There’s a joke among students here at Northeastern University in China’s northeast city of Shenyang.
Every fall, it begins, America’s intelligence agencies are baffled by the sudden and drastic increase in the ranks of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). For a few brief weeks, the PLA’s numbers are swelled with new recruits – 6 million last year – curiously all on college campuses.
But within a month, the new recruits have vanished, nowhere to be seen. The Americans are left scratching their heads, wondering what happened to these mystery warriors and when they might reappear.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The “mystery warriors” are really just college freshmen. Every year, first-year university students all across China participate in their mandatory regimen of military training before the start of classes. The training, held either on campus or at the nearest military base, lasts a few weeks prior to the start of classes.
Students may be equipped with firearms and dispatched to a shooting range for target practice. Or they may be given gas masks and medical equipment to run an emergency response drill.
There are compulsory lecture series – closed to international students and foreign teachers – in which students are introduced to national defense strategy and the latest in Party doctrine.
The foundation of the training is its most conspicuous element: hundreds if not thousands of young students, separated into squads, clad in camouflage fatigues, and marched in formation across campus. In the early morning, they learn to stand at attention and to salute. The evening is dominated by the singing of patriotic songs and old barracks tunes from the PLA. Throughout, trainees are subjected to regular dorm inspections and pre-dawn workouts.
On many campuses, the training ends with a grand ceremony at which newly minted trainees can showcase their marching skills for school officials and military personnel. Trainees goosestep around a stadium or presenting ground.
Why is a country with a reported military 2.3 million people strong and the second highest military expenditures in the world teaching its college freshmen how to goosestep?
Some form of military training has existed in some Chinese schools since after reunification under Communist rule, although today’s incarnation was established about three decades ago. In 1985, a year that saw sweeping reforms within China’s military, a pilot university military training program was established in a few dozen schools. Since then the program has been expanded to thousands of campuses so that today nearly every one of China’s roughly 6 million college freshmen participate. Middle school and high school students also take part in a similar program during their first days at school.
The program has been used to satisfy the perceived needs of the Party. In the year following the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, for instance, freshmen students at Beijing University, then considered a hotbed for democratic activism, were forced to undergo a full year of military training before even starting their official college curriculum.
At the time, a Ministry of Education official explained the decision saying, “We want to guide students so that they become close to the workers and peasants. During the unrest and counterrevolutionary turmoil, we painfully saw how students had gone farther and farther along the road of bourgeois liberalism.”
The goal most commonly cited by both trainers and trainees was the cultivation of self-discipline. The same discipline required to weather early morning drill formations, so the logic goes, will also help students succeed in the classroom and cope with their newfound independence.
“I think it’s definitely necessary to have this kind of training,” says Shen Guangxie, a senior student studying information technology in the Northeastern University National Defense College, who led a group of 60 freshmen in military training last year. “If you walk into the college students’ dormitory, you will find things are very messy. It’s especially necessary these days because the basic aim is to cultivate people’s mind and to help them learn to manage their daily lives.”
Students also said the training allowed them to build bonds with their new classmates and better acclimate to their new homes.