In China, Joining the Army Will Cost You

Candidates often pay military recruiters for coveted spots
Training in Jiaxing Photograph by Reuters

To enlist in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), potential recruits have to take tests. To make sure their sons and daughters pass, families pay up. At one recruitment office in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, this year’s going rate, depending on your guanxi, or connections, is as much as 99,000 yuan ($16,000), says Wang, a recruitment officer in the province who asked that his full name not be used because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly. Limited openings, plus a high failure rate on the fitness exam, push parents to buy spots for their children during the annual enlistment drive that runs through September. Success offers a stable job and, for some, an escape from rural poverty.

The price varies, Wang says. His old army friends “asked me what the current price tag is, and I said ‘around 80,000 to 90,000 yuan for you guys.’ If your guanxi was really strong, it’d cost you around 50,000 to 60,000 yuan; if it was just so-so, you would have to spend 100,000 yuan at least.”

The payments are a challenge for President Xi Jinping as he seeks to end corruption in the PLA and boost its combat readiness. High-profile officers have been charged with corruption, and former PLA Deputy Commander Xu Caihou was expelled from the party on June 30 after accusations that he accepted bribes in exchange for getting officers promoted. The graft has its origins in the lower ranks, in rural areas and smaller towns, says retired Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a think tank. “It’s impossible to weed out corruption at the basic level because it’s embedded in the culture,” he says. “The central leadership knows corruption is the No. 1 enemy the army faces.”

Under the Military Service Law, men and women can enlist at age 18. Applicants must pass academic and physical tests and an assessment of their commitment to the party. Enlisting can provide a secure career, says Zeng Zhiping, a national defense law scholar and vice president of the Nanchang Institute of Technology in Jiangxi. It also appeals to jobless urban youth. “Joining the army is more and more like an occupational choice, and there’s less and less of a patriotic halo surrounding it,” Zeng says. The army did not respond to a faxed request for comment about alleged bribery for slots in the PLA.

The recruiters “are low- or midlevel local officials who live in the communities where they serve,” says Dennis Blasko, a senior analyst at CNA’s China Security Affairs Group and the author of The Chinese Army Today. “It is highly likely that some of them could be influenced by the proper sums of money to 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.”

Around 60 percent of college students who want to enlist fail the fitness exam, the China Daily reported last August. The army has relaxed physical standards to attract better-educated recruits, the newspaper said on June 17. The height requirement for a male candidate has been lowered two centimeters to 1.6 meters (5 feet 2 inches) and the upper weight limit eased by 30 percent.

Kristen Gunness, chief executive officer of the China-focused consultant Vantage Point Asia and an adjunct fellow for China affairs at RAND, says relaxing rules may lessen corruption, but only on the margins. “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,” she says. “This is where corruption also affects performance.”

Among Xi’s targets is ex-Lieutenant-General Gu Junshan, once deputy head of army logistics, who’s charged with bribery and abuse of power, a Xinhua report in March says. Retired General Xu, ex-vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, was expelled at a Politburo meeting chaired by Xi. Xu was the highest-level military officer accused of corruption since 1949.

The People’s Daily reported in early 2013 that Wang Qian, a high school graduate in Shangqiu in the central province of Henan who passed the tests, was told by recruiters to pay 100,000 yuan. Wang said her admission was revoked when she said she didn’t have the money. Shangqiu officials later said Wang wasn’t admitted because her family had been involved in financial disputes that could reflect badly on the army if she’d joined, the People’s Daily said. Two calls to the Shangqiu recruitment office weren’t returned.

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