There is a cartoon depicting an American looking through a satellite focused on Asia. The bewildered American wonders why every September there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers lined up, only to vanish come October. Questions of espionage aside, viewers laugh at the befuddled foreigner because he doesn’t realize that the soldiers he sees are not actually soldiers, but merely Chinese first-year university students dressed in fatigues.
Every start of the school year, as freshmen in American universities attend orientation events, Chinese students undergo a three- to four-week long mandatory boot camp, known as military training. They are taught how to stand in line, march in sync, recite speeches, and take orders from real officials. Perhaps the most stressed skill is standing in place; students do this for two hours at a time under the hot September sun.
In actuality, the name given to the operation, military training is a bit deceptive. During these few weeks, students are taught a fraction of what is necessary for survival in battle, and none of the practical skills. They are not taught how to load or shoot weapons, drive vehicles, read maps, find water, or even make a fire. Most never touch a gun.
In lieu of giving students the skills to make credible soldiers, military training aims, on the surface, to build softer skills: camaraderie, obedience, discipline. Everyone is taught to make his/her bed in the same way. Everyone is taught how to place his/her toothbrush at the correct angle on a sink. But how differently would the globe regard these three weeks were it called “toothbrush training.” What the American saw through his satellite, thousands of students standing in completely straight rows, is far more awe-inspiring.
As such, the real purpose of training 18 year olds for three weeks is to create a semblance of order among thousands of freshmen from diverse backgrounds. Chinese universities are under the purview, and thus the direct control, of the government. In a country changing so fast, uniform training is not only desirable, it’s necessary to create a sense of constancy.
Many Chinese are critical of the practice, thinking it useless and unnecessarily difficult. Others believe it builds character in today’s youth, who are too often spoiled and lazy before being tossed into university. Unsurprisingly, few ask the students what they think. There is no talk on campus about how the three to four weeks affect students’ ability to learn, socialize, and interact with their classmates as individuals. One student described to me what standing in place for two hours was like: for the first thirty minutes you’re just trying to quiet your mind; the next thirty, you’re silently cursing the official keeping watch over you. “What about the next hour?” I asked. “You think about nothing. You just stand there,” he replied.
Regardless of student opinion, compulsory military training in China won’t be terminated anytime soon. It simply falls too closely in line with codified traditions the country is trying to hold onto as the face of everything else rapidly changes. It creates the appearance of strength and order the country wishes to project to the world.