Asia Tomorrow

China seeks to deploy shorter, fatter but brainier army

Charles Clover and Ma Fangjing
Chinese Paramilitary police stand guard near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

China's army is relaxing recruiting standards to allow shorter, fatter and more myopic soldiers to enlist in an effort to recruit the brainpower needed to man a fast growing arsenal of high-tech weapons, according to the defense ministry.

At 2.3 million, the People's Liberation Army is by far the biggest army in the world. However, the defense ministry is concerned about education levels among recruits, and has stepped up efforts to enlist high school and college graduates.

Guidelines released by the ministry this week cut height requirements from 162cm to 160cm for male recruits and from 160cm to 158cm for female recruits, increased the weight limit and lowered eyesight requirements. Tattoos, formerly off limits, will now be tolerated if they are less than 10 sq cm in total with a maximum two sq cm visible when the soldier is in uniform.

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However, education requirements have been stiffened, and recruits from major cities must now have a high school diploma to make the cut.

The defense ministry has also introduced a new requirement: sanity. It spelt out for the first time that prospective soldiers suffering from schizophrenia, dissociative disorder, depression and bipolar disorder need not apply.

Fueled by double-digit growth in defense spending over the past two decades, the PLA has been transformed from a heavily politicized and low-tech vestige of the Mao era to a more mobile, professional military force that is adding advanced weapons systems at a dizzying rate.

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In addition to a fearsome array of missiles, China's first aircraft carrier recently put to sea, and a second is reportedly on the way. Pictures of a two seater stealth fighter, the J-16, emerged in March and a hypersonic glider has been tested, according to news reports in January.

The PLA soldier of today might as easily be found at a computer as holding a gun. The US justice department last month filed charges against five PLA officers alleging they had illegally accessed US computers. Beijing has denied the allegations.

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Manning sophisticated new-generation equipment also means relying on a pool of more sedentary but better educated soldiers for whom the ability to sit hunched over keyboards for long hours is key to battlefield effectiveness.

Gong Fangbin, a specialist in military affairs at China's National Defense University, told Xinhua news agency that recruitment standards were determined by the changing demands of warfare. In the past, war was a "trial of strength" and soldiers were required to be tall and muscular, he said. Now "the military emphasizes intellect and requires soldiers to be able to operate advanced weapons and equipment".

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The army has had to increase salaries for soldiers with college degrees to keep pace with private sector employers. An officer with a college degree can now earn Rmb159,200 ($25,600) over two years, according to the China Daily.

The PLA has also had to deal with another consequence of rapid economic growth – the increasing height and girth of its soldiers. A recent study by the army recommended larger uniforms and a new generation of supersized military vehicles with roomier compartments to accommodate recruits who are 2cm taller and 5cm bigger around the waist than they were two decades ago.