A Tale of Two Volunteer Programs: China and Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 17

Recent developments have shown the volunteer recruitment systems in Taiwan and China moving on decidedly different trajectories. The Taiwan military’s attempt to implement a volunteer transition fully by the end of 2015, which already faced serious problems, appears to be in jeopardy after the death of 24-year-old Army Corporal Hung Chung-chiu from a heatstroke following extensive drills while in disciplinary detention. In addition, a short training period for new conscripts will contribute, along with limited joint and combined arms training, to declining operational readiness. A military with decreasing operational readiness and capabilities will be unable to execute a deterrence or defense strategy, weaken Taipei’s position in dealing with Beijing and force a reliance on the U.S. military for the defense of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the PLA has taken an incremental approach to the transition to an all-volunteer force. Noncommissioned officer (NCO) reform, resulting in the expansion and qualitative improvement of the NCO force, combined with an active program to recruit qualified personnel, with an emphasis on college students and graduates, has increased the quantity and quality of volunteer personnel in the PLA. These programs to enhance military talent are important to PLA modernization efforts to build a high-tech force, which in turn would support a coercive strategy or diverse military operations  in a crisis.

Taiwan’s Volunteer Program

Public recriminations continue against the military over Hung’s death, placing Taiwan’s ability to recruit a volunteer force in doubt. A crowd of 30,000 in Taipei on July 20 protested outside of the Ministry of National Defense (MND), while a larger protest held on August 3 in Taipei drew a crowd variously estimated at 100-250,000. Furthermore, 18 officers and noncommissioned officers have been indicted and defense minister Kao Hua-chu resigned over the case (Taiwan News, August 2; China Post, July 27, 28, 31).

The results of a Taiwan public opinion poll released in late July showed that respondents did not trust the military judiciary to investigate and prosecute military personnel in the Hung case. The poll also showed that 74.7 percent of respondents viewed the Taiwanese military as “unfit to fight a war,” providing evidence of the military’s low credibility among Taiwanese civilians (Taipei Times¸ July 29; Central News Agency, August 4). This widespread lack of confidence in the military does not bode well for the future of a force whose capabilities appeared to be in decline even before the uproar over Hung’s death (“Taiwan Military Reform: Declining Operational Capabilities?” China Brief, June 7).

While military reforms are occurring,  it is not likely that indictments of a number of officers or military reforms can easily counter the impact of Hung’s death on public opinion (China Post, July 27). Colonel Hu Zhong-shi, director of the Recruitment Center of the National Armed Forces, admitted at a press conference that “the Hung case will surely have negative impacts on the plan.” Even before the uproar over Hung’s death, the volunteer plan appeared to be having serious trouble with both the quantity and the quality of its recruits. Colonel Hu reported on August 19 that only 72 percent of the 2012 recruitment goal had been met, and that only 4,290 personnel had been recruited out of the 2013 goal of 28,531 (China Post, July 22 and 28; Central News Agency, August 20).  The MND announced on August 19 that it will loosen requirements, place greater emphasis on recruiting women and work to promote recruitment (Central News Agency, August 20). It is doubtful these measures will fill the recruitment gap without an increased defense budget to provide improve pay and benefits.

The PLA’s Move to a Volunteer Force

The PLA has taken a slower, steadier approach to its move towards a volunteer force. It has recently placed greater emphasis on recruiting college students and graduates, and has initiated links with civilian universities and military educational institutes to train select students for eventual service in the PLA. These efforts, along with NCO reforms and expansion, are furthering the transition to a volunteer force.

Historically, conscription was the mainstay of PLA recruitment.  Conscription began on November 1 each year, preceded by registration starting on September 30. Demobilization of soldiers would often occur in December, with transportation of some demobilized soldiers beginning in late November. The influx of untrained new conscripts and release of soldiers would result in a sharp decrease in unit operational readiness and impact training. The PLA began transitioning away from compulsory service in 1998 with the recognition that high quality personnel were required to support modernization. A key component in the move to a volunteer force has been the reform and expansion of the NCO corps,  begun in 1999 to provide greater stability to the military with long-term skilled personnel (Xinhua, June 18; August 21; China Military Online, November 21, 2012; China Brief, Volume 11, Issue 18 and Volume 11, Issue 20).

Conscription Reform

The PLA began to move away from compulsory service in 1998, when the words “based on the compulsory service system as the main body” were deleted from the Military Service Law. The compulsory service period was shortened to two years, and the active service system for voluntary servicemen and the reserve service system were reformed (China Military Online, May 6). Additional changes have included the following:

In 2009 recruitment standards for women were changed to include raising the maximum age requirements for various categories in order to recruit more highly qualified and educated women (Xinhua, October 12, 2009).

In 2011 relaxed physical restrictions were relaxed on tattoos and pierced ears, and height requirements for women were lowered, aided by the development of standardized medical and psychological screening system for the PLA (Xinhua, November 3, 2011; PLA Daily, January 20, 2011; China Military Online, June 22, 2011).

 Also in 2011, an online registration and pre-recruiting system aimed at high school graduates and college students was established, and inducements for students were strengthened, including tuition compensation, payments of government subsidized student loans and compensatory payments for qualified college graduates (PLA Daily, June 28, 2011; Xinhua, September 10, 2011; China Military Online, September 22, 2011).

The National People’s Congress in 2011 also removed limits on the registration of urban youth, abolished recruitment deferrals for full-time students was abolished, and allowed college graduates with excellent military service to be promoted directly to serve as active-duty officers. Furthermore, college students enlisting for active duty could resume their studies within two years of demobilization, the recruitment age for college graduates was raised to 24 years, and the registration period (but not the conscription period) was moved from September 30 to June 30 (Xinhua, June 15; Xinhua, September 10, 2011; PLA Daily, June 28, 2011; Xinhua, June 27, 2011; China Military Online, November 6, 2012; PLA Daily, October 9, 2011).

Recruiting Quality Students

The PLA began recruiting college graduates in 2001, with more than 130,000 college graduates serving as soldiers at the end of 2009. From 2009 to 2012, approximately 100,000 college students joined the military each year (China Daily, August 19).  This represents perhaps a quarter to a third of all recruits, by this author’s rough estimate. The current emphasis is on increasing quality personnel by focusing on recruitment of college students and graduates. The State Council and CMC recently moved the start of the intake period to August 1, synchronizing it with the graduation period in order to attract qualified graduates, while limiting the numbers of secondary school students recruited. The previous November 1 start date resulted in missed opportunities to recruit the most qualified college graduates, due to the time lag. For example, one survey showed that in 2012 approximately 90 percent of university graduates had found work before the winter intake period, limiting the number of quality personnel available for PLA recruitment. The change to an earlier recruitment period will also lessen the drop in PLA unit combat readiness, as it allows for basic training of new recruits before the annual demobilization of personnel at the end of the year (Xinhua, June 15 and 18).

The Ministry of National Defense (MND) began receiving applications in June through an online website. Major cities focused on recruiting college students employing mobilization and propaganda campaigns. MND officials stated that college students will enjoy advantages in registration, admission and recruitment (Xinhua, June 17). The PLA Daily reports active recruitment drives throughout China, with various locations reporting increased college applicants over previous years. For example, Shanghai began military service registration on June 1, with over 300 military service registration stations set up at colleges and universities, while Beijing began recruiting college students on June 15, including activities with China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, to attract prospects (China Military Online, June 3).  The PLA has enhanced its propaganda and mobilization campaign this year, including online social networking programs, aimed at attracting college students and graduates away from potential business recruiters (China Military Online, June 18, 19, 20, 26, 27, 29; July 7, 11, 25).The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced on August 21 that over 200,000 college students had taken part in pre-conscription registration in large and medium cities (Xinhua, August 21).

College students and graduates can receive preferential treatment as an inducement to volunteer, including admission advantages, tuition payments, one time recruitment payments, preferential employment opportunities in state-owned enterprises and the civil service upon decommissioning, three years of free administrative charges for decommissioned college students starting their own business, and possible Beijing household registration permits for non-local college students recruited from Beijing universities and colleges (China Military Online, June 18; Global Times, June 18).

Unemployment and underemployment among college graduates could benefit the PLA’s recruitment efforts. The expansion of higher education since 1999 has increased the number of college graduates entering the job market, with college graduates numbering 6.99 million in 2013, 190,000 more than in 2012  (Global Times, June 18; The Atlantic, May 24). The MyCOS Institute, a Beijing-based education research company, tracks college employment: a 2012 report indicated an employment rate of approximately 90.2 percent for 2011 graduates, and 89.6 percent for 2010 graduates. May 2013 statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education reported that only 33.6 percent of college graduates in Beijing had signed employment contracts, reflecting continuing poor job opportunities (China Economic Review, June 12).

The decline in students’ physical condition, however, has hurt recruiting, with the PLA finding since at least 1995 that sedentary life styles have resulted in weight, strength and vision problems. The Beijing recruiting office reported that approximately 60 percent of college students failed the physical fitness exam, 23 percent failed the eye exam, and 19 percent were either obese or underweight. Even with physical standards reduced in 2008 and 2011, the physical condition of students is adversely affecting student recruitment (China Daily, August 13). The 60 percent failure rate would indicate that of the 200,000 college students reported registering for military service this year, perhaps only 80,000 are fit for service, barring any other disqualifications. This is less than the reported 100,000 college students recruited each year between 2009 and 2012.

It is not clear whether the PLA has met past recruitment goals for college students and graduates.  While the PLA published the goal of recruiting some 150,000 college graduates in 2010, only 100,000 were recruited that year (Xinhua, September 9, 2011; Hong Kong Service of Agence France-Presse, September 23, 2011). The PLA has not announced recruiting goals for college graduates since then, which could mean that goals are not being met even with the incentives and poor employment environment.

Leveraging Civilian and Military Educational Institutions

The PLA is recruiting college students and graduates in greater numbers than before, but possibly still not enough to meet their requirements. Other PLA programs may be providing additional talent. While the PLA is primarily targeting students in higher education, some programs select highly qualified candidates to receive higher education through joint civilian-military programs (Xinhua, August 1). The PLA is using educational opportunities as an inducement to attract qualified male and female high school graduates. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) took the lead in 2011 to partner with Tsinghua University to train qualified students to become pilots. The “3+1” [1] training model includes three years at a civilian college followed by a year at a military educational institute. For example, the class of 32 “3+1” students at Tsinghua University will study at its School of Aerospace and Aviation for three years and then spend a year at the Air Force Aviation University (AFAU), followed up a year of advanced flight training. The PLA has also partnered with 19 civilian colleges and universities to train national defense students. In 2012 Beijing University and the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA) began a program to train national defense students. These students reportedly will spend four years at the civilian universities and then two years at AFAU for flight and command training (China Military Online, June 28; July 27; September 20, 2011; Xinhua, June 28; PLA Daily, May 24, 2012).

Building on the PLAAF plan, the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), and the MOE expanded the effort this year by initiating a joint pilot training program to allow high school graduates to study in both military educational institutes and civilian universities. The program seeks an innovative military-civilian integration model in order to maximize resources to optimize training of student pilots. The first 87 candidates will train in military educational institutes such as the Naval Aviation College and AFAU, and Beijing University (25 students), Tsinghua University (32 students) and BUAA (30 students). The civilian universities will provide a basic education with the military educational institutes providing specialized education and flight training. Qualified graduates will be sent to aviation units in the ground forces, PLAAF and PLA Navy (PLAN) (China Military Online, July 5; Xinhua, July 5).

This year the MOE and the four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics and Armaments) began targeting juniors from top universities to join the military upon graduation to become military engineers as part of the “3+1” program. Select students undergo a 6-12 month study in military academies and schools, research institutes, high-tech units and armament production enterprises. The program will provide military and academic education and training, as well as possible eligibility for post-graduate study. The government notice stated that over 300 students will be selected this year for the new engineering program (China Military Online, July 10; Xinhua, July 10).


Taiwan and China represent two volunteer recruitment programs moving along opposite trajectories. The Taiwanese volunteer force program has been launched with a shorter preparation and implementation period, and a lack of funding to increase pay and other benefits for servicemen, combined with a general disregard for military service by civilians, resulted in failures to achieve recruitment goals even before the current uproar over Corporal Hung’s death.

Hung’s death in detention is further souring public opinion regarding military service and competence of the armed forces. This inability to reach recruitment goals leaves the status of the volunteer program in doubt, and operational readiness will continue to decline as active duty authorized strength cannot be met. Not all of the fault lies with the Taiwanese military for the, as legislators have failed to meet the military’s stated minimum budgetary requirements. It is difficult to envision how the volunteer system can be saved without significant increases to volunteer pay and benefits and a successful public relations campaign. A return to the old conscription system would appear equally difficult, considering the current state of public opinion regarding military service. Declining operational readiness and an increasingly hollow military will make it difficult for Taiwan to execute its stated defense strategy, will place Taipei in a position of weakness in its dealings with Beijing, and could leave Taiwan’s defense reliant on the U.S. military.

Moving in the opposite direction, the PLA has chosen a gradual, multipronged approach to attract high quality volunteers. The slower approach, supported by adequate funding for increased pay, benefits and other inducements, also allows for reassessments and readjustments to improve the initiatives. The recent moves to recruit highly qualified students, with an emphasis on college students and graduates, appear to be achieving some success. Limited employment opportunities combined with inducements should allow the PLA to recruit better-qualified talent to support a growing high-tech force and complex operational theories. Increasing PLA capabilities will provide a greater range of options against Taiwan, whether coercive or direct military actions.

It is not clear whether recruitment goals for college students and graduates are being met, and poor student physical fitness is hurting recruitment, but it does appear that the PLA is moving forward as it relies to a greater extent on volunteers to man high-tech units, while the Taiwanese program appears to be in deep trouble.


1.  There are variations such as “2+2” and “4+1” programs combining military and civilian education.