PLA faces enlistment crunch with fewer young Chinese

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The Chinese military may have more people retiring from the force than new recruits. Photo: PLA Daily

Foxconn, the contracted manufacturer for US tech giant Apple, has been accused of forcing student interns at its Zhengzhou base in central China’s Henan province to work extra hours in a bid to rev up output of iPhone Xs for an expected sales boom over the festive season.

Labor rights issues aside, the revelation comes amid a trend that may be worrying for some in China – the country now has fewer youngsters who can enter the labor market and shore up productivity, a demographic slump that could hurt its economic future.

A report by Beijing-based China Remin University has sounded the alarm: the national workforce aged between 15-59 has decreased by 20 million within the past five years, from the peak of 925 million in 2011, and is forecast to shrink to 700 million by 2050.

A separate analysis by Nikkei has said that China’s young population aged from 15 to 24 years will halve to 60 million by 2020, from its peak of 120 million in 2006.

Worse still, fewer youngsters in the rapidly shrinking age group are joining the labor market, as more are pursuing tertiary education amid a changing mindset and career perspective – young people are less enamored with low-paying, labor-intensive jobs.

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A PLA conscription poster. Photo: PLA Daily

The People’s Liberation Army will be competing with the nation’s manufacturing sector to woo young Chinese.

The Chinese military has also been bogged down by an emerging “soldier crunch”, a result of multiple factors from the one-child policy to unattractive remuneration.

While salaries for frontline soldiers have been beefed up in recent years, the nation’s decreasing young population means less young people the military can draw recruits from.

No official year-on-year statistics are available on changes to the PLA’s number of annual recruits, but a report by China National Radio noted that the eastern province of Shandong, home to 98 million, saw a “double-digit” decrease in new enlistments for national service over the past three years (2013 to 2016).

The PLA now maintains 2.35 million active personnel with around 150,000 to 200,000 leaving or retiring each year. To maintain effective defense mobilization and replenish the force, it will have to recruit at least 250,000 new soldiers each year – an onerous task that has to be done with stricter enforcement of mandatory conscription.

One proposal is that all new freshmen must sign up for conscription, as a prerequisite before they can be admitted to a university.

The PLA has also been reviewing recruitment requirements to raise the upper age cap for enlistment to 26 years old.

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