China’s military has used annual budget increases in excess of 10 percent to buy precision-guided weapons, fighter jets and an aircraft carrier. Now it’s seeking to upgrade its recruits to operate them.
For Wu, a 20-year-old journalism student at a university in Beijing, that means his college fees are paid and he has an extra 3,500 yuan ($561) a year to live on. Wu, who asked to be identified only by his surname because he’s forbidden from speaking publicly, takes extra lessons on war strategy alongside regular classes. He’ll join the People’s Liberation Army as a trainee officer when he graduates in 2016.
“In the past our weapons were quite primitive so you didn’t need too much knowledge,” Wu said, sitting in a cafe on a campus in the capital. “You just used a gun and that was OK. Now there’s a need for better quality people.”
China is following the example of the U.S. Reserve Officers’ Training Corps by increasing incentives for bright minds to serve in the armed forces. President Xi Jinping, the head of the Central Military Commission, has made an army that’s better prepared for combat a priority as China becomes more assertive in regional territorial disputes. China plans to fold developers of military hardware into listed state-owned companies, people familiar with the matter said this week, giving them access to capital markets as it prioritizes high-technology defense capability.
“Their biggest difficulty right now is recruiting and retaining technical non-commissioned officers,” said Christopher Johnson, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic & International Studies. “They’re getting all these shiny new pieces of gear and if you’re operating off a conscription system those guys are two years and out. By the time you train them up they’re already leaving.”
Wu says officers are expected to serve longer than the minimum two years required of regular recruits. Males in China are registered for military service when they reach 18 but are exempt if they are in full-time school or the only worker in their family providing means of subsistence, according to the country’s Military Service Law.
Recruitment for 2014 started this month and will run to early August, according to a notice on a government website. Starting last year, annual military recruitment was switched from winter to the summer and autumn, which better coincides with when students graduate, an article on the website said.
A series of beneficial policies has “inspired the patriotic enthusiasm” of college students to join the army, the PLA Daily reported last August. The proportion of graduates signing up for the military reached about 10 percent in most places during the recruitment period last year, it said. The number of students applying online to join the military surpassed 200,000 as of August, the official Xinhua News Agency said in a separate article the same month, citing the Ministry of Education.
Recruitment campaigns include drives at universities from Beijing to eastern cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai. Last August, female astronaut Liu Yang answered questions from high school students at Renmin University in Beijing to promote sign-ups.
The PLA is reforming its academies to cultivate junior officers capable of “leveraging technology in all war-fighting functions for joint operations,” the U.S. Department of Defense said in its 2013 review of China’s military that was submitted to Congress. China’s Ministry of Defense didn’t respond to questions sent by fax about the focus on college recruiting.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army are not Boy Scouts with red-tasseled spears,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters last month in Beijing, in response to a question on China’s rising military spending and capacity.
The central government is boosting defense spending 12.2 percent this year to $808.2 billion yuan ($129.6 billion). The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency says such official amounts are artificially low, with real expenditure estimated to have reached $240 billion last year. The Pentagon proposed a budget for the coming fiscal year of $495.6 billion and to reduce the Army’s personnel by 6 percent by 2015.
While China’s military spending has roughly kept pace with economic growth in recent years, the 2.3 million-strong PLA must keep up with rising wages in the civilian sector. That’s likely to make things more expensive for the PLA, though there isn’t enough data to estimate how much, said Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College.
China should enhance the attractiveness of being an officer and pay salaries “significantly higher” than civil servants, Du Renhuai, a professor at the PLA Nanjing Institute of Politics, wrote in the PLA Daily on Feb. 24.
“Their economic, political and social status should be at the forefront of society,” he wrote.
Chinese students now expect a monthly salary of 6,564 yuan after graduating, according to a survey released April 4 by New York-based employer branding firm Universum, which drew on data compiled from over 51,000 students at more than 100 universities across the country.
That compares with about 4,000 to 5,000 yuan a month that student Wu expects he will earn when he joins up.
While Wu says he can earn more going into the private sector, he said the army also takes care of food and lodging.
“It solves the problem of employment after you graduate,” said Wu. “Competition for jobs in China is quite fierce. Being enlisted in the army is stable.”
Other perks include granting sought-after residency permits, known as a hukou, to those who graduate in the capital, the Beijing News reported in July.
Still, an officer who would only go by his surname Liu said the recruitment program mostly attracts students from the countryside. Liu, 25, received an extra 500 yuan a month in living expenses while a defense student at a university in the central city of Wuhan, before joining the army in 2011.
“To some in poor areas it is quite attractive, but you can’t say it’s attractive for everyone,” he said by phone. “I joined for a simple reason: to serve my country.”
Efforts to boost the quality of recruits have been hampered by a decline in the health of candidates, with 60 percent of applicants from colleges failing the physical fitness examination and some being overweight, the state-owned China Daily reported in August.
Improving pay and quality of recruits may also have a side benefit as Xi campaigns to curb corruption within the army. In the most high-profile military corruption case since the Communists came to power, former Lieutenant-General Gu Junshan was charged with embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power, Xinhua said March 31. Gu, 57, entered the military from middle-school after being raised in a village in Henan province.
“If you pay people better they’re less likely to feel the need to seek other sources of income,” said Andrew Scobell, an Arlington, Virginia-based senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation who has studied China’s military. “There are all these incentives to try and attract the kinds of people they need.”
For student Wu, the rewards are only part of the appeal.
“If some people want to earn lots of money they can realize their ideals, but I believe I can realize my own ideals by being in the army and helping to protect the country,” he said.
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson