The calls started months ago to the recruitment office in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, asking how much it would cost to pass this year’s tests to join the army. The going rate, depending on your “guanxi,” or connections: As much as $16,000.
Limited spots in annual recruitment drives across China’s 31 provinces and municipalities for the world’s largest army, plus a high failure rate for physical fitness tests, leads parents to pay to guarantee a spot for their child in the enlistment season that runs through September. Success offers a stable job and, for some, a path out of rural districts.
“They asked me what the current price tag is, and I said ‘around 80,000 to 90,000 yuan for you guys,’” said Wang, a recruitment officer with the People’s Liberation Army in Jiangxi, referring to former military colleagues who call him. “If your guanxi was really strong it’d cost you around 50,000 to 60,000 yuan per quota; if it was just so-so, you would have to spend 100,000 yuan at least.” Wang asked not to be identified in full as he isn’t authorized to speak publicly.
The payments reflect the challenge for President Xi Jinping as he seeks to eradicate corruption in the military and boost the PLA as a combat-ready force with broad reach across the Asia-Pacific region. While several high-profile officers have been charged with violations, and former PLA deputy commander-in-chief Xu Caihou was expelled from the Communist Party for taking bribes to help others get promoted, graft begins in rural areas and smaller towns even before recruits go past the door.
“It’s impossible to weed out corruption at the basic level, because it’s embedded in the culture,” said retired Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at Beijing-based research group the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “The central leadership knows corruption is the number one enemy the army faces, and if strong-handed measures aren’t taken, it would weaken the army’s capabilities to fight a modern war.”
Under the Military Service Law, males in China can apply to enlist when they are 18. While they are all registered, there are a raft of exemptions from service -- including being in school full-time or being the only family member earning an income -- which means joining is essentially voluntary for men and women. Whether for the two years of military service or for those joining a PLA academy, all applicants must pass academic and physical tests and an assessment of their commitment to the party.
Enlisting can be a way out of rural areas and provides a secure career path, according to Zeng Zhiping, a national defense law scholar and vice president of the Nanchang Institute of Technology in Jiangxi. It also appeals to urban youth who find themselves struggling in the job market.
“Nowadays, joining the army is more and more like an occupational choice and there’s less and less a patriotic halo surrounding it,” Zeng said. “People weigh their choices and make realistic decisions from economic perspectives.”
A request for comment on alleged bribery at the military-recruitment level faxed to the Defense Ministry on June 30 produced no response.
While entering the military provides a stable income, the incentive for corruption after joining remains. New recruits get a yearly package of around 25,000 yuan ($4,031) in Beijing and 15,600 yuan in rural areas such as Haiyan county in Zhejiang province, according to state media. Inspectors in April in two major military regions -- Beijing and Jinan -- said they found “irregularities” in the handling of promotions, construction and allocation of military buildings, and misuse of assets, especially land, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“These guys are low or mid-level local officials who live in the communities where they serve,” said Dennis Blasko, a Florida-based senior analyst at CNA Corp.’s China Security Affairs Group, and the author of “The Chinese Army Today,” who served as a U.S. army attache in Beijing from 1992 to 1995. “It is highly likely that some of them could be influenced by the proper sums of money or gifts to either allow a youngster into the PLA or keep him or her out. They could do this by faking test results or helping to pass or fail medical exams.”
In its effort to professionalize its forces, China is following the example of the U.S. Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, by increasing incentives for bright minds to serve, paying college fees and a stipend to students if they enlist as trainee officers when they graduate. Even so, around 60 percent of college students who apply for military service fail the fitness exam, the state-owned China Daily reported in August.
The military has relaxed its physical standards to attract better-educated recruits, the China Daily reported June 17, citing the Defense Ministry. The height requirement for a male candidate has been lowered two centimeters to 1.6 meters (5 foot 2 inches) and the upper weight limit eased. Eyesight standards have been loosened, as nearly 70 percent of high school and college students in China are short-sighted, it said.
Kristen Gunness, the Washington-based chief executive officer of China-focused advisory group Vantage Point Asia and an adjunct fellow for China affairs at RAND Corp., said the relaxation may lessen corruption only at the margins, as long as officers are still willing to accept payments.
“As long as the rural poor are finding ways to pay their way into the PLA at the expense of others who are more qualified, the military must then spend more resources bringing the lower-skilled up to the same level as the rest,” said Gunness, a former adviser on China to the U.S. Navy. “This is where corruption also affects performance.”
A computerized grading system for military-academy entrance exams was in use by a majority of provinces and municipalities in 2009, according to a Shanghai-based former training-school recruitment director. While it limited some corruption, bribery remains commonplace in rural areas, the person said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Parents would telephone to ask for a favor in return for money, because their children’s results fell short or because they failed the physical check-ups, said the former director.
Xi has pledged to target both “tigers” and “flies,” meaning senior- and lower-ranking officials, in combating corruption across all walks of life. For the military, the focus is on being able to project China as a power in the region and to assert territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
China’s military budget will rise 12.2 percent this year as spending focuses on high-technology weaponry and longer-reach naval and air capacity. The military is improving its training, doctrine, weapons and surveillance to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against the U.S. and others, according to a Pentagon report released last month.
The level of advancement remains below that of the world’s most capable armies, Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, wrote in a book explaining reforms outlined in a party meeting in November. Corruption undermines the army’s effectiveness, retired Major General Luo Yuan wrote in the state-owned Global Times in February 2013.
Among the targets in Xi’s crackdown has been ex-Lieutenant-General Gu Junshan, a onetime deputy head of the army’s General Logistics Department who faces charges including bribery and abuse of power, according to a Xinhua report in March. Retired General Xu, a former vice chairman of the CMC, was expelled during a meeting of the Politburo chaired by President Xi, becoming the highest-level military official ensnared for corruption in more than six decades, Xinhua said June 30.
The PLA is considering revamping its official evaluation system to focus on competence, Xinhua reported in February. It will audit personnel before deciding to promote them or let them retire, it said last September.
“Corruption absolutely has an impact on the PLA’s readiness,” said Gunness from Vantage Point. “This is known by the senior Chinese leadership, which is why Xi Jinping has launched his anti-corruption campaign in an effort to ready the PLA to ‘fight and win wars’ as well as get rid of peacetime complacency.”
State media have cited complaints about the recruitment process. The People’s Daily reported in early 2013 that Wang Qian, a high-school graduate in Shangqiu city in central Henan province who passed the tests, was told by the local recruitment office to pay 100,000 yuan. Wang said her admission was revoked when she said she didn’t have the money.
Shangqiu officials later said the reason for not admitting Wang was that her family had engaged in financial disputes that could reflect badly on the army if she had joined, the People’s Daily said. Two calls to the Shangqiu recruitment office weren’t returned.
Even with the government edicts against corruption, people feel compelled to “follow the unwritten rules” and make payments, according to recruitment officer Wang.
Recruiting quotas at a provincial level are usually handled by the head of the general staff of the specific PLA branch, he said. “So if you can get some middle-man to go through, you have a chance.”