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The Chinese Military Struggles To Overcome Its Past
by James Dunnigan
September 28, 2013

Over the last four years the Chinese armed forces have encountered some serious problems trying to recruit more college graduates. Back in 2010, the military announced that it was aiming to recruit 150,000 college graduates a year. But after much effort only 100,000 were persuaded to join. Many of those that were persuaded to serve a few years would decide they liked it enough to make it a career (as an NCO or officer). But since 2010, the military has been silent about how many college grads it is getting, although it is believed to be around 100,000.  In other words, the military has only been able to obtain about 70 percent of the college grades it sought.

The military was surprised at this because there is a rapidly growing number of male college grads (over three million a year), and currently a quarter of them are unable to find jobs. Yet the military is still having trouble attracting more than a 100,000 of them. A major problem is meeting the physical standards. Sixty percent of college grads who sought to join failed the physical exam. Poor eyesight was a big problem, with 23 percent of applicants failing to qualify because of that. Another 19 percent were too fat or too thin (and unable to put on or take off enough weight to change that).

The military has responded by lowering recruiting standards in 2008 and 2011, but most applicants continued to be unacceptable for military service. Recently, someone in the senior military leadership realized that there was a basic flaw in the military effort to attract more college and high school graduates; the traditional induction date for new recruits was November first, six months after most of these prospects actually graduated. Like their Russian mentors (who provided most of the basic modern military traditions), China inducts most of its new troops at one time, in November each year (Russia does it twice a year, but China never adopted that approach). November was at the end of the main harvest and most young men had little to do over the Winter months so Russia, and China, favored this time of the year to induct and train new recruits. Times have changed and it was decided to change the induction date to August 1st, to make it easier to attract new graduates before they found jobs in the civilian economy. It’s a simple idea that makes a big difference. Changing over to a Western style year-round induction system requires many more internal changes and more expense and will have to wait. Changing the annual induction date, on the other hand, was a lot cheaper. But it didn’t bring in enough additional recruits to solve the shortage of college graduate recruits.

This has been very disappointing because the number of male college grads was only about 400,000 a year back in 1998, and has increased to over three million in 15 years. The government is spending all this money on new colleges (and expanding existing ones) because it has noted that the better educated countries have stronger economies and more content populations. But while the Chinese military is fifty percent larger than the American one, and China has nearly four times as many people, the U.S. has no trouble getting all the highly educated recruits it needs. The main reason for this is that in America (and the West in general) the military is a respected institution. In China the military is held in low regard, mainly because of traditions of corruption and incompetence. Thus the problem here is one of fundamentally changing the military to a less corrupt and more efficient institution and then selling that new image to the public. None of that is easy to do.

Chinese politicians and military leaders continue experimenting. To that end 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. Bills 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 users, and leaders, to get the most out of it. At the moment it looks like the high-end gear will arrive on schedule but not enough of the high end troops and officers.

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.  


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