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PLA tries to woo educated youngsters to join the military

2015-03-19 08:15 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

Li Wen (pseudonym), an officer in charge of recruitment with a military command in South China, is preparing for the annual round of promotional work that accompanies college graduation season.

"We need to recruit college students before the graduation season [in June] starts," Li told the Global Times.

Li will start touring colleges to promote careers in the military next month, and will introduce students to outstanding soldiers who joined the People's Liberation Army (PLA) upon their graduation, he said.

The yearly push for college students to sign up was shifted from winter to summer and autumn in 2013 to match up with graduation season and to encourage more talented young people to join the military.

China recruits hundreds of thousands of soldiers every year. Although the government has adopted preferential policies to attract young people to the military, especially college students, it's still difficult for the PLA to enrol enough talented young people.

Military observers attributed this to an overall decline in national defense awareness among young people and the fact that the military does not seem to offer attractive long-term careers to fresh graduates.

In need of talented youth

Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the PLA, who recently visited some military recruitment offices in Jinan, Shandong province, told the Global Times that the number of new recruits in Shandong started to decline four or five years ago.

"Parents used to vie to get their children enlisted, and some even tried to bribe the recruitment officials, but now the opposite is true," Li said.

Shandong is known as a major contributor of new PLA recruits, with young people from the province usually accounting for one 10th of the new recruits in China every year, according to China National Radio.

Last year, a district office in Jinan planned to recruit 600 young people, but only 500 had applied by the end of the year. The anxious local officials had to launch another urgent round of recruitment, according to Li.

"Even if some college students join the army, they would eventually leave for other occupations after their two-year service," Li said.

The target number of college students that the military authorities recruit annually is decided and adjusted by the State Council and the Central Military Commission, according to the PLA Daily.

There are no statistics available on the total number of college students who serve in the military every year, but according to Wang Zhigang, a professor with the Academy of Military Sciences of the Chinese PLA, the number of soldiers that have graduated from college only make up 10 to 15 percent of the total soldiers in grass-roots military companies as of 2014, according to China Youth Daily.

Meanwhile, some young people change their minds about becoming soldiers even after they have gone through the whole rigmarole of registration, health checks and political background checks. Every year in Li Wen's region, around 10 out of the roughly 1,400 young people who are accepted to be soldiers refuse to serve, Li said.

Nine out of the 400 young people in Wuhan, Hubei Province who signed up to join the PLA in 2011 demanded to leave the military. The Wuhan government punished three people who insisted on leaving, forbidding them from going abroad, finding jobs and applying for colleges for two years, Xinhua reported.

Not attractive enough

Song Chao (pseudonym), 30, who was a college student before becoming a soldier in a Hebei-based branch of the military, told the Global Times that he joined the army because it would pay for his student loan.

"As a village boy from a suburb of Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province, paying off my student loan meant a lot to me at that moment," Song said, adding that he may have had second thoughts about it if his family was better off.

Since 2009, China has reimbursed new college graduates their tuition fees if they joined the PLA. Two years later, China began funding tuition fees of up to 6,000 yuan per year for college students who suspended their studies to join the military, to encourage more well-educated people to serve in the army, Xinhua reported.

The military has also tried to bombard young people with more flashy recruitment ads.

A latest film released by the PLA Air Force for its annual pilot recruitment campaign in February showcased the new J-20 stealth fighter jet, the Y-20 military transport aircraft and the pilots' aerial acrobatics. The film was widely circulated by Chinese netizens after its release.

But these policies have limited ability to attract young people, according to Li Daguang.

Xie Xiaobo, the chief of staff at the Guizhou Xingyi military command, told the PLA Daily that many factors contributed to the reduced number of young people joining the military.

Xie said the key factors in his mind are that the total number of young people has shrunk due to country's family-planning policy, that students prefer going into other fields or continuing their studies, that national defense awareness has weakened and that the preferential treatment given to soldiers is poorly implemented in some places.

"The most important reason lies in the preferential treatment, especially in the placement for demobilized soldiers," professor Li said.

China has gradually changed its previous policy under which the military arranged work for demobilized soldiers to a policy in which they offer them financial and training assistance and encourage them to find jobs on their own.

A 2011 amendment to the Military Service Law asked local governments to give preference to ex-soldiers when they take civil servant examinations and make college applications. Local governments are also required to offer vocational training to ex-soldiers, Xinhua said.

Even though some regional governments still allocate jobs to ex-soldiers, they are often given jobs in enterprises that are about to go bankrupt, Li said. Also, very few graduates see the military as a viable career in part due to the low likelihood of being promoted up the chain of command, according to Li.

To counter the problem, Li suggested that the country begin to conscript young people and offer soldiers a greater deal of preferential treatment, to ensure the country has a sufficient number of high-quality soldiers.

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