China is reintroducing military training for high school and university students to strengthen its Army officer corps, and build a sense of discipline, responsibility, and patriotism among the nation's best educated youth, according to Chinese officials.
Foreign experts say the move amounts to a concession to the Chinese military, which has suffered from declining prestige and morale in recent years. Earlier this spring, it was disclosed that the total strength of the 4.5 million-man armed forces would be reduced by more than a million men. China's civilian leaders already have taken a number of steps to demobilize many of the veteran officers who have served the world's largest Army since its inception in the 1930s and '40s.
The decision to create a reserve officer force among students takes China one more step in the direction of a professionally led army and away from the Maoist concept of a peasant-based military force designed for guerrilla warfare.
Until recently at least, Chinese leaders have given economic modernization a much higher priority than modernizing the military. Some aging military leaders are reported by informed Chinese sources to be opposed to the economic reforms that have been introduced by China's principal leader, Deng Xiaoping.
The official New China News Agency reported last week that starting in September, compulsory military training would be introduced gradually in secondary schools and universities with the aim of building a well-educated military reserve force. The move is eventually expected to affect about 1.5 million students in the country's universities and 7 million students in the senior grades of secondary school.
Last Thursday, the People's Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, said that at the outset, the military training program would be conducted on an experimental basis at selected universities and secondary schools. The paper quoted Education Minister He Dongchang as saying military training would strengthen the students' concept of national defense, raise their organizational discipline, build their sense of responsibility, and arouse their sense of patriotism.
According to People's Daily, 52 Chinese universities and colleges and 102 senior middle schools and other educational institutions will begin a military training program in September.
The course in military affairs is to include ideology, tactical principles, modern military science, and training in light weapons, among other things. Upon completing the course, those qualified are to be selected to join an additional training program for reserve officers, the newspaper said.
Weaknesses in the Army came to light during the Chinese attack on Vietnam in 1979. Among the problems were a lack of mobility and weak logistical support. Trucks broke down and were not repaired. Many supplies had to be delivered by horse cart and human porters.
If Chinese press and radio reports are any indication, morale has been a serious problem for the Army for some years. Peasant soldiers have found themselves making much less money in the Army than they could make working on farms.
According to a radio report from China's Hainan Island on May 22, the Army unit there has had to cope with "ideological wavering" among Communist Party cadres.
"The wives of four staff officers in the artillery section of the headquarters are all working in the localities and earning more than their husbands," the report said.
In the view of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, it was not an educated officer corps but "millet plus rifles" that gave the Chinese Red Army victories over the armies of Japan and Nationalist China. But today, instead of following Mao's "people's war" ideal, the new Chinese leadership has decided to emphasize more modern arms and a better educated officer corps.
On May 1, the Army introduced new, more distinguished-looking uniforms, a move that was seen as another boost for morale in the armed forces.