Beijing this week announced revisions to its conscription policy and said that should China enter a state of war, veterans and educated college students can expect to be on top of the list to be drafted.
China has positioned these changes as a necessary step to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and to bolster its combat effectiveness.
However, adding the nation’s most educated as priority draftees runs counter not only to traditional Western conscription practices, but China’s as well.
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“It fits into the context of PLA modernization,” Heino Klinck, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and military attaché to China, told Fox News Digital. “The PLA has historically been a military based on conscripts from the countryside. I think Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to further bolster his communist bona fide by ensuring that all segments of Chinese society are a part of the national military buildup.”
Several of China’s top universities already have military departments included in their institutions where students can combine their studies with military training.
One top official in China’s Central Military Commission told a PLA newspaper this week that colleges and universities play an essential role in recruiting and that there is a particular interest in female and male students or graduates with a background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
China also plans to instate a new standardized recruitment processes that will implement steps to improve the physical, mental and political assessments of recruits.
Ultimately, Beijing hopes to “provide institutional guarantees for consolidating national defense and building strong armed forces” by “recruiting more high-caliber soldiers,” according to a government announcement Wednesday.
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Klinck explained that the revisions to China’s conscription policies were not necessarily a surprise, though their timing has prompted some pause for concern.
“I don’t know what’s worse: that they are tone-deaf or are they intentionally messaging?” he questioned.
The announcement came just days after top U.S. lawmakers traveled to Taiwan in a show of “deterrence” against Chinese aggression, which occurred simultaneously with a trip by Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen to the U.S., where she met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Beijing responded by launching large-scale combat exercises around Taiwan that simulated sealing off the island — similar to drills it launched last year after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taipei.
Klinck described the conscription announcement as “arrogant” and noted his concern that Beijing is “recklessly making policy announcements with a total disregard to how the international community will interpret them.”
“The Chinese are usually pretty good when it comes to messaging and consistency,” he added. “I think that this is once again an indication that we should not anticipate the Chinese Communist Party softening its stance on Taiwan, softening its stance on the South China Sea or any other contentious geopolitical issue of concern.”
It is unclear how many fighting-age men China’s latest policy changes would add to its more than 2 million-strong ranks, or how its army could hold up to top militaries like the U.S.
Western defense officials have warned that Beijing plans to invade Taiwan by 2027, and last year President Biden raised eyebrows after he said he would send boots on the ground to defend the island from a Chinese attack.
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“The U.S. needs to speak softly and carry a big stick,” Klinck advised regarding U.S.-Chinese relations. “We need to be very clear that we want a positive relationship with China, but on mutually beneficial terms.”
“It cannot be a relationship where we want it more than the Chinese do. And any attempt to engage with the Chinese at all costs is not in our national interests,” he added.
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