The Third Front is a massive Chinese development of industry in its south-western interior, where it would be strategically secure in the event of a war.
Begun in the 1960s, it was little mentioned at the time. It was loosely linked with the Three Gorges Dam. The basic idea was to have an industrial base that would be secure from foreign attack, unlike the coastal industries or Manchuria (Northeast China).
- The 'Third Front' refers to a large-scale programme the country started in 1964 -- in response to the then volatile international situation -- to build a range of industrial bases in its remote yet strategically secured hinterland.
- By 1980, the programme had created a railway grid linking previously isolated parts of south-western and western China, in addition to a galaxy of power, aviation and electronic plants, said Zhang Yunchuan, minister of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence. (People's Daily Online)
Mao and his generals envisaged three line of defense (coastal, central, and western), and they decided in 1964 on a massive construction of military-industrial complexes in westen China, the third line of defense, popularly translated as the "third front"
To minimize the vulnerability of the third-front industries to air attack, Lin Biao, the then Defense Minister and Mao's designated successor, instructed that these project be located "in mountains, in dispersion, and in caves"
The area of the Third Front is the hardest part of China for any invading foreign power to access. During the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45, it remained unconquered. The Kuointang (at that time in alliance with the Chinese Communists based at Yenan) made Chongqing their capital. Some Chinese industry was also moved there from the cities. So the 'Third Front' strategy had precedents, though it was immediate politics that was the main cause:
- From the early 1960s, with its Soviet ties deteriorating and the Vietnam War escalating, China became concerned of a possible nuclear attack. As a result, Mao Zedong ordered an evacuation of military and other key state enterprises away from Shanghai and other coastal areas and from the northeastern frontier region bordering the Soviet Union and started moving them in 1964 to the interior in Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan and other inland provinces. In those days, the coastal and the northeastern frontier regions were known as the 'first front line' and the inland regions in the southwest as the "third front line," while all the land area in between was designated as the 'second front line.' (Japan-China relations)
For a time, Peng Dehuai was in charge of the Third Front, but he was arrested in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution.
Even today, the composition of the 'third front' remains a mystery. Parts of it have been shown to the outside world, primarily that of factories seeking investment. The mountainous terrain and geographical isolation of the region have added to this concealment.
- Due to the emphasis that China has placed on concealment of its special weapons capabilities, it is doubtful whether any other country, perhaps even including the United States, has identified all of China's special weapons related facilities. (Chinese Nuclear Weapons )
From the 1980s, with the post-Mao economic reform, there was a shift to non-military production and an attempt to attract foreign investment. Much of the output is now non-military:
- A number of moribund factories were shut down, many ventures were moved close to urban areas, and technological renovation has enabled them to produce competitive products for civilian use...
- Part of the achievement is that a batch of 'backbone' enterprises has evolved from the `Third Front' to develop more than 2,000 products including satellite and automobile parts and civilian aircraft, said Ji Dawei, a chief co-ordinator for the relocation drive.
- The machinery, metallurgical, chemical and non-ferrous mineral and other companies based in the 'Third Front' have laid a solid foundation for the economic take-off of western China. (China putting on a brave 'Third Front' )
The 'Third Front' is the setting for a recent Chinese film called Shanghai Dreams. Set in the 1980s, it is a bleak and thoughtful drama that shows the life of some ordinary families who had moved there and would like to move back to Shanghai.
- Article in China Quarterly
- China's military industry enterprises come out of mountains to world market
- Regional Development Strategies in China
- Paper about Chinese regional development from Harvard University
- Beijing and the Vietnam Conflict, 1964-1965
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