he lot of the soldier hasn’t always been a happy one in China. One traditional proverb runs “Don’t waste good iron on nails or good men on soldiers.” But under former leader Mao Zedong, the military was exalted for its role in defeating Japan, reunifying China and holding off the US in the Korean War. Joining the military was one of the main ways out of poverty for ordinary rural men and women.
But today, recruiting soldiers for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has become increasingly difficult, according to Sheng Bin, head of the National Defense Mobilization Department under the Central Military Commission. Sheng says people are less and less enthusiastic about joining the army, now seen as a route to a hard life rather than a heroic option. In theory, China has conscription. But those laws are almost never used, and voluntary recruitment, which used to provide an ample supply of soldiers, has fallen sharply.
The solution, say experts, is to provide better benefits for both active duty soldiers and veterans, and to increase the sense that serving the country is an honorable and worthwhile choice.
Ever since Major General Tan Wenhu, the former commander of Shandong Provincial Military Command, submitted a proposal during the Two Sessions, China’s annual parliament, in 2011, saying that challenges in recruitment must be met, the lack of service personnel recruits has drawn increased attention.
According to census data from the National Bureau of Statistics, the annual increase in China’s population between 1998 to 2000 averaged about 19 million. Between 2016 to 2018, this cohort is reaching 18, the minimum age of military service. Given that about 7 million students pass the college entrance examination every year, of the remaining 12 million, at least half – or 6 million – are potential servicemen, an expert from within the military told NewsChina. Very few university-educated men join the military, and only 7 percent of service personnel are female.
Between 1988 and 1990, however, the average annual increase in population was about 24 million. Considering only 5.7 million students were enrolled annually between 2006 and 2008, China had over 9 million potential servicemen in 2006. Therefore, in just a decade, China lost 3 million potential recruits a year.
One major factor is that after 1980, China strictly implemented a “one-child” policy that was only shifted to a “two-child” policy late last year. This has been a major deterrent for potential recruits, who fear that their parents will be left childless if they are killed in service, and who some blame for being too spoiled to serve. A 2015 report by the RAND Center, a major US think tank, cited the alleged softness of the one-child generation as one of many potential weaknesses in the Chinese military. A military expert consulted by NewsChina also cited single-child families as having “greater implications for the military than either modernizing weapons or information warfare.”
Recruiting more college graduates is one way to solve the problem. College graduates first started being recruited in 2001 – but the idea has made little progress.
There are three possible routes into the military for graduates. The army recruits “national defense students” from non-military universities and they transfer to army-run academies; students are enlisted as “special recruits,” or they directly join up upon graduation.
In order to motivate students to enlist, the government has introduced policies such as allowing them to return to university after they retire from the military, and by switching the recruitment period each year from the winter to just before graduation in the summer. They are also offered a series of incentives to stay in the military, such as a better chance to be trained as officers or as political cadres.
An informed source from within the military, however, told NewsChina that few such college graduates stay on after the mandatory two years of service.
Unlike national defense students or special recruits who become cadres upon graduation, fresh college graduates are subject to the same treatment as junior or senior high school graduates. This dampens their enthusiasm to join the army.
Since the only path they have is to train as an officer or be discharged, the military offers them few opportunities and many of them feel their time there has been wasted.
The newly-established National Defense Mobilization Department under the Central Military Commission has been actively exploring new methods of recruitment.
In 2003, the army carried out pilot programs to directly recruit officers from among college students at certain ordinary institutions of higher learning, following the model of the college-based American Reserve Officers’ Training Corps; the recruited officers will enter active service upon graduation. Since 2012, the General Staff Department (now renamed) and the Ministry of Education have been carrying out pilot programs that train future officers through directed education at 11 non-military vocational colleges; the program is aimed at producing high-quality officers for the army. This approach mitigates the difficulty of retaining college students.
In contrast, students who volunteer for the program but then shirk their military responsibilities will face stricter punishments. In the past, such cases were dealt with quietly to avoid public attention; but in 2016, base training camps in northwestern Ningxia and southwestern Yunnan made public the punishments for four voluntary enlistees who then refused service, including substantial fines and restrictions on their ability to serve as officials or travel abroad.
Military sources also suggested that the Conscription Law, Regulations on the Military Service of Enlisted Men and other regulations related to military service should be revised and improved to make them more operable in practice, as well as to standardize and systematize the responsibilities, rights and benefits of recruitment, making service a more popular option and it harder for people to shirk their voluntary duties.
The shift to a “two-child policy” may also help. It won’t immediately increase the supply of personnel, but the move helps improve the fundamentals of recruitment in the long run.
Several respondents from within the military held that the difficulty of recruitment is caused by more than one factor. If policies, regulations and legislating efforts are the “hard” measures to tackle it, then increasing the popular awareness of national defense and making the military a profession that commands wide respect are “soft” ones.
During the “Two Sessions” in 2016, Sheng Bin proposed that the supporting policies and mechanisms must apply not only to young enlistees, but also to former soldiers. He also suggested that a system that safeguards army personnel’s sense of honor should be established to truly cultivate society’s respect and confidence in their duty.
The ability to mobilize and replace troops is the basis of a country’s overall combat capacity as well as an important measure of its military strength, and so China must have a considerable ability to replace or supplement soldiers, an anonymous source at the Academy of Military Sciences told NewsChina.
China’s military has formed a consensus on reforming and building a new recruitment system that can meet the demands required of modern warfare.
Specifically, the new basic recruitment system will have a volunteer foundation, supplemented by some form of conscription and the role of the militia and the army reserves. If this system can meet the needs of the times, it can aid China’s transformation into a modern military power.