Chen was born in Hong'an County, Hubei Province of China in 1915. He joined his local Chinese Red Army guerrilla unit in 1929, and the Communist Youth League a year later. He was an army general from 1955 and a year later an Alternate Member of the 8th Central Committee (CC). Chen was a member of the CPC Politburo through three party congresses (1969–80), but fell afoul of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and was demoted with three colleagues (Wu De, Ji Dengkui and Wang Dongxing) dubbed the “Small Gang of Four” to mere CC status in February 1980. Chen was assigned to the Standing Committee of the party Central Advisory Committee in September 1982.
In the early 1930s, Chen Xilian served in the 4th Front Army as a political instructor and communications man, moving up the ranks to Regiment political commissar in 1934. His unit, which was led by Zhang Guotao, Xu Xiangqian and Li Xiannian, included such future leaders as Qin Jiwei. They fought Sichuan warlords on the western leg of the Long March. At the close of the Long March, Chen – like his colleagues Xu Shiyou and Yu Qiuli – would find himself on the wrong side of the Mao Zedong-Zhang Guotao dispute, and badly battered by Muslim cavalry and warlord armies. After the fighting, Chen emerged as a division commander and reached Yan'an in late 1935. He was assigned to the 129th Division of Eighth Route Army, which later became the core of the 2nd Field Army of Liu Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping.
On October 19, 1937 he led the 769th Regiment, First Column, against Japanese units defending Yangmingbao airport, destroying 24 planes, and killing more than 100 Japanese soldiers, which alleviated the air threat on the Xikou Front. Chen at this time served under Xu Xiangqian with future generals Xu Shiyou, Xu Haidong and Han Xianchu.
In the Summer of 1940, Chen’s unit participated in the Hundred Regiments Campaign near Taiyuan, and by September had succeeded the reassigned Xu Shiyou as 385th Brigade Commander; his political commissar at the time was future Public Security Minister Xie Fuzhi.
After a brief stint at the Central Party School in Yan'an (in 1943, likely his only formal education), Chen in September 1945 was commander of the Second Military Subdistrict in Southern Hebei. His 385th Brigade combined with local unites to create the 7th Brigade, which eventually became the 3rd Column of the Central Plains Field Army. His Deputy Commander, Zeng Shaoshan, and other key officers remained with Chen through the Huai-Hai and Crossing the Yangtze campaigns, and for many years thereafter.
In the Spring of 1949, after the fall of Nanjing, Chen’s 3rd Army moved into Zhejiang, and saw action at Hangzhou and Shanghai. His unit remained in place while his co-commanders, Chen Geng and Yang Yong, embarked on the South-west Campaign. As the Civil War wound down, Chen was left in command of a key region of Eastern China. Among his 2nd Field Army subordinates to later rise in power were future politburo members Xie Fuzhi, Li Desheng and Liu Huaqing.
In 1950, he was appointed Party First Secretary and Mayor of Chongqing, Sichuan. He was also the commander of PLA's at East Sichuan region and a member of the Southwest Military Administrative Committee, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, He Long and Liu Bocheng. He was then assigned as commander of the entire PLA Artillery Corps and president of the Artillery Academy.
In 1955, Chen was assigned the rank of general, and the following year made an Alternate Member of the CPC Central Committee. In 1958, the PLA opened up a massive and sustained artillery barrage against the Nationalist-held island of Quemoy (Jinmen). General Chen was likely in direct command of the failed 400-piece cannonade.
The purge of Peng Dehuai in 1959 brought down two of his key allies as well: Chief-of-Staff Huang Kecheng and Shenyang MR Commander Deng Hua. Chen Xilian was sent to Manchuria to take over from General Deng in one of the most sensitive regions of the Sino-Soviet border. He served in the post until 1973; his deputy was his old comrade in arms, Zeng Shaoshan.
Cultural Revolution and its aftermath
Chen inherited a region in the grip of starvation, due to the policy mismanagement of the Great Leap Forward. In mid-1963, Chen was promoted to CCP Secretary for the CC Northeast Central Party Bureau, where he worked closely with Song Renqiong. In 1965, Chen was made a member of the National Defense Council, and remained in that post until the organization was abolished in 1975.
Chen was attacked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution as one who resisted radicalization. Throughout 1967, he sought to survive by minimally acquiescing to Red Guard demands, placing PLA officers in sensitive positions such as provincial Revolutionary Committees and rapidly promoting inexperienced radicals to high positions. It appears that Chen directed radical hostility toward Song and the regional party apparatus. It is less clear if he deliberately launched the March 1969 border incident with the Soviet Union.
Already a powerful figure in regional military affairs, Chen’s career reached its pinnacle during the Cultural Revolution. He was elevated to the Politburo at the 1969 9th National Party Congress and, as the PLA took over regional administration, became CCP 1st Secretary of Liaoning Province (1971–74).
In 1971, Chen was the first MR commander to denounce Lin Biao following his alleged coup d'état attempt and subsequent death. The Writing Group of Liaoning Provincial Party Committee, an origin under General Chen's direct and complete control, launched an attack on Lin in the November 1971 issue of Red Flag.
After being reelected to the politburo in 1973, Chen traded his Northeast power base for the leadership of the Beijing Military Region command in January 1974 and remained in that post until January 1980, when he was replaced by Qin Jiwei. He was named Vice Premier in the mid-1970s, a title he retained until his downfall in 1980.
In 1976, following the death of Zhou Enlai and subsequent purge of Deng Xiaoping, General Chen is thought to have briefly acted as Defense Minister and Military Affairs Commission secretary-general, in place of Marshall Ye Jianying. While some sources give credit to Chen for managing the arrest of the Gang of Four in the September coup d'état, others give full credit to Wang Dongxing.
Deng Xiaoping's 1977 re-emergence led to the exoneration of the very people who had facilitated Chen Xilian's rapid rise in power, by being victims of Mao's purges. Peng Dehuai, Huang Kecheng, Deng Hua and Song Renqiong, along with scores of others, were rehabilitated in 1977-79, at the expense of Chen's power. He was purged in February 1980 along with three other beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution: Wu De, Ji Dengkui and Wang Dongxing. Together they were labelled the "Little Gang of Four".
- Editorial Board, Who’s Who in China: Current Leaders, (Foreign Language Press, Beijing: 1989), p. 59.
- Whitson, William and Huang Chen-hsia, The Chinese High Command: A History of Communist Military Politics, 1927-71 (Praeger, New York: 1973), p. 141
- Lampton, David M., Paths to Power: Elite Mobility in Contemporary China, "Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies No. 55," The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: 1986), p. 252-253).
- Lampton, p. 255).
- Whitson, p. 160.
- Lampton, p. 255.
- Whitson, Chart D.
- Lampton, p. 259.
- Lampton, p. 264.
- Lampton, p. 266-69.
- Lampton, p. 270.
- Lampton, p. 273-277.
- Lampton, p. 285.
- Lampton, p. 285ff.
| Shenyang Military Region Commander
| Beijing Military Region Commander