Page 2 of 2 China, Taiwan volunteer armies part ways
By Kevin McCauley
College students and graduates can receive preferential treatment as an inducement to volunteer, including admission advantages, tuition payments, one time recruitment payments, preferential employment opportunities in state-owned enterprises and the civil service upon decommissioning, three years of free administrative charges for decommissioned college students starting their own business, and possible Beijing household registration permits for non-local college students recruited from Beijing universities and colleges.
Unemployment and underemployment among college graduates could benefit the PLA's recruitment efforts. The expansion of higher education since 1999 has increased the number of college
graduates entering the job market, with college graduates numbering 6.99 million in 2013, 190,000 more than in 2012. The MyCOS Institute, a Beijing-based education research company, tracks college employment: a 2012 report indicated an employment rate of approximately 90.2% for 2011 graduates, and 89.6% for 2010 graduates.
May 2013 statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education reported that only 33.6% of college graduates in Beijing had signed employment contracts, reflecting continuing poor job opportunities.
The decline in students' physical condition, however, has hurt recruiting, with the PLA finding since at least 1995 that sedentary life styles have resulted in weight, strength and vision problems. The Beijing recruiting office reported that approximately 60% of college students failed the physical fitness exam, 23% failed the eye exam, and 19% were either obese or underweight.
Even with physical standards reduced in 2008 and 2011, the physical condition of students is adversely affecting student recruitment. The 60% failure rate would indicate that of the 200,000 college students reported registering for military service this year, perhaps only 80,000 are fit for service, barring any other disqualifications. This is less than the reported 100,000 college students recruited each year between 2009 and 2012.
It is not clear whether the PLA has met past recruitment goals for college students and graduates. While the PLA published the goal of recruiting some 150,000 college graduates in 2010, only 100,000 were recruited that year. The PLA has not announced recruiting goals for college graduates since then, which could mean that goals are not being met even with the incentives and poor employment environment.
Leveraging civilian and military educational institutions
The PLA is recruiting college students and graduates in greater numbers than before, but possibly still not enough to meet their requirements. Other PLA programs may be providing additional talent. While the PLA is primarily targeting students in higher education, some programs select highly qualified candidates to receive higher education through joint civilian-military programs.
The PLA is using educational opportunities as an inducement to attract qualified male and female high school graduates. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) took the lead in 2011 to partner with Tsinghua University to train qualified students to become pilots. The "3+1"  training model includes three years at a civilian college followed by a year at a military educational institute.
For example, the class of 32 "3+1" students at Tsinghua University will study at its School of Aerospace and Aviation for three years and then spend a year at the Air Force Aviation University (AFAU), followed up a year of advanced flight training. The PLA has also partnered with 19 civilian colleges and universities to train national defense students.
In 2012, Beijing University and the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA) began a program to train national defense students. These students reportedly will spend four years at the civilian universities and then two years at AFAU for flight and command training.
Building on the PLAAF plan, the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), and the MOE expanded the effort this year by initiating a joint pilot training program to allow high school graduates to study in both military educational institutes and civilian universities. The program seeks an innovative military-civilian integration model in order to maximize resources to optimize training of student pilots.
The first 87 candidates will train in military educational institutes such as the Naval Aviation College and AFAU, and Beijing University (25 students), Tsinghua University (32 students) and BUAA (30 students). The civilian universities will provide a basic education with the military educational institutes providing specialized education and flight training. Qualified graduates will be sent to aviation units in the ground forces, PLAAF and PLA Navy (PLAN).
This year the MOE and the four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics and Armaments) began targeting juniors from top universities to join the military upon graduation to become military engineers as part of the "3+1" program. Select students undergo a 6-12 month study in military academies and schools, research institutes, high-tech units and armament production enterprises.
The program will provide military and academic education and training, as well as possible eligibility for post-graduate study. The government notice stated that over 300 students will be selected this year for the new engineering program.
Taiwan and China represent two volunteer recruitment programs moving along opposite trajectories. The Taiwanese volunteer force program has been launched with a shorter preparation and implementation period, and a lack of funding to increase pay and other benefits for servicemen, combined with a general disregard for military service by civilians, resulted in failures to achieve recruitment goals even before the current uproar over Corporal Hung's death.
Hung's death in detention is further souring public opinion regarding military service and the competence of the armed forces. This inability to reach recruitment goals leaves the status of the volunteer program in doubt, and operational readiness will continue to decline as active duty authorized strength cannot be met.
Not all of the fault lies with the Taiwanese military for the, as legislators have failed to meet the military's stated minimum budgetary requirements. It is difficult to envision how the volunteer system can be saved without significant increases to volunteer pay and benefits and a successful public relations campaign.
A return to the old conscription system would appear equally difficult, considering the current state of public opinion regarding military service. Declining operational readiness and an increasingly hollow military will make it difficult for Taiwan to execute its stated defense strategy, will place Taipei in a position of weakness in its dealings with Beijing, and could leave Taiwan's defense reliant on the US military.
Moving in the opposite direction, the PLA has chosen a gradual, multipronged approach to attract high quality volunteers. The slower approach, supported by adequate funding for increased pay, benefits and other inducements, also allows for reassessments and readjustments to improve the initiatives. The recent moves to recruit highly qualified students, with an emphasis on college students and graduates, appear to be achieving some success.
Limited employment opportunities combined with inducements should allow the PLA to recruit better-qualified talent to support a growing high-tech force and complex operational theories. Increasing PLA capabilities will provide a greater range of options against Taiwan, whether coercive or direct military actions.
It is not clear whether recruitment goals for college students and graduates are being met, and poor student physical fitness is hurting recruitment, but it does appear that the PLA is moving forward as it relies to a greater extent on volunteers to man high-tech units, while the Taiwanese program appears to be in deep trouble.
1. There are variations such as "2+2" and "4+1" programs combining military and civilian education.