For over a decade China has been trying to improve the quality of personnel in its two-million strong armed forces. The Chinese armed forces continue to suffer a serious shortage of qualified recruits, not just insufficient applicants for career officer jobs, but for capable enlisted personnel required for all sorts of technical fields. This has been a growing problem since the 1990s when the military set its sights on achieving parity with the educational and performance levels of Western armed forces. After the 1990s China was turning out sufficient college and high school graduates for this but the military found that these potential recruits were not interested. This despite the much-publicized modern weapons and equipment, higher pay and much improved living conditions. Most of the best college and high school graduates opted for better paying, and more interesting, jobs in the civilian economy. In the last few years that has been changing as the economy stalled and more college graduates could not find any jobs. The military sought to take advantage of this but found the unemployed were leftovers and unlikely to upgrade the officer corps. The military has been ordered to come up with more attractive career opportunities for college grads if there was to be any hope of improving officer quality.
China has already adopted Western methods to get the officers they wanted. Since 2005 there have been a series of pay increases for officers and troops and steadily escalating recruiting bonuses. For example, in 2009 a $3,500 bonus was offered for college grads who were willing to join for two years. Since then, the military has increased the bonuses and adjusted them to account for demand and standard of living in different parts of the country. The bonus offered is much higher depending on where the officer will serve. For those sent to Beijing (the national capital and very expensive to live in) the bonus is much higher. Nearly as much money is offered for non-officer tech jobs. There are also bonuses for people willing to serve in remote places like Tibet or volunteer for long sea voyages. The bonuses are actually a package, with some of it cash for the recruit, some of it for his (or her) family and some in the form of hard-to-get permits for the recruit’s family to live in the capital as well as repayment of college loans. Another form of bonus is guarantees of preference in getting into graduate school or good government jobs.
In 2010 the military established a web site for potential recruits, perhaps after noting the long, and extensive, American use of the Internet to attract high quality recruits. This web advertising continues with the production of music and other videos to attract recruits. Mostly the military wants to let potential recruits know that the military is willing to make deals.
Although China still has conscription, the armed forces are basically staffed with volunteers. The three-decade economic boom has always made it difficult for the military to get the quality people it wants. As a result, many Chinese officers are, for want of a better word, losers. In the last decade China began offering raises for its junior officers while at the same time running a propaganda campaign praising military service, and encouraging college graduates to sign up. This only helped a little until the economic slowdown hit. With higher civilian unemployment, more college grads are willing to at least consider military service.
The Chinese are looking for quality because they found that quantity has not worked for them. Since the 1990s the Chinese armed forces have shrunk by over two million troops. Currently China has about 1.6 million troops, not much larger than the 1.4 million American force. China also has 660,000 personnel in the national police, and 1.2 million organized reservists.
This shrinking of the armed forces included a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs (sergeants). A decade ago, about a third of the Chinese military personnel were officers. This high proportion of officers was adopted from the Russians, who did not want to develop professional NCOs. That did not work for the Russians and the Chinese have been developing professional NCOs as well, and another third of the force are now NCOs, or long-term enlisted troops working towards becoming NCOs. To attract high quality conscripts, who will stay in the service to become NCOs, the military offers bonuses and help with college tuition. It will even take college graduates and promote them, right after basic training, to an NCO rank.
In 2021 the military finally implemented a long-sought reform, inducting conscripts twice, instead of once, a year. A third of the Chinese military is still conscripts and each one received three months of initial training. With two inductions (Spring and Fall) a year there is less strain on basic training facilities. Ideally, China would prefer to induct conscripts as the West does, continually. That may happen eventually. China also pays attention to the quality and development of conscripts. Some discover that military life is more attractive than expected. These men are given the option to try out for NCO training. Pay and benefits for NCOs has also improved, especially the senior NCOs. The military pays more attention to NCO careers and offers more promising jobs to the most able NCOs. There is also more flexibility on how long an NCO can stay in the military without being promoted.
As the military shrank after 2000, most of the missing troops were officers. Older, and less educated officers were retired, and new, better educated ones, sought among the ranks of recent college graduates. The military used to rely a lot on enlisted troops becoming officers, via selection and a few months training. No more. With over 20 percent of Chinese 18-year-olds going to college, there is an opportunity to quickly upgrade the officer corps (at least in terms of formal education.) The military finally noticed that college students spent a lot of time on the Internet, thus the shift of recruiting effort to special web sites.
The military is still regarded as a poor career choice. That’s an ancient attitude that’s not going to change any time soon. Until it does, China will always risk going to war with less able officers and NCOs than their Western opponents.