According to some media accounts, this year’s local military recruitment drive is going rather well.
For example, a recent headline in Nanjing Daily trumpeted that “The number of conscripts this year is expected to double from last year” [今年征兵数预计比去年翻一番].
That sounded like good news. But that announcement was solely in reference to students joining up from a single technical college—and specifically about a program within the school that was established in 2015 largely to funnel talent into military enterprises, something that other vocational colleges in Nanjing are also doing. There’d hardly be a need for that program and others like it if the annual military conscription effort here was finding qualified recruits with ease.
Instead, there are signs that another shortfall in soldiers, sailors and airmen could be in the offing for this year.
First of all, Jiangsu’s economy is humming along, and so unemployment in the province—and especially in Nanjing and the surrounding areas—is low. Jobs are plentiful, and new labor regulations make it difficult for companies and contractors to avoid paying reasonable wages. In previous periods, the military here was a haven for those without much economic opportunity. Those days are gone—at least for now. So long as the housing market continues to thrive, even unskilled youth won’t want for jobs in Jiangsu.
Second, the Chinese military needs youth with intellectual talent and technical proficiency—and given Jiangsu’s outstanding educational system, there’s plenty about. But graduates are going mostly into civilian sectors, inspired in part by higher pay and government programs that subsidize innovation and new industries. Even with cash incentives given to new recruits (6000 RMB in one township), the military has trouble in the labor marketplace when local governments are themselves looking for better-trained workers. Not for the first time here in China, one part of the State ends up actively undermining another part.
Jiangsu isn’t unique in this regard. Chinese military authorities, central and local alike, are well aware of the challenges. And to “vigorously solve deep-seated contradictions and problems” [大力解决深层次矛盾问题] in the conscription process—code-words for “coping with problems”—military officials are making new moves.
For example, they’ve made it easier for prospective recruits to start the process of enlistment; accelerated the health examination process to tell applicants online if or how they might meet recent higher health standards to join up; and sent officers and other military personnel onto university campuses in greater numbers—and often to smaller schools at the county-level--to convince students to enlist.
And at the soft end of the spear is propaganda—from videos extolling the new reach of China’s military, to making conscription sexy, or at least one’s comrades appear so. There’s also a campaign to use pop-stars to appeal to middle school students to think about a military career and to be sure to register as soon as they are eligible (something that more than a few aren’t clamoring to do).
Those are smart plays, made by strong people trying to solve problems that lack easy, linear solutions. But as in earlier years, it’s not clear that these attempts to galvanize the right sort of Chinese youth to enroll in the military are working any better this time around.
For example, Liberation Daily [解放日报] warned that some of these efforts to animate audiences by appealing to patriotic sentiment may have been overkill; that material extolling the armed forces had to be made more specific to certain places and provinces, instead of merely an effort to further excite the already excitable. By the armed forces’ own reluctant admission in recent years, China’s lower military ranks aren’t replete with well-trained recruits so much as high-strung ones. Beijing seems to be understanding that one uniform doesn’t fit all.
Indeed, there’s not even consensus in the Chinese media about from whence actual recruiting is being done—whether, for example, middle school students are being sought to register for the armed forces before the legal age of 18, or just being prepped to do so in the name of patriotism. That there’s confusion about the actual recruiting pool indicates the anxiety among some military commands about how best to solve these problems where there are so many differences across and within provinces. It’s unlikely that there’s a lot of coordination and information-sharing between agencies and local military institutions, if only because that’s how the government here in China almost always works.
Perhaps even worse news is that some military recruiters, hard-pressed to procure candidates, could be engaging in corruption.
While the ways in which that corruption is taking place haven’t been made public, earlier this year People’s Daily indicated that “the incorruptibility [廉洁] of the entire process of conscription” was at stake. According to the article, discipline-inspection units had “launched an honest and clean conscription campaign” [开展廉洁征兵] to “strengthen supervision and inspection, and make others take responsibility for accountability seriously”—raising the possibility that filling the ranks is just making some recruiters rank.
None of this is all that new--which in its own way is news. For a supposedly ever-changing China, some things need to change but stay too much the same.