1 Conscription

conscription exists

Conscription has existed since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Conscription is enshrined in art. 55 of the constitution, which states: "It is a sacred duty of every citizen of the People's Republic of China to defend his or her motherland and resist invasion. It is an honoured obligation of the citizens of the People's Republic of China to perform military service and to join the militia forces." [2]

The present legal basis of conscription is the 1984 Military Service Law, which describes military service as a duty for "all citizens without distinction of race (...) and religious creed." This law has not been amended since it came into effect. [1] [4]

Military service is normally performed in the regular armed forces, but the 1984 law does allow for conscription into the reserve forces.

The armed forces (PLA - People's Liberation Army) have been significantly reduced in recent years, from 4,2 million troops in 1985 to 2,8 million in 1994. At the same time the reserve forces have been upgraded and professionalised. Since the 1970s the reserve forces have become a more and more important element of China's strategy doctrine, both for military reasons (China no longer considers a large standing army necessary) and for economic reasons (maintaining a large standing army is too expensive). The reserve forces are organised at provincial level and the militia, which were formed in the 1940s and previously consisted of millions of loosely organised people, have been reorganised as a reserve branch of the armed forces.

military service

All men between the ages of 18 and 22 are liable for military service, and until the age of 45 in certain special circumstances. [1]

Women may be liable for military service if the armed forces need them. [6] [14]

The length of military service is three years in the army, and four years in the air force and navy. [1]

Conscripts who have registered for military service but have not been called up for military service, are liable to undergo a period of military training. The length of this training depends on the person's level of education and the reserve grade to be reached; however the training normally lasts for 30 to 40 days. [1] [6]

Reserve duties must be performed up to the age of 35, and up to the age of 45 in special circumstances (such as wartime). [6] [18]

The reserve forces comprise several categories of people:

- professional soldiers demobilized over the past decade, because of the reduction of the PLA; [10]

- conscripts who have completed their military service;

- registered conscripts who were not called up for military service, who must register at their work-units as reserve soldiers; [5]

- students who have undergone military training and who are listed as reserve officers [6]

It is not clear to what extent reserve duties are actually enforced. It appears to be government policy to concentrate on improving the calibre of the reserve forces and on carefully selecting and training their members, rather than on just increasing the number of these. [10]

military service for students

Students must undergo a one month's military training, but it is not clear whether it is compulsory for all students. In 1994, 155,000 students at 140 colleges underwent such training. [7]

Students were receiving military training back in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was reintroduced under the 1984 law, art. 30 of which states that "Military institutes and academies may, according to needs in building up the armed forces, recruit cadets from among young students. The age limit for the cadets to be recruited need not be the same for the active servicemen to be enlisted." [15] [18]

Students in particular were required to undergo military training, initially for one year, after the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. The authorities considered such training both a political re-education device and a means of forestalling further unrest. In September 1989 all first-year students at Bejing and Shanghai Fudan University had to receive a year's military training. In September 1990 this scheme was extended to most other universities and colleges. At that time military training was compulsory for those wanting to go to college, and it is believed that students who refused got expelled from university. [1] [7]

Compulsory military training was much critised by college authorities. Many students apparently went to colleges which were below their standard of education but where they did not have to receive military training. In 1993 the length of military training for students was therefore reduced from a year to a month. [7]

postponement and exemption

Exemption is possible for medical reasons (art. 2 of the 1984 law), for those convicted of criminal offences (art. 16) and for those who are the family's sole breadwinner (art. 15). This last provision is particularly relevant given China's one-child policy. [6]

Under the previous 1955 law on military service "contra revolutionary elements, feudal landowners and bureaucratic capitalists" were explicitly exempted from military service, but this was brought to an end by the 1984 law. During debates on the introduction of the 1984 law, the abolishment of political, ideological and cultural standards required of conscripts was heavily criticized by certain elements in the Communist Party. [6]


All male citizens must register at the local PLA office in the year they reach the age of 18. Local governments get annual recruitment quotas, and local PLA offices select recruits according to medical and political criteria and military requirements. Call-up for military service then takes place at the age of 18. [1] [4] [18]

Not all registered conscripts are actually called up for military service. Those who are not called up remain liable for service until they are 22 and are assigned to the reserve forces. [1] [18]

The number of registered conscripts used to exceed the number of recruits needed by the armed forces. In the poor, rural provinces particularly, military service was traditionally regarded as a means of upward social mobility and a chance to acquire certain skills and qualifications (such as obtaining a driver's licence). But in recent years the situation seems to have changed and fewer liable conscripts register for military service. [9] (see: draft evasion and desertion)

The authorities seem concerned about the calibre of conscripts. Conscripts with special skills and education are needed by the armed forces, but they tend not to register for military service. Moreover, the authorities seem concerned about new conscripts' political and ideological reliability, which has been the subject of several government conferences on conscription. [16]

2 Conscientious objection

The right to conscientious objection is not legally recognized and there are no provisions for substitute service. [1]

3 Draft evasion and desertion


National legislation is not known to detail the penalties for draft evasion in peacetime. The 1984 Military Service Law does not prescribe specific punishment for draft evasion. According to art. 61: "those who avoid or refuse registration.. conscription or military training shall undergo education and, if this is unsuccessful, be forced by the local People's Government to carry out their military service duty." [1]

During the passing of the 1984 law, this provision was criticized by elements in the Communist Party for not being specific enough about punishment of non-compliance with military service. [6]

Local governments are responsible for punishing draft evaders. There is not much detailed information on the policies of local governments towards draft evasion, but punishment by local governments seems mostly to consist of paying fines. [1]

In September 1993 the National People's Congress (NPC) of Guangzhou proposed a law on draft evasion to the provincial NPC, according to which draft evaders would face fines of 300 to 1000 Yuang and could be sentenced to re-education, which could mean being sent to labour camps. [3]

In 1996 the PLA planned to propose further legislation on the punishment of draft evaders. No further details are known. [17]

There are separate military regulations on punishment of draft evasion and desertion in wartime. [1]


Draft evasion has greatly increased since the 1980s. The Chinese press has openly acknowledged that Chinese youth are becoming more and more indifferent about military service. This is partly because of the economic reforms introduced in the 1980s. Military service has become less attractive to peasant youths, the major source of recruits in the past. They have become more economically independent and no longer consider military service a means of learning useful skills or a possible escape route from a backward countryside. [9]

Draft evasion is evidently particularly widespread in those areas that have benefited most from increasing economic liberalisation. Given the economic prosperity of the area, young people seem quite willing to pay the fines imposed for non-compiance with the conscription law. In some townships in the Wenzhou area for years not a single youth has registered for military service. At some high schools in Bejing hardly anyone has registered since 1980. [9]

Desertion from the armed forces seems to have increased in recent years as well. The reasons for this include discontent over low pay, actual poor conditions within the armed forces and general disbelief in the leading ideological role of the PLA. [8]

It is not known how far draft evasion is monitored in practice. It is likely that many young men manage to evade military service through bribery. Several government decrees passed in November 1996 suggest that corruption is rife in local army offices. [16]

6 Annual statistics

China's armed forces are 2,840,000-strong, which is 0.23 percent of the population.

There is a 1,200,000-strong reserve force. 

Every year approximately 10,731,000 men reach conscription age. There are 1,275,000 conscripts in the armed forces. [19]


[1] Amnesty International 1991. Conscientious objection to military service. AI, London. [2] Chinese Embassy in the Netherlands 1996. Response to CONCODOC questionnaire, 9 December 1996. [3] DIRB, 28 April 1994. [4] DIRB, 17 February 1994. [5] Shi Renyu 1985. 'New Conscription Law Strengthens Defence', in: Bejing Review, 24/1985, Bejing. [6] Weggel, Oskar 1984. 'Das neue Wehrdienstgesetz, Antworten auf neue Herausforderungen; Qualität statt Quantität', in: China Aktuell, June 1984, Institut für Asienkunde, Hamburg. [7] Weggel, Oskar 1995. 'Macht und Ohnmacht des Militärs', in: China Aktuell, June 1995, Institut für Asienkunde, Hamburg. [8] Heilmann, Sebastian 1995. 'Die Armee und die Perspektiven der kommunistischen Herrschaft', in: China Aktuell, January 1995, Institut für Asienkunde, Hamburg. [9] Davis, Deborah and Vogel, Ezra F. (ed.) 1990. Chinese Society on the Eve of Tiananmen. Harvard Contemporary China Series, Cambridge (Mass.)/London. [10] Shichor, Yitzak 1996. 'Demobilization: The Dialectics of PLA Troop Reduction', in: The China Quarterly, June 1996, Oxford Univerity Press, Oxford/New York. [11] Shambaugh, David 1996. 'China's Military in Transition: Politics, Professionalism, Procurement and Power Projection', in: The China Quarterly, June 1996, Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York. [12] Abecassis, L., P. Duong, S. Perrier, N. Watt, 1994. Conscription Militaire ou Service National a Option Civique, rapport de l'enquête préliminaire effectuée auprès d'une vingtaine d'Etats membres de l'UNESCO. CCIVS - UNESCO, Paris. [13] Eide, A., C. Mubanga-Chipoya 1985. Conscientious objection to military service, report prepared in pursuance of resolutions 14 (XXXIV) and 1982/30 of the Sub-Commission of Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. United Nations, New York. [14] Agence France de Presse (AFP), 13 November 1985 [15] 'China Ordering Students To Take Army Training', in: International Herald Tribune, 30 May 1985. [16] Xinhua news agency, November 1996. [17] Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labour 1995. [18] Permanent Mission of China in Geneva 1997. Response Quaker United Nations Office inquiry, 3 December 1997. [19] Institute for Strategic Studies 1997. Military Balance 1997/98. ISS, London.


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