January 18, 2012: The Chinese armed forces have gone through a largely unnoticed transformation in the last decade. In the 1990s, a lot of the troops were farmer's sons who needed work and didn't have many non-agricultural skills. It was, as the Chinese like to say, a "peasants army." There were many shortcomings, the main one being that none of the officers or NCOs had any combat experience and the troops had to be taught a lot of new skills. The last of the Korean War vets were gone and the few veterans of the 1979 war with Vietnam were still trying to forget that disaster. The army was still largely unmechanized, with primitive weapons and equipment. So it all, sort of, worked.
Today, most of the troops are better educated, more experienced, and largely from urban areas. Most of these troops are single children, the result of the "one child" policy. Officially introduced in 1978, this draconian solution to population growth did not really get going until the 1980s. In the last decade, nearly all the new recruits came from single child families. Often called "little princes" they were lavished with all the attention usually spread among many more kids. Often described as spoiled, these kids did get more adult attention, better education and more of everything. They enter the military with lots of skills (computer, driving, learning new stuff in a hurry).
The army has found that this new generation is much more capable and quick to learn. Senior commanders welcome this because it's the kind of manpower Western forces use to achieve very impressive results on the battlefield. Chinese NCOs and officers have learned how to work around the bad habits (selfishness, insubordination, stubbornness) of some little princes, and make the most of the talents these troops bring with them. The few incorrigible little princes are just tossed out of the military.
Partly in response to this dramatic change, last year China revised its Military Service Law (which stipulates how troops are recruited, their living conditions, and benefits in general) for the first time in 13 years. In an attempt to get more highly educated young Chinese to join, living conditions are to be improved and pay will be increased. Moreover, in recognition of the fact that many of the brightest troops will not make a career out of the military the new law gives departing troops help in getting a good civilian job. One of the more attractive benefits is help with college tuition for soldiers who successfully complete their service. The Chinese probably noted how successful the U.S. G.I. Bill educational benefits were in attracting prime recruits.
Most Chinese troops are volunteers. Technically, about a third of them are conscripts. That's about 700,000 men. They serve for two years, with each year's class of conscripts inducted in the Fall. Only about 350,000 conscripts are inducted each year, and nearly all of these tend to be volunteers. That's because only about four percent of each year's crop of 18 year old males is needed. How do they decide who to take? Naturally, the army tries to get the most physically, psychologically, and educationally fit for the armed forces. To that end the military has been administering tests to draftees for about a decade now. If you're not literate (over 90 percent of Chinese are), they don't want you. But the better educated 18 year olds don't want to go into the military, not with that booming economy out there. Most of these lads bribe their way out, or simply rely on there being enough qualified volunteers to satisfy the recruiting officials.
A lot of young men who don't have much education do want to get into the military. For one thing, it's a job, and there are opportunities for education and advancement. The military tried to identify the more capable among these poor, uneducated young men, so they can be taken into service. That's because too many of the best young men aren't willing, or don't have to, serve. Those who have been accepted by a university are automatically exempt, as are those with a criminal record. Drug addicts, the physically or mentally infirm, and anyone who just doesn't seem right to the examiners, is exempt from conscription. And for many of those who are perfect, there are numerous officials willing to take a bribe and get you off the list.
The work of deciding who actually gets drafted is done by thousands of draft boards, or, as the Chinese calls them People's Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). Each is assigned a quota, based on how many 18 year olds are coming of age in a town or city neighborhood. Since these locations vary greatly in the wealth and educational levels of the inhabitants some PAFDs have an easy time of it, while others have to struggle to meet their quota. In some wealthy PAFDs, hardly anyone wants to go, and some interesting soap operas ensue. In less wealthy PAFDs, bribes will be paid to get some kids in. Not large bribes, but you get the picture. In the late 1990s, the operation of the PAFDs was turned over to the military, in an attempt to reduce the corruption, and ensure that the best quality recruits were obtained. This was partially successful.