In the late 1990s China decided to model its rapidly modernizing armed forces on the Western model. Chinese were impressed with how the American led force demolished the Iraqi army in 1991. This “Hundred Hour War” was an impressive demonstration of how a well-equipped and well-trained all-volunteer force could roll over a Soviet-style, largely conscript force, even when outnumbered. There were several instances during that short war when outnumbered American units defeated larger Iraqi forces. Chinese officers looked at that and decided that this was the kind of military China needed. This attitude was reinforced in 2003 when two American and one British division invaded and defeated Iraq in a few weeks. In both those wars the Americans allowed TV journalists to accompany the combat units, so there was lots of video for Chinese troops and officers to study.
By 2003 China was still hampered by a force modeled on the Russian (Soviet Union) model, an organizational style that had largely been discredited. China still depended on conscription for a lot of its troops and were only beginning to build an effective NCO (sergeants and petty officers) corps along with better trained and selected officers.
China found that it was a lot easier to obtain modern weapons and combat uniforms than it was to train the troops to fight like the Westerners. Changing recruiting, training and leadership methods is still a work in process, even after about 25 years of effort. For example, one crucial factor in achieving combat effectiveness similar to the Americans was unit cohesion. U.S. combat units trained for over a year to create a brigade that was ready to deploy overseas for combat. That preparation period could be compressed, but only if most of the same troops remained with the unit. This was, and still is, impossible for Chinse army units. The problem is that a third of the two million strong Chinese military are still conscripts, most of whom are gone in two years. Worse, most of those conscripts are in the army, which accounts for about half the military personnel.
It gets worse. Until recently, every year all the new conscripts came in at once. The traditional induction date for new recruits was November first. Like their Russian mentors, China inducted most of its new troops at one time. Russia does it twice a year, but China only recently adopted that approach. November was at the end of the main harvest season and most young men had little to do over the Winter months so Russia, and China, favored this time of the year to induct new and train recruits.
In China this was made worse because these new recruits were trained by local (to where they lived) military units. This meant these units, especially the army ones, lost about a third of their troops and had to assign another five or ten percent of the unit to training the new conscripts. In effect most army units were much less effective for half the year. The navy, air force and rocket forces had far fewer conscripts and were not much disrupted by the annual induction and discharge of conscripts. In fact, most ship crews have no conscripts at all. This was much the same in front-line air force and rocket (ballistic missile) units. Some elite army units, like special operations and airborne, had far fewer conscripts and were not disrupted.
Since 2015 China has been addressing this problem by moving the induction date back to a month or so, so induction takes place a month or so after high school and college students graduate. Induction was then conducted twice a year and in 2020 a new schedule of even more frequent inductions was to begin in January 2020. The coronavirus disrupted that and that new program will instead begin in 2021. The plan is to eventually induct new troops year-round, as in the West. To make that work the Chinese also shifted to separate basic training centers. Again, this was based on the Western model. In a few years Chinese combat units will be able to train and be combat ready as their American counterparts are. However, this requires that the Chinese program to build a Western style NCO force succeeds. So far the NCO program seems to be working but this sort of thing takes time, and another decade or two will be needed to complete.
Another major change in the Chinese military is persuading more high school and college graduates to volunteer for service and stay in for up to ten years. Until the last few decades there were not a lot of Chinese high school and college graduates in general and the military ran its own schools and did not depend on civilian universities for new personnel. Times have changed and that was one reason for changing the induction date to August 1st, to make it easier to attract new graduates before they found good 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. Changing the annual induction date, on the other hand, was a lot cheaper.
Since 2008 the Chinese military has made themselves more attractive to college grads and has been able to attract more of them. While about 150,000 college grads join each year, the military has not been able to attract many from the top universities. These are the men needed by the senior military leadership in 20-30 years, when Chinese forces will be much more powerful and complex. That's because the Chinese military is getting a lot more high-tech gear, a process that will continue in the future. It is obvious 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, while many who need a job but are not qualified can bribe their way in. This is troubling because the government, and to a lesser extent the military leadership, want to do something about corruption in the military. This problem can best be addressed with better quality leadership at the top. 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 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 corruption problem is made worse by the fact that conscription is handled by local entities, which are run by local politicians who are often corrupt, or willing to tolerate a lot of corruption. The military has tried to address this by sending more army personnel to increase the number of them assisting the local officials while also trying to spot who is corrupt and report those officials for prosecution.
The Chinese armed forces have changed a lot since 2000. Uneducated country boys are no longer welcome. Then again, neither are tattooed and pierced urban hipsters or anyone who snores. 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 like computers, driving, and the ability to learn new stuff in a hurry. The best of these kids went to the top universities and few choose the military as a career.
The army has found that this new generation is much more capable and quicker 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.
The Chinese military is smaller now than in 2000. A decade ago there were 2.4 million, 40 percent of them conscripts. Now there are two 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 nearly two decades 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, if only because most of the people running each PAFD were still locals and often reporting to some corrupt local official.
Partly in response to this dramatic change, China recently revised its Military Service Law (which stipulates how troops are recruited, their living conditions, and benefits in general) 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.
China will eventually have a Western quality military, or something very close to it. The Chinese realize this takes time, as in several decades. The Chinese are willing to take the time, make the effort and do it right.