-millimeter guns. Chinese factories also refitted some T-34-85s as the Type 58 tank.
However, during the 1960s relations between China and the Soviet Union turned sharply for the worse, cutting off further technology transfers. As the Cultural Revolution brought industrial innovation to a near standstill, the PLA fell technologically far behind the now threatening mechanized armies of the Soviets. The PLA’s War doctrine advocated leveraging China’s population and geographic mass by drawing invaders into China’s interior and bogging them down in protracted guerrilla and hit-and-run warfare — a strategy implying little confidence that the PLA could contain invaders at the borders.
China’s next breakthrough came in March 1969 following violent border skirmishes with Soviet border forces over Zhenbao Island. The PLA recovered a knocked-out Soviet T-62 tank. Chinese engineers studied its Luna infrared searchlight and Nuclear/Biological/Chemical protection. Following a lengthy development process, in 1982 China began manufacturing the Type 69, its first genuinely indigenous tank design. This blended the familiar Type 59 hull with new features including rubber side skirts, an infrared spotlight and a dual-axis stabilized, rifled 100-millimeter gun.
Disappointed with the results, the PLA ordered only a few hundred Type 69s in the early 1980s for service in northwestern China, though thousands more were exported and saw extensive combat. One of the few (briefly) successful Iraqi armor engagements in 2003 involved Type 69 tanks ambushing U.S. logistical units.
In February 1979, China launched a month-long “punitive” invasion of northern Vietnam — apparently attempting to disrupt the Vietnamese ousting of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The PLA disposed of 700 tanks in seven armored regiments for the operation: one of Type 59 tanks, four of Type 62 light tanks, one of Type 63 amphibious tanks, and one of T-34-85 tanks held in reserve (it was not committed).
However, the PLA mustered only around 100 Type 63 APCs, so Chinese infantry rode on top of the tanks, tied on by ropes. A unit of Type 70 multiple rocket launchers (a Type 63 APC equipped with nineteen 130-millimeter rocket tubes) was the only armored artillery present.The PLA tanks managed to negotiate the mountainous terrain to eradicate fortified Vietnamese outposts. In the sole armor clash of the war, PLA Type 62 tanks encountered Vietnamese T-34-85s and claimed to have knocked out fourteen of them for no loss, though Vietnamese accounts admit the loss of only two. However, PLA armor and tank-riding infantry suffered heavy losses to Vietnamese RPG- and ATGM-teams. Figures vary, but some sources claim 90% of PLA tanks were damaged, including 50 utterly destroyed, rendering armored units ineffective after eleven days (for more details see Sebastien Roblin, “In 1979, China and Vietnam Went to War (And Changed History Forever)“, The National Interest, 2 March 2019). Afterward, the PLA began beefing up its tanks with appliqué armor.
Political and Technological Upheaval
In the 1980s, China’s domestic and foreign policy saw another revolution. Deng Xiaoping’s reformist China benefited from warming relations with the West. The U.S. firm Cadillac even offered an upgraded “Jaguar” model of the Type 59 tank during this era.
A notable fruit of these late-Cold War military ties was the transfer of German diesel engines, European fire-control computers, and the British 105-millimeter L7 rifled gun, acquired from Austria. This 52-caliber weapon, built as the Type 83 in China, can penetrate up to 600-millimeter RHA-equivalent using modern munitions, including depleted uranium shells.Chinese engineers incorporated the new Western technologies into a new “Second Generation” of domestic tanks, starting with the Type 80 prototype, which featured a new hull-design with six road wheels. These technologies were retrofitted to Type 59, 62, and 63 tanks, as well as a new model of the Type 69, called the Type 79.
The Type 80 spawned the Type 85 “Storm” export tank and Type 88 production model for PLA service. The Type 85-II entered service with Pakistan (as the Al-Zarrar) and Sudan (Al-Bashir). The PLA only procured around 500 Type 88s, with another 230 going to Myanmar.
At some point in the 1980s, China also acquired a Soviet T-72 tank, possibly via Iran or Iraq. Based on it, Chinese engineer replaced their older “lumpy” cast-steel turrets with a new hexagonal turret mounting a smoothbore 125-millimeter gun similar to the T-72’s 2A46 cannon. This was incorporated into the Type 85-IIM and Type 90 models, which have evolved into the present-day Type 96 and Type 99 tanks respectively.
No history of Chinese tanks is complete without referring to their role in crushing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Students from universities in Beijing first gathered on April 15, 1989, after the death of Hu Yaobang, a deposed reformist general secretary. In the following six weeks the protesters’ ranks swelled, spreading to other Chinese cities as they began demanding democratizing reforms.
A massive deployment of PLA infantry starting in May proved incapable of breaking up the protesters in Tiananmen Square. Indeed, some PLA units hesitated to use force and even clashed with hardline troops.
On June 3, the Politburo of the CCP authorized army units, including the Type 59-II tanks and Type 63 APCs of the 1st and 6th Tank Divisions, to use “whatever means necessary” to clear the square.
Starting on June 4, 1989, advancing Type 59s opened fire with machine guns and in some cases charged into the protesters, crushing some to death. Despite episodes of defiance such as the celebrated “Tank Man“, and incidents in which PLA tankers even dismounted while civilians set their armored vehicles ablaze, the square was cleared by that evenings, and protesters dispersed by June 7.
According to the Chinese Red Cross (but later denied), least 2,700 Chinese were killed in the bloodbath, though a total up to four times that high is possible. Six PLA soldiers were slain by protesters during the crackdown. A genuine challenge to CCP rule had been eradicated through brutal mechanized force.
The Tiananmen Square massacre brought an abrupt end to the Western military partnership with China. However, by then China’s technological and industrial base had dramatically matured — the 1991 Gulf War would soon convince the PLA it had much further to go.