People's war

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People's war
Simplified Chinese人民战争
Traditional Chinese人民戰爭

People's war or protracted people's war is a Maoist military strategy. First developed by the Chinese communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the basic concept behind people's war is to maintain the support of the population and draw the enemy deep into the countryside (stretching their supply lines) where the population will bleed them dry through a mix of mobile warfare and guerrilla warfare. It was used by the Chinese communists against the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, and by the Chinese Soviet Republic in the Chinese Civil War.

The term is used by Maoists for their strategy of long-term armed revolutionary struggle. After the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, Deng Xiaoping abandoned people's war for "People's War under Modern Conditions", which moved away from reliance on troops over technology. With the adoption of "socialism with Chinese characteristics", economic reforms fueled military and technological investment. Troop numbers were also reduced and professionalisation encouraged.

The strategy of people's war was used heavily by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. However, protracted war should not be confused with the "foco" theory employed by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution of 1959.


In China[edit]

Simplified guerrilla warfare organization
The classic "3-phase" Maoist model as adapted by North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp.[1]

In its original formulation by Chairman Mao Zedong, people's war exploits the few advantages that a small revolutionary movement has—broad-based popular support can be one of them—against a state's power with a large, professional, well-equipped and well-funded army. People's war strategically avoids decisive battles, since a tiny force of a few dozen soldiers would easily be routed in an all-out confrontation with the state. Instead, it favours a three-phase strategy of protracted warfare, with carefully chosen battles that can realistically be won.

In phase one, the revolutionary force conducting people's war starts in a remote area with mountainous or forested terrain in which its enemy is weak. It attempts to establish a local stronghold known as a revolutionary base area. As it grows in power, it enters phase two, establishes other revolutionary base areas and spreads its influence through the surrounding countryside, where it may become the governing power and gain popular support through such programmes as land reform. Eventually in phase three, the movement has enough strength to encircle and capture small cities, then larger ones, until finally it seizes power in the entire country.

Within the Chinese Red Army, the concept of people's war was the basis of strategy against the Japanese, and against a hypothetical Soviet invasion of China. The concept of people's war became less important with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increasing possibility of conflict with the United States over Taiwan. In the 1980s and 1990s the concept of people's war was changed to include more high-technology weaponry.

Historian David Priestland dates the beginning of the policy of people's war to the publication of a "General Outline for Military Work" in May 1928, by Chinese Central Committee. This document established official military strategies to the Chinese Red Army during the Chinese civil war.[2]

The strategy of people's war has political dimensions in addition to its military dimensions.[3] In China, the early People's Liberation Army was composed of peasants who had previously lacked political significance and control over their place in the social order.[4] Its internal organization was egalitarian between soldiers and officers, and its external relationship with rural civilians was egalitarian.[3] As sociologist Alessandro Russo summarizes, the political existence of peasants via the PLA was a radical exception to the rules of Chinese society and "overturned the strict traditional hierarchies in unprecedented forms of egalitarianism[.]"[5]

Other usage in Chinese rhetoric[edit]

In 2014 Party leadership in Xinjiang commenced a People's War against the “Three Evil Forces” of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. They deployed two hundred thousand party cadres to Xinjiang and the launched the Civil Servant-Family Pair Up program. Xi was dissatisfied with the initial results of the People's War and replaced Zhang Chunxian with Chen Quanguo in 2016. Following his appointment Chen oversaw the recruitment of tens of thousands of additional police officers and the division of society into three categories: trusted, average, untrustworthy. He instructed his subordinated to “Take this crackdown as the top project,” and “to preempt the enemy, to strike at the outset.” Following a meeting with Xi in Beijing Chen Quanguo held a rally in Ürümqi with ten thousand troops, helicopters, and armored vehicles. As they paraded he announced a “smashing, obliterating offensive,” and declared that they would “bury the corpses of terrorists and terror gangs in the vast sea of the People's War.”[6]

In February 2020, the Chinese Communist Party launched an aggressive campaign described by the Party general secretary Xi Jinping as a "people's war" to contain the spread of the coronavirus.[7]

Outside China[edit]

Outside China, the people's war doctrine has been successful in Cuba, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Nicaragua, but generally unsuccessful elsewhere in which the government has the will and the means to break up the movement before it can establish base areas.

Outside China, people's war has been basis of wars started in Peru on May 2, 1982, and in the Nepalese Civil War begun on February 9, 1999. A group of Peruvian Maoists known as the Shining Path at times controlled most of the country during the internal conflict in Peru, but they were dealt a blow by the arrest of their leader Abimael Guzmán in 1992. While they claim to consider this event only a "bend in the road", most independent sources have claimed them to be in decline since that time.

According to most sources, at the height of the conflict in Peru, both the Shining Path and the Peruvian government used terror tactics against the civilian population, especially in the countryside. Government tactics included sponsorship of death squads; Shining Path tactics included violent attacks on trade unionists and others they saw as rivals for the leadership of those opposing the government. This atmosphere of fear has made it very difficult to get any objective measure of support among the peasantry for either the government or the Maoist insurgents.

In Nepal, the Maoists succeeded in controlling most of the country and formed 100,000 troops into 3 divisions in what they called the "beginning of the strategic offensive". Some of these troops were conscripted. By aligning with the democracy movement, with the subsequent restoration of democracy, and a peace agreement with the government, the Maoist insurgency was able to form a coalition government in 2008.

In India, the Naxalite Maoist insurgency controls several rural districts in the eastern and southern regions, especially in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. In the Philippines the Communist Party of the Philippines is waging an enduring people's war through its armed wing, the New People's Army, the Turkish TKP/ML and its armed wing TiKKO (Turkish Workers and Peasants Liberation Army) has been waging a People's War in Turkey since 1972.

During the 1980s in Ireland, IRA leader Jim Lynagh devised a Maoist urban guerilla military strategy adapted to Irish conditions aimed at escalating the war against British security forces. The plan envisaged the destruction of police stations and military barracks in parts of Northern Ireland in order to create areas under complete IRA control. In 1984 he started cooperating with Pádraig McKearney who shared his views. The strategy began materializing with the destruction of two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) stations in Ballygawley in December 1985 (resulting in the death of two RUC officers), and in The Birches in August 1986. Lynagh and his IRA unit were killed in another attack on a RUC police station in Loughgall in an SAS ambush.

In non-communist states such as Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps used the protracted people's war against Iraq.[8]

List of people's wars[edit]

Conflicts in the following list are failed and successful wars labelled as people's wars by Maoists, and also both failed and ongoing attempts to start and develop people's wars. In addition to the conflicts in the list, there also have been conflicts not primarily led by Maoists or seen as people's wars, but had Maoist groups involved within them who viewed the conflicts partly as such, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (Arab–Israeli conflict) and the Communist Party of Burma (Myanmar civil war).

Date Conflict State Rebel group Revolutionary base area Deaths Result
1 August 1927 – 7 December 1949 Chinese Civil War  China Chinese Communist Party Communist-controlled China 13 million+ killed Communist victory
2 April 1948 – 21 September 1988 Communist insurgency in Myanmar  Myanmar Communist Party of Burma
  • People's Liberation Army
Shan State 3,000+ killed Government victory
1 November 1955 – 30 April 1975 Vietnam War  South Vietnam Viet Cong War zone C (1966–72)
Lộc Ninh (1972–75)
1,326,494–4,249,494 killed Communist victory
23 May 1959 – 2 December 1975 Laotian Civil War  Laos Lao People's Party Xam Neua 20,000–62,000 killed Communist victory
1961 – 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution  Nicaragua Sandinistas North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region 30,000+ killed Communist victory
c. December 1962 – 3 November 1990 Communist insurgency in Sarawak  Malaysia North Kalimantan Communist Party
  • North Kalimantan People's Army
Sarawak 400–500 killed Government victory
1965 – 1983 Communist insurgency in Thailand  Thailand Communist Party of Thailand
  • People's Liberation Army of Thailand
Nakhon Phanom Province 6,500+ killed Government victory
18 May 1967 – present Naxalite–Maoist insurgency  India Communist Party of India (Maoist) Red corridor 14,000+ killed since 1996 Ongoing
17 January 1968 – 17 April 1975 Cambodian Civil War  Cambodia Communist Party of Kampuchea Ratanakiri Province 275,000–310,000 killed Communist victory
29 March 1969 – present Communist rebellion in the Philippines  Philippines Communist Party of the Philippines Samar 40,000+ killed Ongoing
12 September 1972 – present Maoist insurgency in Turkey  Turkey Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist–Leninist
  • Liberation Army of the Workers and Peasants of Turkey

Maoist Communist Party

  • People's Liberation Army
Tunceli Province Ongoing
1972 – 1974 Araguaia Guerrilla War  Brazil Communist Party of Brazil
  • Araguaia Guerrilla Force
State of Goiás 90+ Maoists killed Government victory, failed to develop a people's war
1976 – 1996 GRAPO insurgency  Spain Communist Party of Spain (Reconstituted) 84+ killed Government victory, failed to develop a people's war
1977 – present Maoist insurgency in Afghanistan (including the Soviet–Afghan War and the anti-Taliban insurgency)  Afghanistan Liberation Organization of the People of Afghanistan
Afghanistan Liberation Organization
Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan
120+ Maoists killed (only the ALO) Ongoing
17 May 1980 – present Internal conflict in Peru  Peru Communist Party of Peru–Shining Path
  • People's Guerilla Army
Ayacucho Region 70,000+ killed Ongoing
25 January 1982 Amol uprising  Iran Union of Iranian Communists (Sarbedaran) Amol County 300+ killed Government victory, failed to develop a people's war
1 June 1993 – present Maoist insurgency in Ecuador  Ecuador Communist Party of Ecuador – Red Sun Chimborazo Province Ongoing
1993 – present Maoist insurgency in Bangladesh  Bangladesh Purbo Banglar Communist Party
Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party
Khulna 1,200+ killed Ongoing
13 February 1996 – 21 November 2006 Nepalese Civil War  Nepal Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Rapti Zone 17,800+ killed Comprehensive Peace Accord
2008 – present Maoist insurgency in Bhutan  Bhutan Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist–Leninist–Maoist) Sarpang District Ongoing

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Võ Nguyên Giáp, Big Victory, Great Task, (Pall Mall Press, London (1968)
  2. ^ Priestland, Davis (2009). The Red Flag: A History of Communism. New York: Grove Press. p. 253.
  3. ^ a b Russo, Alessandro (2020). Cultural Revolution and revolutionary culture. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-1-4780-1218-4. OCLC 1156439609.
  4. ^ Russo, Alessandro (2020). Cultural Revolution and revolutionary culture. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-1-4780-1218-4. OCLC 1156439609.
  5. ^ Russo, Alessandro (2020). Cultural Revolution and revolutionary culture. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-4780-1218-4. OCLC 1156439609.
  6. ^ Khatchadourian, Raffi. "Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  7. ^ Xie, Huanchi (February 20, 2020). "Xi stresses winning people's war against novel coronavirus". Xinhua News Agency. Archived from the original on February 28, 2020. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, on Monday stressed resolutely winning the people's war of epidemic prevention and control with firmer confidence, stronger resolve and more decisive measures.
  8. ^ Guarding History: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Memory of the Iran-Iraq War Archived August 17, 2023, at the Wayback Machine