October 7, 2009:
China now plans to shrink its armed forces by another 700,000 troops in the next three years, and put most of the savings into upgrading the navy and air force. The Chinese armed forces has already shrunk by 1.7 million troops in the last twenty years, and now consists of 2.3 million active duty personnel. In three years, there will be only 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.
There are other changes in the works. The ratio of officers to troops has been changing, with a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs. About a third of the Chinese military personnel are officers. This high proportion of officers was adopted from the Russians, who did not want to develop a professional NCO (sergeants) 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 over the last decade, most of those laid off have been officers. Most of the shrinkage itself came from simply not enlisting a lot of new recruits. Meanwhile, older, and less educated officers are being 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 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.)
About a third of Chinese military personnel are conscripts. That's about 700,000 men. They serve for two years, with each years 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 years 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 call them People's Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). Each is assigned a quota, based on how many 18 years old 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 insure that the best quality recruits were obtained. This was partially successful.
Currently, the navy has 290,000 personnel, and the air force 400,000. The navy may add some people (as they add ships), while the air force may lose a few (because of retirements among the large number of obsolete aircraft still in service). The army will lose a lot of infantry, and unneeded headquarters. And everyone in the military will have to be smarter, more educated and better at their jobs, if they want to stay in uniform.