April 5, 2009:
Although the Chinese army has over 1.5 million troops, their equipment is largely primitive and elderly. Take, for example, one of the elite units; the 2nd Armored Division. Stationed near the coast, opposite Taiwan, the 2nd Armored would be one of the key units if there were ever an attempt to invade Taiwan.
This division has three tank regiments (each with about 80 tanks, plus some infantry). Two of these regiments are still equipped with Type 59 tanks (a copy of the 1950s era Russian T-55). These regiments first received their Type 59s in the early 1960s. Those tanks are no longer in service, but were simply replaced by more recently manufactured Type 59s. The latest version, the Type59D, was introduced in the 1990s, adding reactive armor, a 105mm gun and better fire control. This year and next, the Type 59s will finally be replaced by a more modern tank; the Type 96 or Type 88s.
The 50 ton Type 96 (also called Type 88C) has a three man crew and modern sensors and electronics. The 90 series tanks are Chinese designs, and there appear to be as many as 2500 Type 90 series tanks in service, with as many as two thirds of them Type 96s. There are another 700 Type 70s and 80s, both of which were stepping stones to the 90 series. Most Chinese tanks, about 5,000, are Type 59s. Most of these have been upgraded from being a clone of the Russian T-55 to T-55 clones equipped with Western guns (copies of the British L7 105mm gun, firing depleted uranium shells) and modern electronics. China also has a copy of the German 120mm gun, which it may try to install in some Type 59 upgrades. Those Type 59s that don't get upgraded are being scrapped. This apparently means that the Type 59 force will shrink by at least several hundred tanks a year until all are gone.
The third regiment of the 2nd Armored division already has the Type 96 tanks, and the troops in the other two regiments will take a year or more to get used to them. The Type 59 is a much more primitive tank, even after being upgraded. China is very strict about keeping information on its tank force secret, but cell phones and the Internet use is widespread in China, and more information is getting out. The most modern tanks they have appear to be the Type 98 and 99, which come close to matching early models of the U.S. M-1.