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From university campus to boot camp

Updated: 2013-07-19 00:06
By AN BAIJIE ( China Daily)

Captain Chu Kewei is exactly the kind of soldier the People's Liberation Army says it is looking for: well educated, tech savvy, and ready for the challenge of building a fighting force in the digital age.

He enlisted six years ago after receiving a degree in computer science and technology at Tsinghua University, as part of its first national defense class, and he has steadily risen through the ranks.

From university campus to boot camp

Captain Chu Kewei, a Tsinghua University computer science major, demonstrates his skills to soldiers in Mianchi, Henan province. The People's Liberation Army, with 120,000 civilian college graduates in its ranks, aims to recruit more skilled people like Chu. Liu Jian / for China Daily

Today, the 28-year-old is commander of Red First Company, a unit under the Jinan Military Area Command that dates back to the 1920s, and has already used his IT knowledge to upgrade the simulation drill software and build a database that analyzes a soldier's performance on the shooting range to improve training.

"It's a grassroots company," said Chu, who has about 200 troops under his command. As a graduate he could have chosen an assignment with a higher-level unit, "but being here means I can learn how to fight the enemy side by side with my fellow soldiers", he said. "It's essential for a military man."

The PLA began recruiting college graduates in 2001, and since then about 8,000 students from national defense classes have joined every year.

Yet military chiefs want to attract even more well-educated recruits, and they have introduced a new round of policies with that goal in mind.

"It's urgent that we have more highly educated soldiers, given the fact war now relies much more on information technology," said Zhang Xiaohui, a spokesman for the PLA General Political Department.

"University graduates have greater learning abilities and comprehensive knowledge. After going through physical training in the armed forces, they will become excellent soldiers, and even commanders."

For the first time in 23 years, the military this year changed its recruitment period from winter to summer.

"In the past, many talented young graduates had already found jobs by the time recruitment started in November," Zhang said in explaining the change.

Other incentives are also being offered. Graduates from Beijing universities, for example, can have their hukou, or household registration, transferred to the capital if they enlist, the city government said in June.

The Ministry of National Defense has also promised to pay back tuition fees as well as a bonus for troops who serve for two years.

PLA data from 2009 show there were 120,000 graduates from civilian colleges in its ranks, as opposed to those from military institutes and colleges, while General Liu Fafeng at Jinan Military Area Command said they account for roughly 30 percent of his commanders.

Smaller universities

Convincing more graduates to choose a career in the army could be tough, however, despite labor experts warning that 2013 will be a difficult year for fresh faces in the job market.

Guo Ruocun, who studied liberal arts at Shandong Normal University, said he had considered a soldier's life, but he failed the eyesight test.

However, another graduate from North China Electric Power University, who did not want to be identified, said he and his classmates will look for well-paying jobs with electricity companies. The army is not an option, he said.

"Students from smaller universities are more likely to join the army because they have fewer choices than those from key colleges," he added.

Even Captain Chu conceded that it was hard at first to make the transition from campus to boot camp.

Not only was he off the pace — in his first emergency drill it took him more than 10 minutes to get ready, much longer than anyone else — but he found it hard making conversation with other soldiers.

"They would like to talk about their previous experience as migrant workers, but I knew nothing about that life," he said, adding that his first lesson in the army was not how to shoot a weapon, but how to play cards.

"During a short break in a drill, most soldiers played cards to relax. I thought it was a waste of time, so I sat and read a book in silence," he recalled, adding that it led to a rebuke from his company's political commissar to get more involved.

"The life is very different," he said. "You have to think like a soldier thinks and learn to do as they do quickly."

Zhang, the PLA spokesman, said the military knows it faces an uphill struggle to attract more college graduates.

"Life in the military is not as colorful as in society, and a soldier's income is lower than many other jobs," he said. "But I believe that more graduates will join the army, as it's a unique experience and it will train their bodies and minds."


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