China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAO XINYING

Chen Yu, a straight-A stu­dent and a de­scen­dant of a New Fourth Army sol­dier who was killed dur­ing the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1931-45), had two child­hood dreams. His first was to at­tend China’s best col­lege. His sec­ond, to join an elite unit of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army.

He ful­filled both af­ter be­com­ing a stu­dent at Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing.

In 2012, Chen, 17 at the time, was ad­mit­ted to the coun­try’s top school. Two years later, be­fore he started his third year at col­lege, Chen post­poned his stud­ies and en­listed in the PLA Rocket Force, serv­ing in North­west China for two years.

Each year, young peo­ple from across the coun­try sus­pend their stud­ies and en­list. They are known as stu­dent sol­diers.

In 2016, the num­ber of stu­dents who ap­plied on­line to join the PLA ex­ceeded 1 mil­lion for the first time, and the pro­por­tion of stu­dents among new re­cruits con­tin­ues to rise, ac­cord­ing to China Na­tional De­fense News­pa­per. In Bei­jing and Shang­hai, stu­dents have ac­counted for more than 70 per­cent of all ap­pli­cants this year, com­pared with about 30 per­cent na­tion­ally. The PLA de­clined to re­veal com­plete re­cruit­ment num­bers.

Ben­e­fits pack­age

Bei­jing, the city with the most col­leges, of­fers a ben­e­fits pack­age for stu­dents who en­list, sub­si­dized by the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment and the army. Un­der­grad­u­ates re­ceive about 214,000 yuan ($31,680) a year, while stu­dents at vo­ca­tional col­leges get 206,000 yuan.

Stu­dents at the cap­i­tal’s uni­ver­si­ties who en­list and serve at least two years be­fore re­sum­ing their stud­ies are granted Bei­jing hukou, or per­ma­nent res­i­dence, when they grad­u­ate and start work in the city.

Other cities and prov­inces of­fer sim­i­lar pack­ages, tai­lored to lo­cal con­di­tions.

Gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and State-owned en­ter­prises in Bei­jing re­serve 10 to 15 per­cent of their an­nual em­ploy­ment quota for dis­charged stu­dent sol­diers.

Those given sec­ond-class mil­i­tary merit awards or higher are rec­om­mended for grad­u­ate school di­rectly af­ter de­mo­bi­liza­tion, and they are ex­cused from the na­tional grad­u­ate en­trance exam.

Lyu Jishu, a teacher of mil­i­tary the­ory at Ts­inghua, said the army be­gan en­list­ing stu­dents in 2002 be­cause the rapid mod­ern­iza­tion of weaponry and equip­ment re­quired bet­ter-ed­u­cated sol­diers.

Deng Yu, deputy di­rec­tor of Ts­inghua’s na­tional de­fense ed­u­ca­tion of­fice, said the pro­gram to re­cruit the univer­sity’s stu­dents was launched in 2005, and by the end of last year, 134 stu­dents, mostly male, had en­listed from a wide range of ma­jors.

While that may not seem a large num­ber, ev­ery Ts­inghua stu­dent ex­celled in the army. Eighty-nine of them have been de­mo­bi­lized so far, all re­turn­ing to Ts­inghua hav­ing been dec­o­rated as out­stand­ing sol­diers, while 30 re­ceived first-, sec­ond- or third-class merit awards, ac­cord­ing to Deng. “Their per­for­mances were above stan­dard,” he said.

Num­bers rise

Lyu, who was dis­patched by the army to lec­ture on mil­i­tary the­ory at Ts­inghua, said only two stu­dents en­listed when the un­der­tak­ing was ini­tially launched. The fol­low­ing year, only one ap­plied.

“But the num­ber has risen re­cently, with more than 20 stu­dents en­list­ing ev­ery year,” he said, adding that al­though large num­bers of peo­ple ap­ply to join the army, only a few achieve their am­bi­tion.

“Most failed as a re­sult of is­sues such as my­opia, which led to them fail­ing the phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion,” he said.

En­list­ment gen­er­ally be­gins in June, ahead of the sum­mer va­ca­tion. Af­ter reg­is­ter­ing on­line, ap­pli­cants un­dergo ini­tial se­lec­tion pro­ce­dures, fol­lowed by phys­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions. Those cho­sen are of­fi­cially re­cruited in early Septem­ber.

Ac­cord­ing to Deng, the en­list­ment re­quire­ments are the same for stu­dents and non­stu­dents, and the only real dif­fer­ence be­tween them is age. For ex­am­ple, male ap­pli­cants from ur­ban ar­eas are re­quired to have grad­u­ated from high school and be ages 18 to 21, while male un­der­grad­u­ates age 22 or younger and male grad­u­ate stu­dents age 24 and younger are also el­i­gi­ble.

Most Ts­inghua stu­dents en­list as they ap­proach their ju­nior or se­nior years, he added.

A range of am­bi­tions

Deng said Ts­inghua stu­dents en­list for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons: “Some have had a pas­sion for mil­i­tary life since child­hood; some want to ex­pe­ri­ence a dif­fer­ent life; and for some, it is an op­por­tu­nity to de­velop a new ca­reer.”

Chen Yu, who was dis­charged in Septem­ber last year, said one of the rea­sons he joined the army was the ex­am­ple set by his great-grand­fa­ther, who was killed while fight­ing more than 50 years ago. His ap­petite was also whet­ted by TV se­ries such as Sol­diers’ Sor­tie, a highly pop­u­lar pro­gram shown in 2007.

“All these fac­tors made me think that be­ing a sol­dier is cool and join­ing up is an honor,” said Chen, who has now re­turned to Ts­inghua’s de­part­ment of en­gi­neer­ing physics.

He in­sisted on join­ing the PLA Rocket Force be­cause his univer­sity de­part­ment had pro­duced a num­ber of fa­mous ex­perts on atomic and hy­dro­gen bombs, and ar­ti­fi­cial satel­lites. He wanted to walk in their foot­steps.

“Join­ing the Rocket Force made me feel close to them. I felt I was mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion, just as they did decades ago, al­though my con­tri­bu­tion was min­i­mal and dif­fer­ent,” he said.

How­ever, the de­ci­sion to en­list is not eas­ily un­der­stood by some peo­ple.

The feel­ing was even stronger 10 years ago. Li Gao­jie, one of the two Ts­inghua stu­dents who en­listed in 2005, said his de­ci­sion sur­prised many peo­ple.

“I was the only one in my hometown — a small, im­pov­er­ished vil­lage in He­nan prov­ince — to be ad­mit­ted to a top univer­sity dur­ing re­cent decades. In many peo­ple’s eyes, I should have fol­lowed an aca­demic path and then landed a de­cent, pro­fes­sional job, like the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents did. They didn’t un­der­stand why I sus­pended a well-de­signed aca­demic and ca­reer path and took the road less trav­eled,” the 30-year-old said.

“I had al­ways been fond of mil­i­tary things and had wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence life in the army since I was a lit­tle boy. I never ex­pected to have the op­por­tu­nity at col­lege, but when it came, I seized it with­out hes­i­ta­tion.”

Dur­ing his two years in the Peo­ple’s Armed Po­lice in North China, Li was com­fort­able with army life, and re­al­ized that the mil­i­tary, rather than civil en­gi­neer­ing — his univer­sity ma­jor — was his real pas­sion.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to col­lege, he con­tin­ued to study mil­i­tary-re­lated cour­ses, and when he grad­u­ated in 2011, he caused a sec­ond sur­prise by de­clin­ing sev­eral job of­fers and re­fus­ing to ap­ply for grad­u­ate school. In­stead, he re-en­listed.

Hard to leave

Li, now deputy com­man­der of an in­fantry unit, said he found it dif­fi­cult to leave the army and turn to a civil­ian oc­cu­pa­tion.

He be­lieves he learned a lot in the army, in­clud­ing dis­ci­pline and team­work — things he seldom con­sid­ered be­fore join­ing up but which are now para­mount in his life.

“If I had to leave one day, I think I would work in a sec­tor or in­dus­try re­lated to the mil­i­tary,” he said. “The hall­mark of a sol­dier will ac­com­pany me wher­ever I go, what­ever I do.”

Lyu, the mil­i­tary the­ory teacher, said Ts­inghua stu­dents are in­tel­lec­tu­ally elite, but they may also be frag­ile psy­cho­log­i­cally and sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism.

“In that sense, join­ing the army would be a very good ex­er­cise and train­ing for them to over­come their weak­nesses,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to Deng, the stu­dents have al­ways regarded the army as an en­vi­ron­ment — a cam­pus out­side Ts­inghua — where they can thrive and hone their skills.

“We are happy to find that stu­dents have changed af­ter de­mo­bi­liza­tion. Many be­come stronger, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. They have also pro­gressed in terms of get­ting along with other peo­ple and deal­ing with all kinds of un­ex­pected sit­u­a­tions.”


Stu­dent un­dergo mil­i­tary med­i­cal check­ups in Nan­jing, Jiangsu prov­ince.


New stu­dent re­cruits in He­fei, An­hui prov­ince, chat at a cer­e­mony in their honor.

Li Gao­jie

Chen Yu

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