March of the Freshmen
Each year, China's incoming university students must partake in a ritual of patriotic military training. Is it brainwashing? Do they care?
BEIJING — Under the hot September sun, columns of university freshmen in army fatigues march into Tsinghua University’s main stadium. The tallest young man in a company of 170 leads with a red flag as his classmates train their eyes forward, trying to keep perfectly synchronized. Patriotic music blares, and an announcer yells, "Make sure to practice the good thoughts, good behavior, and good habits you learned during the military training in your future study and life!"
Crowds of parents and curious locals try to catch a glimpse through the stadium’s fence as the final platoon settles into standing formation. Tsinghua University, considered "China’s MIT" and alma mater to Chinese President Hu Jintao, is celebrating the conclusion of 20 days of marching, drilling, and adherence to commanders’ orders. Across the country, nearly every university is staging the same pageantry — part of the Chinese government’s efforts to keep its citizens patriotic and, perhaps, obedient. In today’s rapidly changing China, however, this traditional rite of passage, known as Junxun, seems less relevant for a generation grown used to peace and prosperity.
Since 1985, every school year has begun with the training. Participation is mandatory for every incoming freshman — young men and women alike — and a poor performance can blot a record that stays with them throughout their professional lives. Over a speaker at the Tsinghua stadium, an announcer says that military training is "one of the holiest tasks given by the People’s Republic of China."
Unlike its neighbors Taiwan, North Korea, and South Korea, which also have mandatory military training, mainland China faces little threat of foreign invasion. Yet it still maintains the world’s largest army, with a 2.3 million all-volunteer force. But national defense isn’t necessarily the main concern with Junxun, which tends to include very little practical combat education.
Individual schools list their own objectives for the training, but according to China’s Education Ministry, the official purpose is "to enhance students’ sense of national defense and national security awareness." It also aims to improve "patriotism, collectivism, and revolutionary heroism" and "enhance organizational discipline" so the country can "develop socialist builders and successors of the future."
Some see more nefarious plots. Kai Pan, an American blogger in Shanghai, said on the China blog CNReviews that foreigners who see the training are often "thoroughly constipated with disgust for the nationalism being ‘brainwashed’ into the innocent but ever-so-impressionable youth." And Peng Guoxiang, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Peking University in Beijing, says Junxun is designed "to train [students] to be sheep."
One mile south of Tsinghua University is Renmin ("People’s") University, a top school for aspiring government cadres. In August, a 19-year-old language student who goes by the English name Rachel was preparing for her military training. Just under 5 feet tall and 90 pounds, she’d never done anything like it before. "I’m very nervous," she said.
Rachel was born in 1992 in the east-coast province of Zhejiang, one of China’s richest regions. She has traveled throughout the country with her family and hopes her language skills will one day land her a job that’ll allow her to see the world. The daughter of a middle-class government official, she, like most Chinese her age, is an only child. "I’m so lonely," she said, laughing about her home life. "But I was very spoiled. I didn’t need to worry about anything."
Rachel’s upbringing is a world apart from that of China’s previous generations. Her grandmother was 9 years old when her future husband was arranged for her in the late 1940s, after years of civil war and the Japanese invasion. Rachel’s parents were both born in the early 1960s and bore the brunt of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, eating tree bark at one point to survive. But with the decline of socialist dogma and the subsequent economic explosion that resulted in a 14-fold increase in per capita GDP from 1990 to 2010, members of China’s next generation found themselves growing up in a radically changed society. Those like Rachel born in this booming era are referred to (often pejoratively) as China’s post-1990s generation. According to the Chinese newspaper Global Times, these kids are routinely labeled "lazy, promiscuous, confused, selfish, brain damaged and overall hopeless."
While many universities carry out Junxun on campus, Rachel and her classmates were bused to a special military compound in the small town of Changping, nestled at the foot of the Yanshan mountain range 25 miles north of Beijing. She shared a dorm room with five bunk beds and a broken air-conditioner with nine other young women. After settling in, they were taken to a dining hall that sported rows of metal tables but no chairs. "When the drillmaster says you can eat, then you can eat," Rachel said. "The dishes are all very salty, so you’ll eat a lot of rice."
The initial transition to military life was hard for Rachel and her classmates. The nearly 6,000 students were given five minutes to finish their meal and were then herded together to pick up their army fatigues, which they wouldn’t wash or change for the next two weeks. "I really wanted to go back to my school," Rachel said.
The official training began the next morning. Students were roused at 5 a.m. to run a mile; breakfast and drilling followed. "Today’s training was about how to stand," Rachel wrote in her journal. "You should stand under the sun straight with your hands at your side for 10 minutes. Our feet, legs, and knees felt a lot of pain, but we can’t move or we’ll be punished to stand longer. I felt dizzy."
Later that day, a young woman in Rachel’s group fainted — a common occurrence in the training. Xinhua news reported in 2004 that 30 students passed out and several suffered heat stroke in a single day at a Guangzhou school as training went on in temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Oh, I feel so happy that my upper eyelids are going to kiss my lower eyelids," Rachel wrote, exhausted, as she got into bed that night.
Amid the wreckage of Mao’s ill-fated political campaigns, the Chinese Communist Party has scrambled to legitimize its rule through a combination of economic growth and nationalism directed toward those who exploited China during the "Century of Humiliation," which the party credits itself for ending. This tried-and-true narrative, however, may not have the same resonance for the post-’90s generation.
Gang Guo, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi who researches the relationship between the Communist Party and college students, said that the party is struggling to hold support among the new generation through traditional political education and mass media. "China in many ways seems to resemble post-communist states, where main support for socialism comes from older generations, not the youth," he said.
After the Communist Party survived the last serious challenge to its rule at Tiananmen Square in 1989, a tacit bargain with its citizens emerged: If you accept continued authoritarian rule, you can get rich. It’s a deal that has held for two decades. But a slowdown of China’s torrid economic growth and the mounting costs associated with its graying population could soon put a strain on that agreement. In 2010, five working-age people supported one retiree. By 2020, because of the one-child policy, that ratio is expected to drop to 3-to-1.
This will prove especially problematic as the job market becomes more competitive. At present, a quarter of recent college graduates are unable to find work. Meanwhile, housing prices are among the least affordable in the world: It takes over 26 years’ worth of an average Beijing income to buy an average home in that city — two and a half times what it costs in New York City. Some economists are predicting this is part of a housing bubble that could end in financial collapse.
Gang Guo said China’s political future may depend on how the economy treats the young generation. "Unemployment among educated youth and inequality of opportunity is a combination that could be as dangerous in China as in the Arab world," he said.
In the prelude to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, similar circumstances plagued China: inflation, rapidly growing wealth inequality, impatience with corruption, and calls by intellectuals for faster political reforms. Students at Peking University, where many of the Tiananmen movement’s leaders originated, were subjected to a full year of military training in the aftermath of the crackdown.
On the second day of their training, Rachel and her group spent most of the eight hours learning to walk properly. "Don’t think it’s an easy thing," Rachel wrote. "Hundreds of people should walk in the same tempo like one person. The training is very boring. We have to walk hundreds of times. Even when we think it’s perfect, the drillmasters still aren’t satisfied."
Students were punished for errors with push-ups, running laps, ridicule, and sometimes forced singing to the rest of the group. The trainers ended the first few days with half an hour of criticism of the students’ performance. By the fourth day, Rachel’s morale was sinking. "Today was a black day," she wrote. "The drillmaster said that I’m a ‘whatever person’ [slang for promiscuous] just because I wore my pajamas in front of him. I cried. Never have I felt so homesick."
A 25-year-old lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who asked not to be identified, conducted the freshman training twice as a drill sergeant in Nanjing. "They’re all from the countryside, so they’re not used to rules," he said. "It can help them have the sense of carrying out orders."
A quasi-military structure may not seem as strange for Chinese undergraduates as it would for their Western counterparts. Curfews and travel restrictions are common at Chinese universities, while special instructors have control over where and how students live and study. "College was like a military management society," said Baogang Guo, associate professor of political science at Dalton State College and author of China’s Quest for Political Legitimacy. "Classes are arranged like platoons of 30 to 40 people, and you have a monitor elected to lead that group."
That sense of order and obedience may be invaluable in one year’s time, when the Communist Party faces a difficult once-a-decade power transition. The party will replace seven of the nine members of China’s highest governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee, as well as about two-thirds of the State Council, China’s chief administrative authority, and the Central Military Commission, which oversees the PLA. It’s expected that current Standing Committee members Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang will assume the presidency and premiership, respectively — but who will fill the remaining seats remains unknown.
With growing social discontent over the corruption, inequality, and environmental degradation that have accompanied the economic growth of the past 20 years, it seems clear that Beijing’s current bargain with its citizens can’t last much longer. In the search for an alternative, two competing models have emerged within the Communist Party. Wang Yang, party secretary of the southern province of Guangdong, hopes to address these problems through greater freedoms and intraparty democracy. Meanwhile, Bo Xilai, party secretary of Chongqing municipality, has become the standard-bearer for those who want to maintain a strong authoritarian role while implementing a raft of egalitarian measures such as subsidized low-income housing and harsh corruption crackdowns, which some claim circumvent the rule of law. Bo has also used emotional tactics in Chongqing, like replicating Mao-era rallies with patriotic singing competitions and sending Mao quotes to all the city’s mobile phones.
"If you look at it in the Chinese context, a lot of people still have a good memory of those good old days during the 1950s and ’60s prior to the reforms," said author Baogang Guo. "At that time they believe there was no corruption or minimal corruption. Everything was kind of egalitarian. Bo’s trying to utilize that kind of sentiment and rebuild the legitimacy basis of the party."
Bo and Wang are widely considered rivals for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee. But if Bo’s faction gains greater control, it could have a difficult time holding the hearts and minds of the post-’90s youth. "This generation tends to be very patriotic," said Baogang Guo. "But they may not swallow the dogmatic teaching from the party. With the new technology I don’t think the party can use the same techniques of censorship and thought controls. They have to have a better way to deal with this group."
But does the post-’90s generation share the same dreams for China’s political future?
Rachel’s father hopes that she’ll follow his footsteps and become a civil servant. She has little interest, however, in trying to climb the government ranks where "everyone stabs each other in the back." She says that she admires freedom in the United States and laments that her own hometown "has gotten rich but is losing its soul." In spite of its problems, though, Rachel says that she loves China and believes in it.
At the same time, she doesn’t believe her generation will ever be bold enough to rock the political boat. "Students will never do what happened in 1989 again," she said, referring to the Tiananmen Square protests. "Even without military training their parents will tell them they can’t do this."
Indeed, as all the drilling and marching of Junxun neared its end, Rachel’s attitude toward the training turned distinctively more positive. "I’ve hurt my leg, but I still continue," she wrote during the last few days of the drills. "I’ve gone beyond myself. I’ve become stronger, more independent. I feel proud of myself."
Across the compound, boot camp had turned into more of a summer camp. Students played games, and one instructor even brought a case of beer to the men’s dorm. The PLA lieutenant who previously conducted the training said that this shift is normal. "You need to give a harsh image to the students so they’re scared of you," he said. "But later we get more familiar and have a better relationship, so we discipline less and less."
Throughout the two weeks, students sang patriotic songs like "Our Darling Country" and "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China." Toward the end, one of the instructors told the students about life in the real military. He said that a soldier in his platoon who had merely disobeyed orders was once beaten so badly he was disfigured, and sometimes troops live in the mountains for years at a time without a telephone. "They showed their loyalty to our country," Rachel said after the training. "Thanks to them our country will be safe."
"Ah," she said suddenly as she looked up laughing, "This is the aim of the training. You see? I would never say these things before, but now I’ll say, ‘Thanks to the army, thanks to the party.’"
But a few days of marching and drills likely won’t be sufficient to change the behavior and thoughts of the new generation. Several days after returning to campus, Rachel downplayed the suggestion that the training might be a form of political indoctrination. "There’s a little bit maybe," she said. "We’ll do what they tell us during the training, but after[ward] we have our own minds. If you tell me to do something now, I won’t do it. If this is the purpose, it didn’t work so well."
When asked whether the training had changed him in any way, one of Rachel’s classmates, Li, thought for a moment about the long days drilling in the hot sun. "It changed my skin color," he said dismissively.
The PLA lieutenant agreed that the training probably doesn’t have the same effect it did in the past. "We’re told to obey. Obey the party and the school," he said. "But post-’90s students are influenced by the West more and have their own character. They tend to ask ‘why?’ much more than the older generation."
That may be so, but China’s new generation doesn’t appear hostile to the military training. To many students it’s little more than a rite of passage — yes, it’s a bit difficult, but it’s remembered nostalgically. "We freshmen practiced together, sang together, laughed together, and cried together," said Ding Weiqiong, who went through the training in Nanjing six years ago. "I really miss that period when we united closely together. We were pure, innocent, and happy then."
Back at the Tsinghua University closing ceremony, the parade of marching students ended, and they sat down to listen to the final speeches. The mood had visibly lightened. Finally, the drill sergeants stood, saluted the students, and jogged to the buses waiting to return them to base. Many of the young women (and a few of the guys) began to cry.
Michael Volkin, a U.S. Army sergeant and author of The Ultimate Basic Training Guidebook, described the benefits of this kind of training and synchronized drilling. "Everyone is going to come out with more confidence and a camaraderie they’ve never had before," he said. "That’s the real mental reason why you do the cadence. It’s to follow directions, but the real reason is so you can feel as one with the people around you."
Students suggested all kinds of purposes for the training, including national defense, discipline, student orientation, shock therapy for spoiled kids, garnering sympathy for soldiers, and instilling love and obedience to the state. But most seemed to agree, after completing Junxun, that the experience was positive.
When told of the common foreign view that the military training is a government attempt to brainwash students and hold on to power, Li Hao, an 18-year-old Tsinghua student from the northeastern province of Hebei, said, "That’s a kind of discrimination. There are differences between countries. They see the same thing, but their impression is opposite."
As if to prove her point, the Tsinghua ceremony drew to a close with school officials leading the students in one last revolutionary song. Li Hao smiled and sang along:
Unity is strength.
It’s harder than iron,
Stronger than steel.
Toward the fascists open fire,
Death to all nondemocratic systems!
Toward the sun,
Toward a new China.
Eric Fish is a journalist and author of the book China's Millennials.