The Evolution of the PLA’s Enlisted Force: Conscription and Recruitment (Part One)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 1

New PLA recruits departing for their army units (source: People’s Daily)


This article is the first in a two-part series on the evolution of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) enlisted force. Part one provides background and examines key issues in the PLA’s conscription and recruitment of enlisted personnel. Part two overviews the role of the enlisted force in the annual training cycle. The PLA’s yearly training cycle has always revolved around the annual conscription cycle, but each service and subordinate branch has been affected differently based on the size of the conscript force within the service/branch. Four major reforms have directly affected the conscript force: 1) the number and percentage of conscripts within the overall enlisted force; 2) the transition from an illiterate conscript force to a more educated force; 3) the creation of a two-year conscript force and a 28-year noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps; and 4) the change from a one to two-cycle annual conscription process.

This article addresses the following issues: key terms, guidance documents, force size and composition, gender, health issues, management and quotas, the annual conscription cycle, and compensation. Although the information applies to all PLA services, forces, and branches, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is used for specific examples.

Key Terms [1]

(Note: all PLA enlisted personnel use Army terminology).

  • Canjun (参军): The PLA translates this word as “join” or “enlist in the army.”
  • Junshi (军士): Generic term for sergeant.
  • Shibing (士兵): Generic term for the enlisted force. The Military Service Law defines this term as comprising both conscripts (义务兵, yiwubing) and volunteers (志愿兵, zhiyuanbing). Depending on context, Shibing can be translated as “enlisted personnel,” “enlisted corps,” “enlisted soldier,” and “soldier.”
  • Shiguan (士官): Noncommissioned officer.
  • Xinbing (新兵): “New soldiers”, troops in basic training.
  • Xuebing (学兵): Enlisted personnel who are students in technical training units.
  • Yingzheng baoming (应征报名): Conscript/recruit registration.
  • Yiwubing (义务兵): Conscript or compulsory serviceman, refers to all two-year enlisted personnel regardless of whether they were conscripted, recruited, or joined voluntarily.
  • Zhanshi (战士): “Soldier”, generic term for enlisted personnel.
  • Zhengbing (征兵) and Zhengji (征集): The most confusing terms are zhengbing and zhengji, which are translated as “conscription,” “enlistment,” and “recruitment,” but have completely different meanings in English. Whereas the terms previously meant conscription, the PLA now uses the terms to include both conscription and recruitment.
  • Zhiyuan (志愿):  Enlisted personnel who volunteer to join the PLA or new enlisted personnel who have completed their initial service and opted to continue active duty as NCOs.

Guidance Documents

Since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, the PLA has followed two primary guidance documents concerning the enlisted force:

  • PRC Military Service Law (中华人民共和国兵役法, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo bingyifa) issued by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 1955. A new law was issued in 1984, and amended in 1998, 2009, 2011, and 2021(NPC, December 10, 2000, June 29, 2021; Xinhua, August 20, 2021;).
  • PRC Conscription Regulations (中华人民共和国征兵工作条例, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo zhengbing gongzuo tiaoli) issued by the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 1985 and amended in 2001, 2005, and 2021 (, September 15, 2005).

Force Size and Composition

Unfortunately, the PLA has never provided detailed information about its force size, number of personnel by service/branch, gender, or rank/grade. In 1949,  the PLA had 5.5 million troops. The bulk of the force was Army infantry and the enlisted force consisted primarily of illiterate peasant volunteers. The officer-to-enlisted member ratio was about 1:1 [2]. Since the PRC’s founding, the PLA has undergone 11 force reductions in 1950, 1952, 1953, 1957, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1997, 2003, and 2016, going from a force of 4.6 million in May 1950 to 2.0 million in January 2016 (China Brief, February 4, 23, 2016).

Today, the two million-person PLA consists of three active-duty components: officers/cadres, enlisted personnel (NCOs and conscripts), and civil cadres. Although the PLA has not provided a numerical breakdown, Clay and Blasko “estimate that officers and civil cadres now number approximately 450,000 personnel (23 percent), NCOs 850,000 (42 percent), and conscripts about 700,000 (35 percent)” (War on the Rocks, July 20, 2020). This means that half of  conscripts, between 350,000-400,000, arrive and depart simultaneously, which clearly impacts the PLA’s training cycle (Lowy Institute, July 14, 2021).

The PLA’s approximately 700,000 conscripts are unevenly divided among services, forces, and branches. For example, the Army’s infantry, the Navy’s Marine Corps, and the Air Force’s airborne and ground air defense branches have a much higher percentage of conscripts versus NCOs than the Navy’s surface, submarine, and naval aviation branches and the Air Force’s aviation branch.

Although the percentage of NCOs and conscripts within the PLA’s overall enlisted force is about equal, the 2006 Air Force Enlisted Force Handbook stated that about 60 percent of the PLAAF’s enlisted force were NCOs [3]. This discrepancy is primarily because the PLAAF, like the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Rocket Force, has a higher percentage of billets for enlisted personnel with technical skills than the ground force. However, not all PLAAF branches have the same conscript-to-NCO ratios. For example, the airborne and ground air defense branches have a higher percentage of conscripts than the aviation branch, where NCOs have been replacing junior officers in several technical billets, including aircraft maintenance [4]. In addition, until the late 2000s, naval vessels rarely conducted large at-sea training from November to February because of the turnover of conscripts and NCOs who were not promoted (ONI, 2007). However, as the PLAN has increased its NCO numbers and reduced conscripts onboard key combat vessels, major training events are now conducted year-round.


The 1984 Military Service Law and its amended versions noted above state that both males and females can be coscripted as enlisted personnel, but only males have ever been conscripted. Female recruits have only joined the PLA as volunteers, but the term zhengji (征集) is still used.


Health issues are a major concern for the PLA’s recruitment of qualified enlisted personnel (China Military Online, September 6, 2018). For example, some surveys show a continuous decline in Chinese students’ physical fitness, which has reduced the number of military recruits that can pass a physical. According to the 2018 conscription physical exam in one major city, the proportion of candidates who were eliminated was as high as 52.98 percent, with poor eyesight and obesity the top two disqualifying conditions.

Management and Quotas

Historically, the former General Staff Department’s Mobilization Department (总参动员部, zongcan dongyuan bu) was responsible for enlisted force conscription; however, in 2016, the PLA created the CMC National Defense Mobilization Department (NDMD, 国防动员部, guofang dongyuan bu) with a subordinate Soldier and Civilian Personnel Division (兵员和文职人员处, bingyuan he wenzhi renyuan chu) to oversee enlisted force conscription/recruitment. In addition, the Ministry of National Defense has a subordinate [Enlisted Force] Recruitment Office (征兵办公室, zhengbing bangongshi), which is dual-hatted under the NDMD [5].

Since formal conscription began in the 1950s, the PLA has provided quotas by service to each province, autonomous region (AR), and municipality. Until the 2011 Military Service Law, all registration and screening occurred in person through the People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD), which are under prefectural military commands. Once conscripts were selected, they were assigned to operational units for basic training and then to operational billets in the same unit. Typically, they were replaced by conscripts selected by the same PAFD two years later.

All this changed in 2009 when the PLA began recruiting college students as conscripts. The PLA established a website for online registration, which is also managed by the relevant PAFDs  (National Recruitment Network). Although the percentage of newly enlisted high school students who have volunteered has increased dramatically, each PAFD still must meet a quota, which is accomplished by conscripting personnel to fill gaps. Of late, most, if not all college PAFDs have met their quotas through attracting volunteers, however, it is unclear if this remains the case under the new two-cycle system.

Conscription Cycle

Prior to 1955, nearly all enlisted personnel in the PLA (or Red Army before 1949) were undereducated or illiterate volunteers. In 1955, as part of efforts to modernize the PLA, the NPC issued the first Military Service Law that created the compulsory military service system (义务兵役制, yiwu bingyi zhi), stipulated length of service, and established enlisted force grades and ranks, which lasted ten years until the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) [6].

Following the setback of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1970s, the PLA embarked on an ambitious program to modernize many aspects of the military, including education, training, and recruitment. Conscripts and volunteers were combined into a single system that allowed conscripts who fulfilled their service obligation to stay in the military as volunteer soldiers for a total of 16 years [7]. According to the 1984 Military Service Law, “the term of active service for conscripts is three years in the army or four years in the Navy or Air Force. After completion of the term of active service, the conscripts may serve an extra term of active service according to the needs of the armed forces and the free choice of the servicemen. The extra term of active service shall be one to two years in the army, or one year in the Navy or in the Air Force. Conscripts who have become specialized technical personnel after five years of active service, including the extra term of active service, may change their service status into one of volunteer”  (Xinhua, August 20, 2021).

By law, two-thirds of conscripts had to come from rural areas, where ninth grade was the highest education level (CASI, May 4, 2021, chapter 4).The remainder of conscripts were high school students or graduates. As the PLA acquired high-tech weapon systems in the late 1990s, it determined that it had to make changes to its enlisted force but faced several challenges. For example, during the 1990s, only about 8 percent of high school graduates in China attended college. As of 2013, 26.2 percent of high school graduates were attending college. However, by late 2017, that number had increased to 42.7 percent. Although males received conscription notices at age 18, the 21-year age cap for conscription decreased the pool of eligible  high school graduates as greater numbers attended college and exceeded the age limit.

By the end of the 1990s, the PLA attempted to address multiple problems, including  lack of qualified personnel to operate and maintain more technologically sophisticated weapon systems purchased from Russia, Sovremenny submarines and Su-27 fighters, by amending two earlier key regulations that went into effect in 1999, the Military Service Law and the PRC Conscription Regulations. The revised law and regulations sought to restore the appeal of military service to young people [8].

The amended 1998 Military Service Law addressed conscription difficulties by shortening the mandatory service period to two years for everyone and creating a 30-year enlisted force system (NPC, December 29, 1998). Prior to the end of their second year of service, a conscript would be permitted to apply to become an NCO or take exams to enter a military academy and become an officer. Conscripts not accepted as either NCOs or officers were demobilized following their two-year conscription periods.

Although the 1998 law and regulations focused on improving the enlisted force and NCO corps, several factors hampered the PLA’s ability to recruit and retain talent. For example, the PLA started enlisting college graduates in 2001, but by mid-2009. had recruited only 2,000 as two-year enlisted personnel In 2009, the PLA actively recruited 130,000 college graduates and students; however, it only recruited 100,000 in 2010, although its goal was 150,000. To help solve the problem, the PLA doubled everyone’s salary [8].

In addition to the two-third quota for rural conscripts with  a ninth-grade education, another issue hindering recruitment and conscription of college students and graduates was the age limit of 21, which resulted in many graduates being too old for conscription. Therefore, in the early 2000s, the PLA increased the maximum ages of conscription to 21 years old for high school graduates, 23 for students receiving a senior technical or vocational degree, and 24 for college graduates (Hanbin, May 25, 2017).

In December 2009, the CMC implemented a “Plan for Reforming the NCO System” along with three revised regulations for NCO active-duty service periods, management, and education and training. The new measures sought to maintain the overall size of the enlisted force and to increase the NCO corps while reducing the conscript force (Xinhua, July 15, 2009).

In 2011, the PRC passed a Military Service Law that sought to actively recruit college students and graduates as enlisted personnel (NPC, October 31, 2011). In 2013, the requirement that two-thirds of conscripts be from rural areas was abolished. Whereas high school students received a conscription notice by mail, college students could now register as volunteers online (National Recruitment Network). To recruit college-educated civilians as two-year enlistees, the PLA and the Ministry of Education established several lucrative financial incentives: 1) tuition debt write-offs; 2) allowing students who had not graduated to return to school and change their major; 3) providing a one-time post-departure compensation to enlisted personnel seeking to start their own businesses; and 4) requiring that 5 percent of new hires at state-owned enterprises consist of retired military personnel [9]. Until 2013, potential enlisted personnel received conscription notices in August and then underwent a six-week selection, induction, and training process starting on November 1, which included physical, political, and psychological examinations. Conscripts  departed for their units around mid-December with most serving outside their home provinces.

Although the PLA tried to increase the number of college students and graduates in its ranks, it realized a gap existed between the end of the academic year and beginning of the new training cycle in November. As a result, in 2013, the PLA moved the entire process forward three months shifting from a winter to a summer/fall conscription cycle. Therefore, the first day of the two-year cycle was August 1, when all new enlisted personnel underwent the conscription process. New conscripts only arrive for basic training around September 10. The last day of their two-year cycle was July 31. Over the past few years, college students and graduates have made up approximately half of new personnel. Although the PLA wanted to create a two-cycle enlisted force conscription process in 2020, due to COVID-19 challenges, implementation of the new system was delayed until early 2021.

Salary and Compensation

Conscripts receive a monthly salary, allowances, and compensation, which includes clothes, food, housing, travel, and medical treatment [10]. In addition, local governments of conscripts’ place of origin also pay a commensurate amount of their salary to families. Conscripts who serve in remote hardship areas, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, also receive a one-time compensation.

Restrictions on Assignments in Enlisted Personnel’s Home Location

As a general rule, since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and military crackdown in Beijing, the PLA does not allow enlisted personnel to serve in their province of origin. For example, in 2014, more than 20,000 people from Guangdong became two-year enlistees and 20 percent were university students or graduates (Zhengbing, September 6, 2014). These new enlistees were divided into over 300 groups, and sent to 44 corps-level organizations, including the Lanzhou Military Region (MR), Nanjing MR, Guangzhou MR, PLAN, PLAAF, and People’s Armed Police (PAP). They traveled by rail, road, and air to their units in 19 provinces, ARs, and municipalities. In July 2019, 15,000 individuals began their pre-selection process as two-year enlisted personnel in Quzhou, Zhejiang Province (Quzhou Daily News, September 18, 2019). Of these, 900 were eventually selected for assignments in the Army, Air Force, Rocket Force, Hong Kong Garrison, and Strategic Support Force. Of the 900, 80 percent were college students and 17.5 percent were college graduates, a record high for the city. In September, Quzhou held two ceremonies to bid farewell to enlistees before their departure to assignments around China.


The PLA enlisted force predates the PRC’s establishment in 1949. It began as an all-volunteer force, then became a pure conscription force, and is now a combination of conscripts and volunteers. In 1999, the conscription period was reduced to two years for all conscripts. A formal NCO system was also implemented that allowed enlisted personnel to serve for a total of 30 years, assuming they received the requisite promotions.

Over the past two decades, the PLA has sought to develop a more educated enlisted force by recruiting, rather than conscripting, college students. For example, the PLA implemented an incentive system to attract college-educated recruits in 2009 but had to shift the entire cycle forward by three months to entice them to join the PLA shortly after the school year ended. It is not clear if the PLA has met its goal of recruiting a large number of college students during the first cycle of the year.

As the PLA brings in and loses about 400,000 conscripts at the same time each year, the overall annual training cycle is affected. To help reduce the negative impact on readiness, the PLA shifted from a one-cycle to a two-cycle conscription structure in 2020. Unfortunately, no official PLA information was found that discussed impact of the new system. Finally, if the current shift to the two-cycle system is not as effective as the PLA anticipates, further changes are likely by the end of this decade.

 Kenneth W. Allen is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs, the PLA’s organizational structure, and the PLA Air Force.


[1] Information in list is from the following sources: Zhang Qiliang, ed., A Chinese-English Dictionary of Military Terms (汉英军事词典), (Beijing: Naval Press, December 2001); PLA Military Terminology dictionary, 2nd ed., 2011.

[2] “PLA Downsizing History,” Renmin Haijun, 13 September 2003, 3; “Reduction of 200,000 Troops is Aimed at Paving the Way for Informatization of the Armed Forces,” Hong Kong Tzu Ching, Number 156, 1 October 2003, 64-65.

[3] PLA Air Force Enlisted Handbook (中国人民解放军空军士兵手册), (Beijing: Blue Sky Publishing House, November 2006), p. 252.

[4] Based on analysis of information from Air Force News, January 24, February  14, February 26, 2006, 3.

[5] Information in section from Kenneth W. Allen, et al,  “China’s Defense Minister and Ministry of National Defense” and Mark Stokes, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department: Evolving Organization and Missions” in Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth W. Allen, eds. The PLA as Organization v2.0. Vienna, VA: Defense Group Inc., 2013; Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

[6] Harlan W. Jencks, From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army 1945-1981, Westview Press, 1 Jan 1982, p. 227.

[7] Military Science, Vol. 2, Chinese Military Encyclopedia, Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Publishing House, July 1997, p. 563.

[8] Cong Wensheng, “China’s Military Service System,” China Armed Forces, Number 12, Volume 4, 2011, 25-27.

[9] See Li Shanshan, “China’s Military Service System,” (Beijing: China Armed Forces, Number 12, Volume 4, 2011), 31-33.

[10] information in this subsection from multiple articles on the (Conscription/Recruitment Dynamics) (征兵动态) tab on the University/college Student Conscription (Recruitment) Information Network (大学生征兵信息网) ( for 2012-2016.