China’s dropping fertility rate means its military has to work harder to find new troops

china military recruits
Chinese paramilitary recruits during regular training in Nanjing, January 24, 2007.

  • The People’s Liberation Army has expanded its sources of troops, including lowering education, height, and eyesight requirements.
  • China’s recent census showed the 2020 fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman, below the level needed for a stable population.
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As the world’s largest military, needing hundreds of thousands of new recruits each year, the People’s Liberation Army has been affected by China’s wider fertility and ageing issues, and tried to counter them.

The gathering pace of the PLA’s modernisation has given its instructors and recruiters the challenge of how to train a newer breed of soldier, experts said.

“Military instructors found the strict and dogmatic training modes applied in the last century didn’t work for the more individual young soldiers born in the 21st century,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank.

“Some even dared to butt against and challenge superiors when they were not happy. The military was forced to adjust. Some military instructors tell me they are still muddling through how to take charge of younger generations.”

Chinese troops
Chinese troops.

Rather than only orders and scolding, therapy sessions by professional psychotherapists have been brought in since 2011 to ease stress, according to military mouthpiece The PLA Daily.

That can help middle-aged instructors and senior leaders to better understand the new generations, but also provide data for designing new training modules such as computer war games and virtual reality training, the PLA report said. In the past, the military would leave soldiers’ morale and personal well-being to political commissars.

Physical fitness has been another tough challenge for the PLA since the military shifted its recruitment targets from peasants’ children to rural youth with a higher education level in 2000, when the military stepped up a massive equipment and weapon systems replacement.

To command and operate increasingly advanced and sophisticated weapon systems, the military recruited more than 120,000 college graduates in 2009 – the largest intake since the Communist Party regime was established in 1949. That trend has since been the norm, according to the defence ministry.

The ministry has started to adjust conscription requirements to make sure they could recruit enough qualified college students. For example, since 2014, it has lowered height requirements from 162cm (5 feet, 4 inches) to 160cm for men, and 160cm to 158cm for women, as well as lowering the bar a little for short-sighted and overweight applicants.

After protests by young soldiers against a ban on mobile phones, the army in 2015 lifted the restriction, provided that soldiers installed the army’s anti-spy software that allowed the newly established internet administration centres to closely monitor their activities.

Chinese China PLA army cadet robot
A Chinese People’s Liberation Army cadet adjusts dancing humanoid robots at the PLA’s Armored Forces Engineering Academy in Beijing, July 22, 2014.

The PLA had an extra round of conscription last year, allowing university graduates who failed to find jobs to enlist.

“To expand sources of troops, the PLA has also started recruiting high-school graduates who are not qualified enough to be admitted to university,” Zhou said.

“The shortage of soldiers is not so critical now, but it’s a reality that more and more highly educated urban children are not interested in serving in the army.”

China’s once-a-decade census, released this month, showed that 12 million babies were born in the past year, the lowest since 1961, during the Great Famine. The decision in 2016 to loosen China’s one-child policy and allow people to have a second child had failed to reverse the country’s falling birth rate.

The census showed China’s 2020 fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman – below the replacement level of 2.1 needed for a stable population.

Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Tong said that since 1993, many mainland military officials and observers had voiced concerns about the impact of the one-child policy – introduced in 1979 – on the military.

In an open report to the central government in 2012, Professor Liu Mingfu from the PLA National Defence University warned that at least 70% of PLA soldiers were from one-child families, and the figure rose to 80% among combat troops.

China soldiers Xi Jinping Beijing
People’s Liberation Army’s Honor Guard Battalion soldiers in front of photo of President Xi Jinping near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 20, 2020.

“We could find the PLA has recruited more female soldiers in the past decade – a popular approach adopted by developed countries facing a shortage of new blood,” Wong said.

Previous official figures showed women made up 5% of the PLA’s 2 million troops, but Zhou said the proportion had increased to 7%. Women made up 17% of the American military in 2018, according to the US government.

The PLA also set up its first female marine troop, which debuted in the 2017 Zhurihe war game parade.

Ni Lexiong, a military expert in Shanghai, said a greater proportion of women in the military would become a global trend thanks to the development of military technologies.

“Male-dominated troops is an outdated concept, and more highly educated soldiers are required, playing keyboards indoors,” Ni said.

“Modern warfare will focus on artificial intelligence, unmanned aircraft, electronic countermeasures and other confrontations that do not need too much physical strength, allowing more competent women to play a role in the armed forces.”

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China put one of its most advanced air-defense missiles to an extreme test

Chinese army HQ-9 missile
Chinese People’s Liberation Army HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, September 3, 2015.

  • A PLA red vs. blue team drill allowed the testing of a newly commissioned missile system, including electromagnetic interference to challenge the missile type.
  • The HQ-9B is a new vertical launch, medium- and long-range ground-to-air missile defense system to intercept airborne targets up to 250 km away.

The Chinese air force has put an upgraded version of one of its most advanced air-defence missile systems to an extreme test in unfamiliar terrain, according to state media.

Observers said the exercise involving the upgraded HQ-9 system was meant to show the hardware at full stretch, as the military presses on with plans to develop a modern combat-ready force.

“[We] want to learn how to protect and maintain the new weapon system under rugged surroundings, as well as to better camouflage it and … try all efforts to fulfil our task,” air force commander Du Tao told state broadcaster CCTV.

During the exercise, a ground-to-air missile brigade of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was deployed 500 km (310 miles) to unfamiliar territory for a simulated confrontation between red and blue armies.

Using the missile system, the brigade knocked down four target drones with four shots, CCTV reported.

The exercises were reportedly conducted with stealth under the joint operations of different combat units, including the air-defence missile battalion and strategic support troops equipped with early-warning radar and electronic surveillance systems.

Special forces played the role of the rival blue army with electromagnetic interference devices to confuse operations for the new missile type, the CCTV report said.

The report did not reveal what type of missile was used or when and where the exercises took place, but Du said the drill aimed to test a new air-defence missile system under dark, cold, sandy and other extreme conditions, indicating the system being tested was likely to have been the upgraded HQ-9B system.

The HQ-9B is a new vertical launch, medium and long-range ground-to-air missile defence system developed for the PLA to intercept airborne targets at ranges of up to 250km. The missile system was deployed to the artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea in 2016. The PLA Navy has deployed the shipborne HHQ-9B to the new Type 052D guided-missile destroyers.

Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said the drill indicated that the air force air-defence combat unit could deploy and operate new weapon systems such as the HQ-9B missiles in unfamiliar terrain at any time.

“Those kinds of long distance deployment and massive joint operation drills are aimed at enhancing the PLA’s manoeuvrability,” Song said. “It’s important to test and operate a new weapon system as soon as possible after its commissioning, which could also beef up combat capability.”

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said all PLA combat units needed to show their full military “mechanisation” capacity. Last year, China’s defence ministry declared that the PLA had achieved the goal of upgrading its weaponry after more than two decades of efforts towards building a modernised military.

“The PLA has completed massive and comprehensive weapon replacement over the past two decades,” Zhou said. “Now all combat troops should reinforce their training and get used to operating all new weapons systems via joint operations between different units.”

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