Chinese Universities’ First Course Is Nationalism 101

Mandatory military training for students is becoming even more fiercely ideological.

Students at Zhejiang Gongshang University learn to defend themselves with fistfight skills during military training in Hangzhou on March 10, 2018.
Students at Zhejiang Gongshang University learn to defend themselves with fistfight skills during military training in Hangzhou on March 10, 2018. VCG via Getty Images

The aggressive counterprotests led by mainland Chinese students against Hong Kongers have stirred worries on campuses from Australia to the United States. As ever with China, it’s hard to distinguish authentic feeling from political performance. But at home, there’s no doubt that university study and military indoctrination coincide. Every university student in China is required to complete a military training program (junxun) ranging from two weeks to a month as part of their matriculation.

Although the training was introduced nationally for propaganda purposes following the student movements of the 1980s, for most of the past 25 years, the public has generally seen it as a physical fitness program. But state ideology has come to the fore in recent years, stressing civilian participation in military defense and passionate feelings for displays of martial power and nationalism.

On paper, there’s nothing exceptional about China’s military training. Today, 75 countries around the world have some form of compulsory military training or national service for their citizens. Mandatory military service in South Korea and Singapore lasts at least two years. While the majority of these countries only conscript men, there are six countries—Israel, North Korea, Eritrea, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mali—with a universal conscription scheme. What distinguishes China’s military training, apart from how cursory it is, is that it is blended into students’ academic careers, rather than existing as a separate track of the Chinese education. As such, military training is central to the national education system and the state’s increasingly ambitious ideological goals.

There were some efforts at mandatory military training in China in the 1950s, and it was formally written into China’s Military Service Law in 1984, though implementation at that time was still incomplete. More universities and high schools introduced pilot programs a year later, but it was only after the 1989 protests that military training for students became universal. For three years after 1989, incoming classes at Peking University—the intellectual base for student leaders in the 1989 protests—all went on extended military training for twelve months. The same occurred at Fudan University in Shanghai, which was another major center of student protest that year.

Although variations exist among schools in specific course setting and level of intensity, these compulsory boot camps are usually characterized by strict living schedules, rigid housekeeping standards, lectures on the Chinese military, drill training including basic combat skills, and shooting practice using wooden or plastic imitation guns. “It is our first credited course in college,” said Ye, a freshman at China West Normal University in Sichuan province who recently came back from her two-week mandatory military training with positive impressions. “The purpose, as I see it, is to let you know how to behave in a proper and disciplined way in university.”

Also crucial is practicing formation marching, where students learn how to march in unison in preparation for a formal inspection at the end of the camp. “Learning how to march with the group is central to how the camp emphasizes collectivism over individuality,” said Ye. Listed as one of the official goals of the military training, collectivism is also cultivated in punishment. “If someone does something wrong, everyone in his or her group gets punished,” said Ye. “I remember one time a student was caught playing on his phone and that night, when everybody was already ready for bed, our instructor called the entire group—approximately 270 of us—to squat for half an hour because of his wrongdoing.”

Propaganda is also a heavy part of the training, including the performance of skits related to the country’s revolutionary tradition, reflection sessions on the ideological content of the training sessions, and earnest yelling of “revolutionary songs”—today largely intended to discourage students from revolution. Typical examples include “Chinese Military Spirit,” “If the War Breaks Out Today,” and “Strong Army Battle Hymn.” These chants are essential to creating the intended atmosphere. “The training left me with some deep feelings … the singing of revolutionary songs was absolutely necessary. My favorite song at the training was ‘Me and My Homeland’ and it was absolutely astounding and meaningful,” said Ye.

The military training has also received some domestic criticism over the years. Scandals such as suicides induced by physical and verbal abuse by instructors, bullying and brawling between students and instructors, unreasonably intense programs leading to student deaths, and inhumane methods for punishment such as forcing students to drink discarded water have tarnished the reputation of military training. A shortage of funding and supervision have led many second- and third-tier schools to adopt lower standards and hire unqualified personnel. Students, parents, and observers also debate the merits of the training. As a student from Sichuan Conservatory of Music who just came back from a camp put it: “You think standing there and marching only for the purpose of showing to the inspectors would render it meaningful? Does it make us persevere? After the training, everybody goes back to their usual routines. Does it help us exercise? We were just standing under the sun.”

Individual students gauge the usefulness of military training by whether it allows them to bond with classmates, learn life skills, or hone their tolerance for discomfort. But officials are also asked to consider whether the program is effective at contributing to the broader goals of patriotic and national defense education, which aims to “ignite patriotism, strengthen awareness of national defense, increase national esteem, confidence, pride, cohesion, and the spontaneous in the civil responsibility of national defense.” Zhu Yongxin, the deputy secretary general of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, for example, lamented in 2015 that military training in many schools focuses too much on “technical skills instead of course materials on military strategy.” Zhu therefore called for a “better cultivation of students’ awareness of national security and defense.”

The cultivation of “awareness of national defense” is in fact an essential element of “Xi Jinping Thought”—the ideological scheme widely promoted throughout the People’s Republic of China and now written into the national constitution. Universities have been particular targets of the ideological crackdown. In 2016, President Xi Jinping vowed to turn university campuses into “strongholds of the party’s leadership,” and since then the Ministry of Education has made remarkable progress in increasing funding for and research of Chinese Communist Party ideology and placing classes on “Xi’s Thoughts” into the core curricula of Chinese universities. And Xi’s “Strong Army Thought”—on the importance of the military and national defense under the party’s command for the nation’s rejuvenation—is of course mandatory on university campuses and military training camps.

Thus while military training is becoming less and less physically demanding at most schools, ideological education is increasingly prominent. “The training was not hard,” said a freshman from Shanghai International Studies University, one of the top universities for foreign studies. “Three out of the fourteen days we were just having classes on national defense, and all that in the classroom.”

Formal reforms to emphasize ideological education in military training came in with the guiding principles issued in 2017. The reforms heavily emphasized changes to curriculum design to promote education in national defense and military strategy and more “advanced” military training in areas other than marching, such as nuclear biochemical protection, in order to “ignite students’ admiration for military force and martial power.”

A new guiding syllabus was issued in April by the Ministry of Education and the National Defense Mobilization Department of the Central Military Commission. Compared to the 2006 edition, the new syllabus added specific credit requirements and tracking records for each individual student for courses on military strategy, which cover Chinese national defense governance, premodern Chinese military thought and strategy, the military thinking of past party leaders, lessons on modern Chinese national security to “cultivate an awareness of danger,” and studies of modern warfare to “establish students’ confidence in winning the information war.”

Political extremes were also brought up in the classroom. “We also assessed China’s military and political failures in the past century, such as the massive loss of life in the Korean War and the extreme environment of the Cultural Revolution—some of them being very humiliating memories. Only by remembering the history can we prevent them from happening again.” Bringing up the Cultural Revolution is a strategic measure, in that it serves as a foil for showing how good China is today.

When asked about what she thinks the government’s messages are through mandatory military training, a student who recently attended a 30-day camp at Guangdong Police College responded: “I think the government wants to cultivate a sense of obedience and loyalty in us. It is about always being prepared for potential risks to our national defense.”

“We were taught the importance of national defense and having a modern military,” said another student from Shanghai International Studies University. “We learned the importance of modern military from the U.S. in the Gulf War. Their unexpectedly advanced weaponry gave them tremendous deterrent force. So having a strong military is not only to protect our homeland and the people, but to have power internationally.”

Celine Sui is a United States-based independent scholar and freelance journalist focused on Sino-African relations.