Tea Leaf Nation

China’s PLA Gets Smarter (and Bigger, Faster, Stronger)

Once full of peasant farmers, China’s military now places a premium on college degrees. Somebody has to operate all those ballistic missiles.

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 03:  Chinese soldiers ride on armoured missile carriers as they pass in front of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City during a military parade on September 3, 2015 in Beijing, China. China is marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and its role in defeating Japan with a new national holiday and a military parade in Beijing.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 03: Chinese soldiers ride on armoured missile carriers as they pass in front of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City during a military parade on September 3, 2015 in Beijing, China. China is marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and its role in defeating Japan with a new national holiday and a military parade in Beijing. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“Good iron isn’t used for nails, and good people don’t become soldiers,” the old Chinese phrase goes. That’s changing, and at the speed of warfare. Worldwide, a reliance on raw manpower has given way to a focus on advanced systems and high-tech weaponry, making the education of personnel a prerequisite for any advanced military. That is not lost on Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone a massive makeover to mint educated soldiers — and it’s working.

The PLA once consisted of recruits with no higher than middle school or high school degrees. But in 2001, it began recruiting those with a college background. By 2014, nearly 150,000 of the PLA’s 400,000 annual recruits were college students and graduates. While retention continues to be a challenge, and high school graduates still comprise the largest single source of recruits, China’s armed forces are on an increasingly educated trajectory.

The shift toward a more educated military is part of a broader effort to modernize China’s armed forces. Dismissed in 2001 by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas W. Freeman Jr. as a “junkyard” force, the PLA then sported outdated equipment, poor training, and generally low-quality personnel. It was rife with corruption, partly because of its involvement in multiple commercial activities. The United States’ overwhelming victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated to China the value of modern weaponry and technology, while the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis — when the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups in response to China’s provocative military exercises and missile tests targeted near Taiwan — highlighted China’s lack of advanced weapons and unpreparedness against the United States.

Chinese leaders and military planners were forced to face a blunt reality: their country was ill-equipped to fight wars against modern opponents. Following new guidelines in 1993 from then-President Jiang Zemin, the PLA began a modernization drive that continues today. This kicked off a spending spree from 1994 to 1999 during which China’s defense budget more than doubled, and included the launch of an ambitious program that acquired Russian equipment, invested in indigenous development, and shifted from an emphasis on ground forces to naval, air, missile, space, and cyber forces.

These reforms have sought to increase military capabilities to a level that could “resolutely and thoroughly crush” independence in Taiwan (as stated in China’s 2004 Defense White Paper), defend what Chinese view as sovereign territory in the East and South China Seas, and provide a credible deterrent that would raise the costs for the United States to engage in any conflict near China’s borders. China’s annual defense budget — estimated between $145 billion and $215 billion for 2015 — has brought China’s military might up to speed. The forces now boast advanced ballistic missiles, various types of cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, modern surface ships, and an aircraft carrier; as well as additional advancement in the emerging areas of space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum. The question now is whether personnel are educated enough to put new capabilities to use.

Until 2011, China’s Military Service Law required that two-thirds of all new recruits come from rural areas; this group only needed to have a ninth grade education to qualify. The remaining one-third had to be high school graduates coming from cities. Under that same law, college students were exempt from the possibility of a conscription notice; and even interested college students were prevented from enlisting. The result was a military largely without college-educated recruits.

Things began to change in 2011. In March, former President Hu Jintao said, “The military is facing prominent difficulties in recruiting soldiers, retaining professionals,” and averred, “we must find the solution to these problems by adjusting and reforming related policies and institutions.” Months later, in October, authorities amended the Military Service Law, removing the deferment clause for college students and offering a series of incentives for both recent college graduates and undergraduates who postpone their education to serve in the PLA, including student loan write-offs, tuition aid for students continuing their studies after service, extra points on postgraduate exams after service, and direct promotions to officer posts for college graduates with exceptional performance. In addition, students who return to college after service have the option to change their majors, which is usually determined by college entrance exam scores and not personal choice.

After completing their military service, college students and graduates can also receive tax reductions if they start a business as well as preferential status in civil servant recruitment, township cadre selection, and the competition for cushy jobs at state-owned enterprises (SOE). In some cases, a students or recent graduate may even be able to change his or her hukou, a registration system that mandates Chinese citizens receive government social services and benefits only in their places of birth. While the system is hated, changing one’s hukou is otherwise a phenomenally difficult task.

The PLA also aims to fast-track the careers of its growing college-educated staff. In October 2011, the PLA General Staff, the General Political Department, and the General Logistics Department jointly issued new procedures stipulating that college students who pause university for full-time military service and graduates be given preferential treatment in the selection of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) as well as military academy examinations.

Provinces are also sweetening the pot with policies implemented or planned. For example, Hubei province in central China announced it will give over $3,200 to new military recruits who have graduated from local universities, as well as several subsidies after retirement. In southern Fujian province, 10 to 15 percent of government posts and SOE jobs are to be reserved for servicemen. Perhaps most enticing, Beijing increased family allowances to at least $3,765 annually, expanded coverage for tuition or student loans for current students to a maximum of $900 for undergraduates, and added an extra 10 points to the national postgraduate admission test scores of those who wish to continue their studies after service.

Finally, the PLA lowered the physical bar. In June 2014, it relaxed height, weight, and eyesight requirements, slightly increasing the number of students and graduates eligible for active service.

Reactions to the changes appear to be positive. On social media platform Zhihu, college students and graduates discuss the new opportunities now on offer. In May 2014, one anonymous recent grad wrote, “For the time being, I haven’t found a satisfying job; becoming a soldier seems like a pretty good option.” A second user concurred, saying that his circumstances were very similar and that he had decided to enlist. Yiyi Luo, a graduate student originally from the southern province of Guangdong, told Foreign Policy that her cousin, enticed by the new benefits, joined the PLA and served in Hong Kong. “Other relatives also tried to join for the new benefits and opportunities offered,” she added, “but ended up backing out due to parents’ concerns about living far away and continued corruption.” Luo said that while joining the PLA is still not a popular option, it’s “better than before.”

China’s economic climate may also have boosted enlistment. A combination of a higher education revolution and a slowing economy is narrowing job prospects for recent grads. In 2015, a record 7.5 million students graduated from college in China, a seven-fold increase from just 15 years before. Yet the country’s 2015 growth was the slowest in 25 years, resulting in a 15 percent official unemployment rate for recent graduates. (Some believe this figure to be as high as 30 percent.) That’s made the idea of joining the PLA substantially more attractive. As one Chinese graduate student at Georgetown University, who requested anonymity in order to maintain privacy, told FP, “I do think there are more incentives for educated youth to join the PLA because the military offers them more opportunities than just selling clothes on Taobao” — a popular Chinese online shopping platform where it’s easy to earn a quick buck.

The advantages to joining the PLA are numerous — and compared to several years ago, astronomical. But social and cultural factors still nudge China’s young and brightest toward other paths. While Chinese society generally respects the PLA as an institution, the patriotism and revolutionary zeal that once surrounded the military in the early decades of the People’s Republic is a thing of the past, dissipating after June 4, 1989, when the PLA brutally suppressed pro-democracy student protests, killing hundreds or more. Zeng Zhiping, an expert in national defense law, told Bloomberg in 2014 that “joining the army is more and more like an occupational choice, and there’s less and less of a patriotic halo surrounding it.”

Nonetheless, efforts to bring in the educated seem to have wrought their intended effect. The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN), a focal point of modernization, is becoming increasingly professional. It is now capable of offering crucial support and training in anti-piracy, and in April, U.S. Rear Admiral Marcus Hitchcock extended high praise to a “completely professional” PLAN in the South China Sea. At the July 2016 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, the U.S. Navy and PLAN successfully conducted the first submarine rescue exercise in RIMPAC history.

Of course, it’s unclear how much of this newfound professionalism stems from real world experience and better command and control, and how much from an uptick in college educated personnel. What’s clear is that the PLA has undergone a significant makeover in order to bring the young and bright in. The investment is new, and further returns may yet await.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Brian R. Moore is a Resident Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a graduate student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in the Asian Studies Program. Twitter: @thebrmoore
Renato R. Barreda is also a Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a graduate student at University of Maryland - College Park.

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