More than seven million students about to enter China’s universities are undergoing several weeks of intense annual military training that is compulsory for all students, male and female. But the purpose of military training for students is changing, as students and others consider whether the gruelling routines are really necessary.
This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
Even as China launched a spectacular display of military power earlier this month to commemorate a victory over Japan during World War II, and China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is stepping up its recruitment of university students and graduates, compulsory training for students before the start of term appears to be less militaristic and physically demanding than in the past.
The training for new university students and high school students, which lasts a minimum of two weeks and often up to two months, is usually held on campus, though in some regions it is held at local military sites, with students taught to march in formation and learn patriotic songs.
Officially the military training, known as Junxun in China is to “enhance students’ sense of national defence and national security awareness”. But it is also regarded as important for building teamwork, instilling collectivism and toughening up ‘Little Emperors’ as the spoilt youth of China’s one-child policy are generally known.
“In the past it was to instil discipline and also [the PLA] wanted to recruit the best of the university students to the military, but it is more like a form of patriotic education. Often it is a glorified camp,” said Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and an expert on China’s national security.
“There is also a need by the military and organisations associated with the military to be able to identify good-quality recruits but that is now more of a secondary purpose,” Cheung said. “It’s very much to instil [in students] the sense of a strong China – it is the nationalism that is the more important part, rather than militarism.”
The military is only one element in the rise of China’s national security state, according to Cheung. With a cut of some 300,000 troops, the number of people engaged with the military is shrinking, and students’ direct exposure to the military has become less important than in the past.
Some argue that training students in cyberattack techniques and other non-physical means of combat would be more relevant.
Military training and drilling has slackened in recent years, according to many university observers, with some universities scrapping formation marching, shooting practice and combat skills in favour of a more gentle regime and 'character-building' pursuits, which some students say is little more than a repeat of the Marxist education they undergo as part of the compulsory university curriculum.
“We have to do the same things in class, it is pointless,” said one student.
In late August official media reported a quilt-folding exercise during military training in Jinan in Shandong province, with the fastest student folding their quilt in 80 seconds.
Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, told University World News: “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to drill the undergraduates in terms of physical military discipline and their physique, but their loyalty is important to the party.”
Tsang said a modern, professional army requires very intensive training far beyond what students can learn in a few weeks. Past military training was geared towards getting young people “ready and able to be drafted and serve in the mass national army. Those days are largely gone.”
“China already has the biggest army in the world and does not actually face the risk of invasion by any other power,” said Tsang. “If you train a lot of young people in terms of their ability to run 10 miles and how to handle a rifle when there is practically no risk of anybody invading, then it is not terribly useful.”
But instilling obedience and loyalty still is an important goal, Tsang says. “It is an extension of China’s ramped up ideological education in universities.”
Others argue that, while not as demanding as in the past, there is a need to train students in physical fitness, particularly the post-1990s generation that has never tasted true hardship.
In recent years China’s social media came alive during the period of compulsory military training, with posts from students complaining about intense drilling, which has led to a scaling back of the most arduous physical training.
Last month official media reported the case of a student undergoing military training at a high school in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, who called the police. “My instructor forced me to practice even though I am exhausted,” the student was quoted as telling police in the report, widely circulated and commented on in China’s social media.
A student in Guangzhou speaking on condition of anonymity told University World News: “We are trained to march at a very slow pace, so I do not consider it to be like the military, but we have to do it for many hours in the hot sun and the soldiers training us always shout at us and are very rude.
“I do not like it at all,” she said.
“It is not an easy time for us,” said another student. “It is very hot and some students fall down, fainting.”
Shanghai’s education authority now requires training to be conducted before 10am or after 5pm and adjusted when it gets above 35 degrees Celsius, and it must be moved indoors or cancelled when it reaches 37 degrees.
The rigour of the training varies around the country, but many academics reported that it is gentler than in the past.
A health survey of student recruits conducted six times since 1985 found declining fitness levels which has led to a different approach. Students play camp-style games such as tug-of-war and goose-stepping has been scaled back in some regions. “We discipline less,” a camp commander in Nanjing told official media.
This year military camp commanders have been wary after an apparent rise in discontent in recent years among students, and some commanders are reporting that obedience is no longer as forthcoming from students as in the past.
The military is also concerned that student discontent could erupt into something more serious, such as the huge brawl last year between high school students in Hunan province and their military instructors which left 40 students, a military official and a teacher injured according to the official news agency Xinhua. It sparked much discussion in social media and among students.
While the Hunan incident was widely cited, university academics said they could recall previous instances of fighting breaking out in military camps, particularly where university students were forced to train in hot conditions.
“It is no longer appropriate for military training to be mandatory,” Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute said on social media after the Hunan brawl, which was reportedly sparked by a drillmaster commanding students to do intense push ups, leading to a fight with their teacher who considered it inappropriate.
“If drillmasters train students seriously, it may result in trouble and fights; if they don’t, the training meant to help students become more disciplined and tougher is not useful anymore," Xiong was quoted by the Shanghai Daily as saying.