Attrition: What A Difference A Date Makes

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July 9, 2013: For the last few years China has been making a major effort to get higher quality personnel (especially college graduates) into the armed forces. Recently, someone in the senior military leadership realized that there was a basic flaw in the military effort to attract more college and high school graduates; the traditional induction date for new recruits was November first, six months after most of these prospects actually graduated. Like their Russian mentors, China inducts most of its new troops at one time, in November each year (Russia does it twice a year, but China never adopted that approach). November was at the end of the main harvest and most young men had little to do over the Winter months so Russia, and China, favored this time of the year to induct new recruits. Until the last few decades there were not a lot of Chinese high school and college graduates in general and the military ran its own schools and did not depend on civilian universities for new personnel. Times have changed and it was decided to change the induction date to August 1st, to make it easier to attract new graduates before they found good jobs in the civilian economy. It’s a simple idea that makes a big difference. Changing over to a Western style year-round induction system requires many more internal changes and more expense. Changing the annual induction date, on the other hand, was a lot cheaper.

Over the last five years the Chinese military has made themselves more attractive to college grads and has been able to attract more of them. But the military has not been able to attract many from the top universities. These are the men needed by the senior military leadership in 20-30 years, when Chinese forces will be much more powerful and complex. That's because the Chinese military is getting a lot more high-tech gear in the next three decades, and it knows that it will require high quality leaders to get the most out of it. At the moment it looks like the high-end gear will arrive on schedule but not the high end leadership. There are too many more attractive opportunities in the civilian economy and the conscription process is corrupt enough that anyone who doesn't want to be in the military can avoid it. This is troubling because the government, and to a lesser extent the military leadership, want to do something about the corruption in the military. This problem can best be addressed with better quality leadership. The current leadership knows that many of its senior officers are dirty. All these guys came up in the wake of the calamitous 1960s "Cultural Revolution." This disaster discredited the communists and led to the economic reforms (a market economy) of the 1980s. The Communist Party is still in charge but wants to deal with the corruption (which is fomenting rebellious attitudes among the people) and increase the quality of leadership in the military. This is proving to be difficult.  

The Chinese armed forces have changed a lot in the last decade. Uneducated country boys are no longer welcome. Then again, neither are tattooed and pierced urban hipsters or anyone who snores. In the 1990s, the military was, as the Chinese like to say, a "peasant's army." Worse, none of the officers or NCOs had any combat experience. 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 largely non-mechanized, with many primitive weapons and aging equipment. That has all changed in the last decade.

Now 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," their parents (and grandparents) lavished them 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, and the ability to learn new stuff in a hurry). The best of these kids went to the top universities and few choose the military as a career.

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 most incorrigible little princes are just tossed out.

The Chinese military is smaller now. A decade ago there were 2.4 million, 40 percent of them conscripts. Now there are two million, with a third of them conscripts. Most Chinese troops are volunteers. Technically, about 700,000 men are conscripts that serve for two years, with each year's class of conscripts inducted in the autumn. 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. If selected 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 very much want to get into the military. For one thing, it's a job, and there are opportunities for education and advancement. The military tries to identify the more capable among these poor, uneducated young men, so they can be taken into service.

Men 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 call 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.

Partly in response to this dramatic change, China recently revised its Military Service Law (which stipulates how troops are recruited, their living conditions, and benefits in general) for the first time since the 1990s. In an attempt to get more highly educated young Chinese to join, living conditions are being improved and pay has been 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.

 


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