China updates military recruitment rules to prepare for a high-tech war: experts

A former lieutenant colonel says the army lacks the stomach for war, as anti-war comments circulate online.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA Mandarin
China updates military recruitment rules to prepare for a high-tech war: experts Soldiers of People's Liberation Army march past Tiananmen Square during a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, Oct. 1, 2019.
Credit: Reuters

China has upgraded its military recruitment rules to focus on "preparations for war" and the short-notice enlistment of qualified personnel, a move analysts said was due to Beijing's need for soldiers ready to fight a high-tech regional war.

The People's Liberation Army's newly amended recruitment guidelines, which took effect from May 1, says conscription should "focus on preparations for war," and on recruiting highly skilled personnel, including former soldiers.

Former People's Liberation Army Lt. Col. Yao Cheng said Beijing needs more recruits capable of operating high-tech weaponry, and is hoping to re-enlist former military personnel to cut training time and costs.

"Veterans will be allowed to return to combat positions if they re-enlist," U.S.-based Yao said in an interview with Radio Free Asia. "This is a radical and effective measure, particularly for the navy, air force, rocket corps and other special units."

President Xi Jinping has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan, which has never been ruled by Beijing and whose 23 million people have no wish to give up their democratic way of life.

The amended rules require the recruitment of "high-quality soldiers" in a "lawful, precise and efficient manner."

There is scope for wider mobilization of the population in the event of war, including the recruitment of women to active service if numbers require it, as well as previously demobilized soldiers, who may return to their old posts and rank "if they meet the requirements."

There is also provision for qualified recruits to join as sergeants, the rules say.

"During wartime, the State Council and the Central Military Commission may adjust the requirements and methods used to enlist citizens to active service," according to Article 64 of the rules as published by state news agency Xinhua.

2 million strong

The rules seem aimed at attracting reservists with previous training and experience, as well as fresh graduates, to join the People's Liberation Army's existing 2 million active personnel, said Kung Hsiang-sheng, associate researcher at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

He said war in the Taiwan Strait, which could follow if Beijing tries to annex the democratic island, wouldn't just be fought against the island's armed forces.

Female students holding fake knives take part in a military training for freshmen at a university in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Sept. 18, 2018. Credit: Reuters

"If there's a war in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan isn't the only enemy they are thinking about," Kung said. "They include the United States and Japan, South Korea and any other allies that could join in."

"They will also need some troops to maintain [domestic] stability," Kung said.

According to Yao, the 1 million-strong People's Armed Police adds to China's current standing army, while there are some 8 million professional reserves under the age of 45 who have already served.

Adding a potential reservoir of 10 million students and regional reserves, national mobilization could produce an army of around 30 million in varying states of training and readiness, with some 10 million ready for combat in a relatively short time, he said.

"A war in the Taiwan Strait would mostly involve the navy, air force, rocket corps and involve high-tech combat," Yao said. "But Taiwan is so small, so it wouldn't need that many soldiers."

"The Central Military Commission has determined that 500,000 troops would be enough from across all of the services including the marines," he said.

No stomach for war

But he said many in the People's Liberation Army don't want to fight.

"People in China are generally anti-war and are unwilling to fight," Yao said. "I personally think that no one is going to give their all for the Communist Party. They are mostly waiting and watching."

He said there is scant esprit de corps in the People's Liberation Army, where the lower ranks are subjected to constant brainwashing, while the officers are typically motivated by the desire for promotion rather than for victory.

First responders in Taiwan carry a man pretending to be injured out of a car, while taking part in the annual Minan civilian defense drill, which this year focuses on the response from various agencies and volunteer groups if under attack by China, outside a power plant in Nangan island, April 20, 2023. Credit: Reuters

According to Yao, this is in stark contrast to democratic Taiwan, where ordinary citizens are likely to be highly motivated to defend their way of life from invasion and suppression by the Chinese Communist Party.

"The generals don't believe that they can win a war in the Taiwan Strait, and are unwilling to fight one," he said, drawing parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

His comments came after an anti-war post circulated widely on Chinese social media last month, in which the writer vowed not to take part in any invasion of Taiwan.

"I won't go, and I won't let my children go, either," the post said. "I am at the lowest level of society ... where nobody remembers us when we're in trouble – they only think of us when they're in trouble."

The post garnered more than 3.27 million views and more than 10,000 comments, according to a report by Taiwan's Central News Agency.

"Anyone starting a war or advocating for war is a national criminal," read one comment on the article, while another said: "If it's about fighting so the rich can hold onto their assets, then forget it!"

Another commented: "Why should I let them cut me down like a leek, shed my blood and my life for these high-ranking officials, whose wives and kids have all left for the United States?"

"Send the children of top officials -- they all have good, red genes," quipped another, while one comment said: "I will be first in line to fight for the enemy."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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