August 21, 2013: The Chinese armed forces is running into problems raising the standards of its officers and specialists. Over the last few years the Chinese have made more of an effort to attract college graduates to the military. Much to the dismay of recruiters, most (at least 60 percent) applicants failed the physical. The most common problems were being overweight or having bad eyesight. Pundits blame this on the popularity of video games and the one-child policy.
In response to this, the military lowered recruiting standards in 2008 and 2011, but most applicants continued to be unacceptable for military service. Analysis of data collected from the unqualified applicants indicates that the main causes for the various problems were higher living standards and the greater amount of time spent studying (instead of play, exercise, or physical activity in general).
This is a new development because suddenly (in the last two decades) China has its first middle class. But with the large number of young men who have attended college comes a generation that suddenly switched to a higher-calorie Western diet and a low-physical activity Western lifestyle. This change is most striking when you look at photos of Chinese soldiers from the last century. You rarely see anyone who is overweight, and the men of heft are usually older and very senior. But now you see junior officers who are actually fat. It’s a striking change and, in historical terms, quite sudden.
Japan had a similar problem after their economy took off in the 1960s. By the 1980s there were family photos showing the younger adults towering over their parents and grandparents (often by 30cm/a foot or more). This was not a big deal militarily because the Japanese military was much smaller and it was easier to maintain high physical standards. But the Chinese want, and need, a lot more officers.
It’s not just more overweight officers with poor eyesight. The Chinese armed forces have changed a lot in the last decade. Uneducated country boys are no longer welcome. Then again, neither are tattooed and pierced urban hipsters or anyone who snores. Recruiting standards have changed a lot. In the 1990s, the military was, as the Chinese like to say, a “peasant’s army.” Worse, none of the officers or NCOs had any combat experience. The last of the Korean War vets were gone and the few veterans of the 1979 war with Vietnam were still trying to forget that disaster. The army was largely non-mechanized, with many primitive weapons and aging equipment. That has all changed in the last decade.
Now most of the troops are better educated, more experienced, and largely from urban areas. Most of these troops are single children, the result of the “one child” policy. Officially introduced in 1978, this draconian solution to population growth did not really get going until the 1980s. In the last decade nearly all the new recruits came from single child families. Often called “little princes,” their parents (and grandparents) lavished them with all the attention usually spread among many more kids. Often described as spoiled, these kids did get more adult attention, better education, and more of everything. They enter the military with lots of skills (computer, driving, and the ability to learn new stuff in a hurry). The best of these kids went to the top universities but few of these hotshots choose the military as a career.
The army has found that this new generation is much more capable and quick to learn. Senior commanders welcome this because it’s the kind of manpower Western forces use to achieve very impressive results on the battlefield. Chinese NCOs and officers have learned how to work around the bad habits (selfishness, insubordination, stubbornness) of some little princes and make the most of the talents these troops bring with them. The most incorrigible little princes are just tossed out.
Partly in response to this dramatic change, China revised its Military Service Law (which stipulates how troops are recruited, their living conditions, and benefits in general) in 2011, for the first time since the 1990s. In an attempt to get more highly educated young Chinese to join, living conditions are being improved and pay has been increased. Moreover, in recognition of the fact that many of the brightest troops will not make a career out of the military, the new law gives departing troops help in getting a good civilian job. One of the more attractive benefits is help with college tuition for soldiers who successfully complete their service. The Chinese probably noted how successful the U.S. G.I. Bill educational benefits were in attracting prime recruits, if only for a while. But that enables men and women with an aptitude for military service to discover that they like and can make a career of it.
There’s more and more discussion in the state-controlled Chinese media about the need for college educated men to join the armed forces. The military has made themselves more attractive to college grads and has been able to attract more of them. But the military has not been able to attract many from the top universities. These are the men needed to lead the troops in 20-30 years, when Chinese forces will be much more powerful. The Chinese military is getting a lot more high-tech gear in the next three decades, and it knows that it will require high quality leaders to get the most out of it. At the moment it looks like the high-end gear will arrive on schedule but not the high end leadership. There are too many more attractive opportunities in the civilian economy and the conscription process is corrupt enough that anyone who doesn’t want to be in the military can avoid it. This is troubling because the government, and to a lesser extent the military leadership, want to do something about the corruption in the military. This problem can best be addressed with better quality leadership. The current leadership knows that many of its senior officers are dirty. All these guys came up in the wake of the calamitous 1960s “Cultural Revolution.” This disaster discredited the communists and led to the economic reforms (a market economy) of the 1980s. The Communist Party is still in charge but wants to deal with the corruption (which is fomenting rebellious attitudes among the people) and increase the quality of leadership in the military. This is proving to be difficult.
The military is smaller now. A decade ago there were 2.4 million, 40 percent of them conscripts. Now there are 2.1 million with a third of them conscripts. Most Chinese troops are volunteers. Technically, about 700,000 men are conscripts that serve for two years, with each year’s class of conscripts inducted in the autumn. Only about 350,000 conscripts are inducted each year, and nearly all of these tend to be volunteers. That’s because only about four percent of each year’s crop of 18 year old males is needed. How do they decide who to take? Naturally the army tries to get the most physically, psychologically, and educationally fit for the armed forces. To that end the military has been administering tests to draftees for about a decade now. If you’re not literate (over 90 percent of Chinese are) they don’t want you. But the better educated 18 year olds don’t want to go into the military, not with that booming economy out there. If selected most of these lads bribe their way out, or simply rely on there being enough qualified volunteers to satisfy the recruiting officials.
A lot of young men who don’t have much education very much want to get into the military. For one thing, it’s a job, and there are opportunities for education and advancement. The military tries to identify the more capable among these poor, uneducated young men, so they can be taken into service. Men who have been accepted by a university are automatically exempt, as are those with a criminal record. Drug addicts, the physically or mentally infirm, and anyone who just doesn’t seem right to the examiners, is exempt from conscription. And for many of those who are perfect, there are numerous officials willing to take a bribe and get you off the list.
The work of deciding who actually gets drafted is done by thousands of draft boards or, as the Chinese call them, People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). Each is assigned a quota, based on how many 18 year olds are coming of age in a town or city neighborhood. Since these locations vary greatly in the wealth and educational levels of the inhabitants, some PAFDs have an easy time of it, while others have to struggle to meet their quota. In some wealthy PAFDs hardly anyone wants to go and some interesting soap operas ensue. In less wealthy PAFDs bribes will be paid to get some kids in. Not large bribes but you get the picture. In the late 1990s, the operation of the PAFDs was turned over to the military, in an attempt to reduce the corruption and ensure that the best quality recruits were obtained. This was partially successful.