Attrition: China Struggles To Find Better Troops

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July 1, 2016: The Chinese armed forces continuous to suffer serious shortage of qualified recruits. Not just insufficient applicants for career officer jobs, but the military does not attract the most capable people 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 response to this the military decided to adopt Western methods to get the people 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. Thus that $3,500 bonus offered in 2009 is now up to $28,500 for suitable recruits from Beijing (the national capital and very expensive to live in). 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 of good government jobs.

In 2010 the military has 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. But the three decade economic boom has always made it difficult for the military to get the quality people it wants. Thus many Chinese officers are, for want of a better word, losers. China recently gave its junior officers a raise, and has been running a propaganda campaign praising military service, and encouraging college graduates to sign up. This has only helped a little.

The Chinese are looking for quality, because they have found that quantity has not worked for them. Thus 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 includes a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs (sergeants). Until recently, 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 a professional NCO corps. But the Chinese are developing professional NCOs as well, and another third of the force are 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.

As the military has shrunk since 2000 most of the missing troops are 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.

 


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