Leadership: China And The Elusive Quality


April 11, 2010: The Chinese armed forces have a serious officer shortage. Not just insufficient applicants for career officer jobs, but the military does not attract the most capable people. That is a big problem. Last year, 130,000 college graduates sought to join the military, and 100,000 were accepted. The best college graduates take better paying, and more interesting, jobs in the civilian economy. The military is trying to catch up. Last year there were pay raises for junior officers, and a $3,500 bonus for college grads who were accepted for military service. Now, the military has established a web site for potential recruits, perhaps after noting the long, and extensive, American use of the Internet to attract high quality recruits.

Although China still has conscription, the armed forces are basically staffed with volunteers. But the three decade economic boom has made it difficult for the military to get the quality people it wants. Thus many Chinese officers are, for want of a better word, losers. China recently gave its junior officers a raise, and has been running a propaganda campaign praising military service, and encouraging college graduates to sign up. This has only helped a little.

The Chinese are looking for quality, because they have found that quantity has not worked for them. This in the last two decades, the Chinese armed forces has shrunk by nearly two million troops, and in two years will have gone from 2.1 million active duty personnel to only 1.6 million troops (not much larger than the 1.5 million American force). China also has 660,000 personnel in the national police, and 1.2 million organized reservists.

This shrinking of the armed forces includes a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs (sergeants). Until recently, about a third of the Chinese military personnel were officers. This high proportion of officers was adopted from the Russians, who did not want to develop a professional NCO corps. But the Chinese are developing professional NCOs as well, and another third of the force are NCOs, or long term enlisted troops working towards becoming NCOs. To attract high quality conscripts, who will stay in the service to become NCOs, the military offers bonuses and help with college tuition. It will even take college graduates and promote them, right after basic training, to an NCO rank.

As the military has shrunk over the last decade, most of the missing troops are officers. Older, and less educated officers were retired, and new, better educated ones, sought among the ranks of recent college graduates. The military used to rely a lot on enlisted troops becoming officers, via selection and a few months training. No more. With 20 percent of Chinese 18 year olds going to college, there is an opportunity to quickly upgrade the officer corps (at least in terms of formal education.) The military finally noticed that college students spent a lot of time on the Internet, thus the shift of recruiting effort to special web sites.



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