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China's demographic decline to stunt PLA's growth

The PLA’s desperate recruitment drive reveal what a paper tiger it really is

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A bunch of Chinese veterans sit on a roadside in Beijing in 2016.

A bunch of Chinese veterans sit on a roadside in Beijing in 2016. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Earlier this month, a report surfaced in Chinese state media outlet China Reports Network, which said it is every Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member’s obligation to have at least three children, generating a social media storm that got pundits speculating on the effectiveness of this kind of state-led reproductive coaxing.

That China is facing a demographic decline is obvious from the statistics: more than 18% of the population is over 60 years old, as per last year’s census. Moreover, there were just 8.5 births per thousand in 2020, a far cry from the high of 18 per thousand in 1978.

In addition to being a challenge for the country’s economy, this low birth rate will impact China’s expansionist plans in a big way, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now faces an imminent manpower crunch.

Though the PLA projects itself as a technologically dominant force and hypes its highly abstract “intelligent warfare,” it is inevitable that this manpower crunch will impede its operations. The growing list of novel recruitment strategies reveals the CCP’s increasing desperation to turn this trend around — a proposed “three-child policy” is only one of them.

Ironically, the much famed long-term thinking of the Chinese has drawn a blank here. When the one-child policy ended in 2016, it was assumed the Chinese people’s reproductive capacity was like a switch, easily controllable by the diktats of the Party.

Unfortunately for Beijing, nature is not subject to the whims of an authoritarian polity. The three-child policy also assumes that all the 95 million members of the CCP have the money, wherewithal, and willingness to procreate as per a “national goal.”

China has changed, and increased child rearing costs, a hyper-competitive education system, and the rising costs of buying a house — considered a must have for starting a family in China — have all converged to make ordinary Chinese put off nest-building. As the old Chinese saying goes “high housing prices are the best form of contraception” (“高房價是最強避孕藥”).

Nor do PLA recruiters have a choice pick of China’s new talents, since many young Chinese are drawn to the glamour and riches of big tech. This has left the PLA short of qualified personnel to man their ambitious new artificial intelligence (AI), cyber, 5G and quantum technology programs.

The PLA has gone in for a three-pronged welfare and public relations blitzkrieg to attract more recruits into their fold. They have eased physical standards, opened the door to the mentally ill, and pledged to ramp up entertainment facilities to ensure soldiers reenlist after their first stint ends, according to a Time magazine report. Tattooed youths are now welcome to join too.

Weight standards have been increased, reflecting an ongoing obesity epidemic in the country, while height requirements have been lowered. The condition is so desperate that individuals with depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, and even schizophrenia can enlist.

Counterintuitively, recruiters told state media that lax entry requirements will bring in higher quality recruits, increasing the military’s strength and efficiency.

Even good vision, presumably needed in warfare, is no longer required. The PLA has reduced eyesight requirements, seeing as almost 70% of Chinese students are shortsighted.

China aims to not only swell its ranks of grunts but is lowering the quality of its future brass too by lowering the passing score for officer entry tests. And it does not stop with the young — the old are being looped back in too.

Even veterans who have already served their time in the PLA are not quite out of its reach. Post-retirement veterans welfare, unheard of in China until now, is being bandied around with abandon in an to compensate vets in case China needs them to charge onto Taiwan's beaches in the near future or get busy salami slicing in another theater.

Yet there is no such thing as a free lunch in China’s mess halls, and military authorities are making new changes to ensure vets can be drafted back into service when China’s state council orders mobilization orders for war. All these policies are part of a desperate attempt by the PLA to hide the fact that they are simply short on soldiers.

Nowhere does China look weaker than in the Himalayas. Realizing the futility of deploying Chinese troops who are unconditioned to high-altitudes, Beijing has resorted to enlisting Tibetan militias to patrol their mountaintop borders, utilizing the Tibetans' genetic advantage in the climate. After a string of high-ranking generals of China's Western Theater Command died in quick succession due to high-altitude-related ailments, it is becoming hard for Beijing to convince Chinese soldiers to hold the line on the roof of the world.

As a result, Tibetan militias have been formed to operate in the frontier regions against India. Certain provisions of China’s soon-to-be-implemented Land Boundary Law also talk of forming citizen militias to defend border regions. China is also attempting to train child soldiers — Tibetan minors — in order to offset the comparative weaknesses of ethnic Han soldiers on the plateau.

All these point to a weakening PLA that has to look to other countries to defend what it claims as its own territory. For all the media rumors surrounding China’s whizz-bang new missiles, these are to some extent an airborne distraction from the PLA’s rather unexciting ground reality.

It is worth remembering just how inexperienced and unprepared regular Chinese soldiers are for fighting and winning a protracted conflict and controlling a piece of terrain. The supposed modernization reforms introduced by Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) conceal rapid aging and hollowing out in the ranks, compounded by the lack of technical and field manpower.