New recruits to China's People's Liberation Army receive a lecture from veterans near Zhangzhou, China, on September 4, 2022.

New recruits to China's People's Liberation Army receive a lecture from veterans near Zhangzhou, China, on September 4, 2022. (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

China’s New Conscription Rules Reveal Concerns

New sections on wartime drafts, punishment, and physical fitness offer a glimpse into PLA leaders’ minds.

Recent revisions to the regulations that govern China’s draft highlight some of the military’s deepest insecurities about its own capabilities and people.

In April, China’s Central Military Commission announced that it had revised the “Regulations on Conscription Work.” Released by the Xinhua state news agency, the announcement said that the revisions were carried out to implement “Xi Jinping Thought on strengthening the military” and improve the quality of conscripts to the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. Yet certain changes inadvertently highlight some of the PLA’s deepest insecurities about its own capabilities and people.  

Perhaps most notably, the updated Regulations have a brand-new chapter about the wartime conscription process. The new rules allow the CMC to adjust conscription requirements at will after issuing a national defense mobilization order. It also indicates that during wartime, former soldiers can be called up as a supplement to active service units. 

All this strongly suggests that the PLA is thinking not just about what it would actually need in wartime, but also how it continues to suffer from poor retention of its personnel. In particular, better-educated personnel tend to leave after their two-year enlistment is up, put off by the harsh conditions and attracted by more appealing options in the private sector. 

In recent years, the PLA has made numerous efforts to boost retention. In 2021, for example, leaders changed the policy that demobilized all conscripted personnel who were not promoted to NCO. Those who wished to stay on could do so in a “second enlistment.” Although the PLA has not released details on the decision to create the second enlistment program, the new Regulations indicate it has not made the headway it hoped in retaining talent.  

The Regulations also add a section on punishments—and the crimes that will incur them, such as evading a conscription call, refusal to serve once recruited, obstructing citizens from fulfilling their military service obligations, corruption and malpractice, and dereliction of duty. While the Regulations do not specify punishments, the PLA has been known to issue fines of up to $6,760, and prohibit the recruit from resuming college, going abroad, obtaining government aid or subsidies, obtaining civil service or state-owned enterprise employment, or receiving a business license. 

 The new section on crimes and punishment suggests that these issues remain malignant. Refusal to serve, in particular, is likely a much bigger problem than most realize. A ten-year study of the PLA showed that it’s not uncommon for new recruits to refuse the conscription call after receiving their notifications or even after they have fully entered service. In one example from 2020, a fresh 20-year-old college student joined the PLA in Anhui Province, only to quit on the first day of training. Although his training unit and family attempted to convince him otherwise, he refused to participate and was expelled. 

Such personal issues of fortitude may also explain the new Regulations’ increased scrutiny on physical and political examinations. They stipulate additional spot checks for those who pass the physical exams, and if too many fail this extra inspection, then the entire batch of candidates will undergo re-examination. This may be the latest attempt to address poor fitness among PLA recruits. At least as far back as 2013, the sedentary lifestyle of many modern Chinese citizens has contributed to high levels of failure on the physical examination. For example, one Beijing recruiting office found that 60 percent of its college recruits were failing due to high BMI and shortsightedness, both symptoms associated with modern urban lifestyles. Likewise, the PLA ascribes rising increased injury rates among recruits to low physical fitness. It also appears that these issues persist well into the enlistment period, with physical fitness often a contributing factor to poor training performance.

Beyond these brand-new sections, changes to the Regulations emphasize recruiting college-educated personnel and personnel with important skills. Chinese leaders associate educational levels with personnel quality, and want to improving the latter by increasing the former. In recent years, Xi has called personnel quality the key to building a world-class military, and has vowed to continue efforts to recruit more college-educated personnel. While the 2001 Regulations began focusing more on college-educated personnel, by 2009 the PLA had only recruited around 2,000 college graduates in total. This and other shortfalls led the PLA to increase the percentage of personnel with an urban background (strongly correlated with education), and restructure the entire recruitment cycle to attract graduates who may be looking for direction after leaving college.

Data provided by China’s National Bureau of Statistics show the reforms have worked to an extent, with an increase in personnel with at least some college education from 46.6 percent in 2000 to 56.81 percent by 2020. Although these numbers show a promising trend, the push within the new Regulations and anecdotal evidence points toward the PLA hoping for college education levels to reach closer to 70 percent. For example, Article 4 explicitly calls on colleges to assist the military in handling matters related to conscription work. Article 5 also stipulates that local governments give priority to recruiting college graduates and personnel with desirable professional skills. This aligns with the CCP leadership’s insistence on pushing for higher education levels and targeting those with STEM backgrounds, graduates of advanced technical schools, and those with the high-tech skills needed for modern combat readiness. 

Although the new Regulations are an important step in formalizing a number of key processes in the PLA’s conscription system, they also expose underlying issues that concern its leadership. Some, such as issues of candidate health, are faced by militaries around the world, including the U.S. Others, such as the retention and college education issue, are more specific to the PLA. In both cases, how and whether the PLA is able to answer these personnel challenges will both shape its own future capabilities as well as security dynamics beyond China.