Deng Yongjun, a military recruitment official in Central China's Hunan Province, feels his job has become more difficult than ever this year.
Given a deadline of November 10 to find 12 recruits, the director of the military department with the Qingjiang township Party committee in Hunan's Xinning county decided to start his drive back in July. Despite bolstering his campaign by promoting policies, meeting village officials, making door-to-door visits and talking to parents, Deng only managed to find seven qualified candidates in a township with a registered population of 28,600.
"There are far fewer applicants than in previous years," Deng told the Global Times, noting that only about 50 people signed up, compared to twice that figure five years ago.
Despite the difficulties, Deng said he would try to meet the stipulated quota, as there was still time for the county to send the new soldiers off at the middle of next month.
"It's a political task. I must finish it," he noted, adding that the remaining candidates would be found through greater lobbying efforts and the pool of applicants who were turned down in the initial physical check due to minor defects such as Athlete's Foot.
Deng is not alone in his predicament. In Beijing, the number of people eligible to sign up for the military has decreased by 40 percent from 2008, Wang Wei, an official from the Beijing military recruitment office, revealed at a press conference in October.
In Hunan Province, official data showed that the number of military-age men last year dropped by a staggering 390,000 in 2010 to 61,370 potential candidates, Xiaoxiang Morning Herald reported. A similar situation can be seen in Shandong Province, which is reported to be home to one-tenth of the country's total annual new recruits.
Tan Wenhu, former Commander General of the Shandong Provincial Military District and a deputy to the National People's Congress, attributes the drop in numbers to the family planning policy, increased college enrollment and more job opportunities.
"The family planning policy was widely and strictly carried out in the 1990s. People born at that time would have been the right age to be enlisted in the army now," he told China National Radio during the annual two sessions of parliament in March last year.
According to the 2010 national census, out of the total population of 1.34 billion in the Chinese mainland, the proportion of people aged 0 to 14 dropped to 16.6 percent from 22.89 percent in 2000.
Furthermore, parents have become less willing to send their only child to the army, which they see as a life of hardship.
"Bitterness and intense exercises are inevitable in the two-year service. I don't think my son can get through them," Wang Guofang, 40, the mother of a 22-year-old son from Wangdepu village in Shandong's Dezhou, told the Global Times, adding that soldiers are frequently dispatched to the frontline of dangerous disaster zones to carry out rescue efforts.
"You can say I'm selfish, but he's my only child. Besides, there are rumors that the older ones often bully and physically abuse the newcomers in the army," Wang said.
Li Wangmin, an official in charge of military recruitment in Jinshi township, Xinning county, has been trying to dispel these rumors and ease the worries of parents. "Some even feared their only son would be sent into battle after tensions flared up recently between China and Japan due to the Diaoyu Islands dispute," Li said.
Wang Wei from Beijing believes the increasing number of health issues among young people, especially obesity and sight problems, has also contributed to the drop in candidate numbers.
As of November 12, in Li's township, which has a population of 94,500, about 100 people signed up, but only 40 of them passed the county-level physical exams, five short of the quota.
"In addition, there has been a labor shortage in some enterprises, increasing the competition between the army and enterprises for young people," Tan noted.
A growing market economy has also meant more job opportunities for young people. In an era of peace, "Join the army, safeguard the homeland" is a slogan that no longer resonates with mainstream society, according to an article published in Zhongguo Minbing, a monthly magazine run by PLA Daily, in March.
In a discussion on the reasons for signing up on arrival at the camp on December 15, 2010, Shi Huaxu, a new recruit to Beijing's air defense force, drew ridicule from fellow soldiers when he said he had joined the army to "safeguard the homeland." Other soldiers answered they were looking either to "get a guarantee of a job after the service" or "to toughen the body and the will."
Previously, servicemen with urban household registrations would have jobs arranged for them by the local governments after leaving the army. However, since the implementation of the newly amended Military Service Law on October 29 last year, job guarantees have been removed and both urban and rural servicemen enjoy equal treatment, such as financial subsidies, free technical training and preferential employment policies for public organs.
The quota set for each administrative region is primarily based on its population, and local governments are generally responsible for settling retired soldiers. However, due to the varying financial statuses of different local governments, these benefits vary greatly from region to region.
For instance, in Henan's Sanmenxia, the yearly allowance for the family of an urban recruit is 15,550 yuan ($2,493), but in Taishan district, Tai'an, Shandong Province, it is only 3,000 yuan. For rural recruits, the subsidy is generally half that of their urban counterparts.
"There is a popular saying that the local government earns money by exporting laborers but loses money by giving soldiers to the country," Yan Jixiong, political commissar of the Henan Provincial Military District, said during a discussion at the two sessions in March.
Many places have addressed this problem by increasing the subsidy. In Xinning county, the yearly subsidy for urban recruits was raised to 13,000 yuan, and 5,000 yuan for rural recruits. Those sent to remote regions like Xinjiang now receive an additional 10,000 yuan per year.
Still, in many young people's eyes, going to college or becoming a migrant worker is a more attractive option than joining the army.
Wang Guofang's son left school in Grade 10 due to his poor academic performance and came to Beijing four years ago. He is now the head waiter at a chain restaurant and takes home about 4,500 yuan per month.
Su Zihui, 21, from Handan, Hebei Province, completed his two-year service two years ago, but now sees little hope in finding a job in a public organ or State-owned company.
"The policy to arrange a job for you is there, but these places will always find various reasons to reject you. A two-year stint in a firefighting department gave me no special skills but increased strength," said Su, who now works at a private steel company owned by his uncle.
Some local government officials have also come under pressure to enhance coordination and mobilization efforts. Several regions, including Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces, have included military recruitment in the assessment for officials' performances. Leaders or governments will be marked down if they fail to reach the quota for that year.
"Though the punishment seems light, no one wants to fall short in that task, which will impact our prospects of being promoted," Li Wangmin said. Under greater pressure to fill the quota, some local governments coerce young people into joining the army.
To avoid selection, some candidates pretend to have seeing or hearing problems, and even claim to be unable to stand upright or crouch in their physical exams, according to a report by the PLA Daily in September last year.
In a bid to keep people in the army, the State has also strengthened penalties for deserters.
In April in Wuhan, three men who refused to continue their military service received two-year penalties, including being barred from working in public organs, sitting the national college entrance exams, applying for business licenses or leaving the country, according to Wuhan Evening Post.
In addition to improving the treatment of retired soldiers, many have also suggested enhancing patriotism education.
"Awareness of serving in the army according to the law should be nurtured from childhood. They should also establish the concept of being prepared to be enlisted at any time," Zhang Zhonghui, an official from the Hubei Provincial Military District, was quoted as saying by the PLA Daily.
Wang Xinjian, from the Central Military Commission, suggested copying certain measures used in other countries.
"For those who do not join the army, they should be required to serve a certain period of time for the public," Wang said.
China has carried out several significant cuts to the military since 1985. By 2005, the number of servicemen had been cut to 2.3 million, and has stayed at that number since. Some worry that the depleting pool for military recruits will impact the building of the PLA.
However, others say these worries are unfounded as the shortage has been eased in some regions after more incentives were introduced.
"The situation is much better than in previous years. The application numbers increased in many places," an editor surnamed Peng with Zhongguo Minbing told the Global Times.
This year, Beijing reserved 91 public service posts for 500 soldiers who had returned to college after deferring their studies, much higher than the 50 stipulated in its policy.
Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based military expert and media commentator, also downplayed concerns.
"There are no worries about a lack of servicemen in China. What's more, it's a global trend for modern military forces with a small number soldiers equipped with high technology," Song told the Global Times.