The Museum of China’s Third Front Movement at Panzhihua

When the “Sino-Soviet Split” reached its climax during the 1960s, it had an important impact on China’s military policy. According to Jeremy Friedman, especially the time between 1963 and 1965 can be seen as “the most intense period of direct competition between the USSR and the PRC” (Friedman 2015: 104) since the Chinese government tried to emancipate itself from its “Big Brother” to establish own supremacy in the Afro-Asian bloc.

At the same time, the relation between China and the United States also started to deteriorate due to the American engagement in the Vietnam conflict due to the severity of the situation in China’s foreign policy, Chairman Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (1893-1976) not only feared a militant conflict between the USA and the USSR, but also apprehended the possibility of an American nuclear strike, which could easily reach China’s coastal area (Vogelsang 2013: 559).

As stated in Covell Meyskens study “Mao’s Third Front”, the fear of a Sino-American or a Sino-Soviet was the trigger for a huge project of industrialization that was executed in the hinterlands of China. In case of a hostile assault, the so-called Third Front Movement 三线建设 should maintain the supply of industrial goods during a possible war. Since the beginning of the campaign in 1964, not only factories were moved from the coast side to the hinterland, but also the transport infrastructure was expanded in these regions, for instance, the building of the Chengdu—Kunming Railroad (Meyskens 2020: 134-140). The aim was to connect the new industrial areas with the front line.

Picture 1: Chengdu-Kunming Railway that links between Chengdu and Kunming, but also important facilities like Xichang Satellite Launch Center and Pangang

To be sheltered from hostile air raids, most of the industrial compounds belonging to the Third Front were established in hidden places. One of the most prominent projects was the establishment of a huge steel plant at Panzhihua 攀枝花 in Sichuan Province 四川省. Though the steel plant was built mainly during the 1960s, preparations were already made ten years earlier. From 1955 to 1957, several exploration campaigns were started to discover large miming areas in the mountains around Panzhihua (People’s Daily 人民日报 1958). The steel plant originally was planned to be constructed during the Great Leap Forward大跃进 (1958-1962), but problems such as material shortages and insufficient preparatory work were held responsible for the termination of the project in 1962 (Meyskens 2020: 71).

Only two years later in July 1964, Mao entrusted the State Planning Commission 国家发展和改革委员会 under its leader Li Fuchun 李富春 (1900-1975) to continue the construction of the Panzhihua complex. Though the steel production was considered as the main purpose, several coal mines and units for the creation of construction materials were established as well (Yang 1997: 29). Because of the huge dimension of the steel plant, a high number of workers were required. As a consequence, thousands of worker families moved to Panzhihua and their new life as participants of the Third Front Movement, it became home to at least 60.000 people (Meyskens 2020: 167). To accommodate all these people, essential institutions of everyday life were built, that is schools, hospitals, and even facilities of cultural activity.

Picture 2: Panzhihua Iron and Steel factory built on mountains

Although Panzhihua already started its production in 1970, the steel plant seemingly was incapable to make any profit after it was inaugurated. According to an article that was published by Xinhua Domestic Service, the steel mill suffered from annual deficits for eight years from 1970 up to 1978 (N.N. 1985: 9). At the same time, the state government reduced its financial subvention for the Third Front as well, namely from 52% of the capital construction budget down to 33% (Zhao 1991: 183, 188). This reduction of state subsidy might result from the changing circumstances in foreign policy. Because of the increasing Sino-American convergence during the 1970s, a war with the USSR seemed to be more and more unrealistic. In addition, the Chinese government regarded the United States as a potential protective power in case of an assault on behalf of the USSR (Vogelsang 2013: 574). Due to this detente in foreign policy, several Third Front projects were cancelled, and some factories were even closed down (Meyskens 2020: 233). The Panzhihua steel plant, however, survived this “wind of change” concerning foreign affairs and is still considered to be an important player in China’s heavy industry (See: official website of Panzhihua Iron and Steel).

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the plant in 2015, a memorial museum was inaugurated, which reflects not only the history of Panzhihua but also recalls the Third Front Movement as a whole. According to the official website, the Museum of China’s Third Front Movement at Panzhihua 攀枝花中国三线建设博物馆 shows both the historical background of the Third Front and the history of its construction in 13 provinces. In addition, the museum represents the biggest museum in China that portrays the history of the Third Front.

Although the museum was admitted to the batches of “Sichuan Province Patriotic Education Bases 四川省爱国主义教育基地” or “Sichuan Province Chinese Communist History Education Bases 四川省中国共产党史教育基地” (iwenbo. fun), the site still was not announced as a site of Red Tourism. This is surprising since the site is considered to be a place that demonstrates the core values of socialism (Li 2018).


Friedman, Jeremy (2015): Shadow Cold War – The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Li Xiaodong 李晓东 and Feng Fan 冯帆 (21.05.2018): “Panzhihua: chuancheng ‘san xian jianshe jingshen’ – manzu renmin qunzhong dui meihao shenghuo de xuyao (fu tupian) 攀枝花:传承‘三线建设精神’满足人民群众对美好生活的需要(附图片)(Panzhihua: Inheriting the ‘Spirit of the Third Front’ to meet the people’s needs for a better life (with pictures)”. In: Guangming Ribao 光明日报. 

Meyskens, Covell F. (2020): Mao’s Third Front – The Militarization of Cold War China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

N.N. (14.08.1985): “Central Comission Commends Panzhihua Experience” In: Daily Report. China. Pp. 9-10.

N.N. (11.01.1958): „Xinan zui da de tiekuang Panzhihua tiekuang tiquan kantan wanbi 西南最大的铁矿 攀枝花铁矿提前勘探完毕 (The Panzhihua Iron Mine, the largest Iron Mine in Southwest China, is explored ahead of schedule)”. In: People`s Daily 人民日报.

Yang Guanfu 杨官富 (1997): Cong shenmi zouxiang huihang – Panzhihua kaifa jianshe shi hua 从神秘走向辉煌 攀枝花开发建设史话 (From Mistery to Glory – The History of Panzhihua’s Development and Construction). Beijing 北京: Red Flag Printing House.

Zhao Dexin 赵德馨 (1991): Zhonghua renmin gongheguo jingji shi 中国人民共和国经济史 1967-1984 (The Econimic History of the People’s Republic of China). Zhengzhou郑州:  Henan People’s Publishing House.


Official Website of Panzhihua Iron and Steel:

Official Website of the Museum of China’s Third Front Movement at Panzhihua: 攀枝花中国三线建设博物馆 (


List of Pictures:

Picture 1: Chengdu-Kunming Railway that links between Chengdu and Kunming, but also important facilities like Xichang Satellite Launch Center and Pangang (source:, author: HighestBridges – Own work.

Featured Image/ Picture 2: Panzhihua Iron and Steel factory built on mountains (source:, author: Zhangzj cet – Own work.

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