Periodically, recruitment videos for the Chinese armed forces circulate in the English-language world, generally on the newsfeeds and message boards of the masculine and very online. Often spurred by international magazines focused on so-called “men’s interests,” these videos are ogled by thousands of viewers outside of China, who are titillated by the supposed novelty of big-budget on-screen military advertising.

To take an especially illustrative example, in 2016 the magazine Men’s Journal compared an ad for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to “Fast & Furious: PLA Edition” (Popular Mechanics called the same video “ridiculously intense”). Noting “tanks, jet fighters, and aircraft carriers,” as well as “an abundance of gunfire and explosions,” all set to a dramatic soundtrack, Men’s Journal characterized the Chinese ad as “a world away from the U.S. Army’s sober approach” to recruitment.

This claim is ridiculous on its face to any American who remembers visiting a movie theater or tuning into a football game in the early 2000s, when ad spots full of screaming fighter jets and desert explosions boasted of a wartime “Army of One.” It’s true that, in recent years, the U.S. military has taken a more subdued approach, attempting to project an image of rigorous professionalism by appealing to liberal values like multiculturalism in its TV commercials. But it was the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, not the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, that innovated the practice of flashy cinematic outreach for military recruitment.

In fact, as one PLA official told China Daily in 2016, the Chinese ad was an explicit reference to its American antecedents, intended to show the PLA to be “a powerful force as modernized as the United States military.” And today, five years later, Chinese military advertisements tend to exemplify the same “sober” rhetoric as U.S. ones, with an obvious emphasis on professionalism, specialized training, and technological capacity, as the Chinese military attempts to attract more college-educated recruits in support of its modernization goals.

Both Chinese and Western military observers are prone to hyperbolic pronouncements about the uniqueness of the Chinese military. But such hyperbole obscures the fact that the U.S. and Chinese armed forces, two of the largest standing armies in the world, are in some ways remarkably alike.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march past the entrance to the Forbidden City on the first day of China’s National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, Friday, May 22, 2020.

For one thing, both U.S. and Chinese military planners employ strikingly similar techniques and routines to meet their recruitment quotas. Even though both countries maintain conscription laws on the books, China and the U.S. each rely overwhelmingly on volunteer recruitment to maintain the size of their active duty forces. The U.S. abandoned conscription in 1973, during the Vietnam War, although its reinstatement remains a legal possibility. And in China, regular conscription periods remain in place, but are braided together with voluntary recruitment practices to such an extent that state media can routinely dismiss the draft as marginal or even non-existent. Predictably, then, considering the importance of regular recruitment to both militaries, the similarities in their outreach programs don’t stop at dramatic video advertisements.

China’s decentralized (and partially civilianized) system for attracting recruits will ring familiar for Americans who, for decades now, have commonly observed military enlistment offices in strip malls. In China, civilian government cadres working in local People’s Armed Forces Departments scramble to meet enlistment quotas assigned by higher state authorities, both by attracting voluntary recruits and registering young people for the draft. U.S. military recruiters, too, operate from local headquarters which are relatively decentralized, but nevertheless beholden to quotas established by recruit commands in each military branch. Such systems establish perverse incentives for local recruitment offices. As I’ve written elsewhere, local recruiters in the U.S. consistently push against the edges of decency and legality to meet their quotas, even resorting to such obviously underhanded tactics as publishing ads for fake video game give-aways and installing catfishing software on computers in public youth centers.

This kind of open predation is buttressed by economic coercion in the U.S., where the historical transition from conscription to enlistment was facilitated, at least in part, by a decades-long rollback of civilian social programs. The systematic elimination of welfare in society at large made military benefits like subsidized housing and childcare ever more attractive to prospective enlistees. In the absence of a draft, such benefits “did not serve as rewards for citizen soldiers, but rather as programs that lured active duty soldiers into a career force … and convinced them to re-enlist,” as historian Jennifer Middelstadt argues.

In the Chinese context, the relationship between preferential social benefits and military enlistment is less well understood. Still, there is evidence to suggest that the soft power of economic coercion and social bribery is essential to the maintenance of China’s military, too. For example, the families of Chinese military members are entitled to stipends meant to compensate the household for the loss of the enlistee’s labor. These amounts vary according to regional conditions, but may not be less than 50% of the previous year’s standard cost of living, according to a study by the U.S.-based China Aerospace Studies Institute. In some rural regions, the study continues, these preferential stipends can amount to as much as 150% the average local income each year. Tellingly, last year’s amendments to China’s military service law, beyond increasing the enlistment and conscription period each year, also introduced incremental enhancements to the armed forces’ welfare programs.

Another similarity between the United States and China is that both countries mete out punitive punishments against recruits who defy the military command hierarchy — especially those who attempt to escape their military commitments because of personal hardship or ideological objection. In 2019, for example, U.S. media outlets decried the mistreatment of Zhang Moukang, a Chinese enlistee from Hainan province, whose refusal to complete his term of service resulted in a lifetime ban from state employment, hefty personal fines, and public shaming through widely circulated press releases.

But the penalties the U.S. military imposes for defiance are perhaps even more severe. For example, two non-commissioned officers in the US armed forces — Kevin Benderman and Camilo Mejía — were both falsely charged with desertion after expressing their principled objection to the war in Iraq; both served multi-month terms in military prison. And as many as 200 U.S. service members who defected in protest of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars remain in in Canada, unable to return home to the U.S. for fear of being incarcerated on political charges.

Still, despite all these similarities, there is at least one significant difference that distinguishes military recruitment policies in the U.S. and China. But this distinction only becomes apparent if we consider the countries’ historical trajectories over much longer timelines than those generally projected by military planners.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Medical personnel arrive with medical supplies in a transport aircraft of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 13, 2020.

The U.S.’s current priority is to grow its enlistment numbers. But since the 1980s, the PLA has trended toward “downsizing and rationalizing,” as researcher Adam Ni observes in The Diplomat. The PLA cut 1 million soldiers in 1985; 500,000 in 1997; 200,000 in 2003; and 300,000 in 2015. These reductions were part of a generational strategy to transform the Chinese military from a “quantitative” to a “qualitative” force, as the Chinese Central Military Commission made clear in 2016. They don’t reflect a commitment to demilitarization — far from it, considering the Chinese state’s priority is to enhance military capacity overall by investing in advanced technologies and more skilled recruits. But they do seem to stand in contrast to the current posture of the United States armed forces, which cyclically advocates for higher enlistment quotas in preparation for an anticipated “great power conflict.”

China and the United States, in their own ways, are each racing towards a global future defined by a tense and interminable stand-off between regional superpowers. These conditions should be terrifying for the residents of every country in the world. If you ask me, our best chance for a sensible geopolitical order — by which I mean one capable of delivering permanent (or at least durable) security from catastrophic interpower warfare — lies down a path neither the US nor China seems inclined to follow.

Establishing global safety will require that the U.S. and China converge on something altogether more significant than the aesthetics of their recruitment advertising. The two superpowers (along with other countries, notably Russia) will have to agree to the mutual diminishment of their standing armies according to diplomatically negotiated benchmarks. Under such an international program, the U.S. would be required to join China in reducing the number of active-duty soldiers it employs. Meanwhile, China would be required to continue scaling back its own forces — not for the purpose of streamlining their activities, but rather to ensure an overall reduction in the country’s capacity to wage war.

Of course, an international program similar to the kind I’m describing is not currently on the table. It is not discussed in the halls of multilateral institutions like the United Nations, nor is it taken seriously in the circuits of foreign policy hawks which encircle both Washington and Beijing. But it should be, and maybe one day it will be. Until then, at the very least, we would do well to acknowledge that China and the United States have more in common than their political leaders tend to acknowledge.

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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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