For Chinese Freshmen, It’s Boot Camp 101


The annual U.S. Department of Defense report on the Chinese military spurned the usual politically charged, but mostly toothless exchange between the two countries. The report argues that the modernization of the Chinese military and Beijing’s maritime aspirations could impact regional power dynamics. However, the report omits an interesting aspect of Chinese military tradition: the requirement that all freshmen university students participate in approximately five weeks of military training. This training not only contributes to an outdated, isolated national mindset, but also, and perhaps more damagingly, serves as a continuation of an education policy that stifles critical thinking. As a foreign teacher at a Chinese university, I find both of these scenarios potentially worrying. 

As soon as approximately six million freshmen set foot on campus this summer, they are fitted for fatigues and sent out for a month of marching drills, hand-to-hand combat training, and general military indoctrination. While this mandatory training may have made some sense decades ago given that the Chinese viewed themselves as surrounded by more powerful enemies — the Japanese to the east, the Russians to the north, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, and the Americans to the south in Vietnam — that vulnerable nation is not today’s China.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today boasts a powerful professional military force that, as the Department of Defense reports, is working hard to increase its global reach and technological capabilities. The need to prepare the students for an eminent nation-wide threat is no longer necessary.

Despite this, the conscription policy continues and has the potential to instill inflexible nationalistic ideals in the minds of Chinese students. Some students view it as a way to uphold the traditions of their country or simply as a glorified five-week recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. But for others, this practice may create an “us versus them” mentality that could negatively color young Chinese students’ perception of, and relationships with, foreigners. Though certainly atypical, the recent brawl between the Georgetown basketball team and the Bayi Rockets, a Chinese team founded by members of the PLA, perhaps demonstrates some of this isolated mentality mixed with the obvious competitive nature of the sport.

Let me be clear. I have been nothing but welcomed warmly by my students, colleagues, and neighbors in China. The tables of men forcing me to take shots with them at dinner are especially friendly. 

With this in mind, a potentially more troublesome outcome of this military training is the manner in which students are introduced to college life. The Chinese education system is oft-criticized for stifling creative and critical thinking, as it values rote memorization and self-discipline more than furthering the drivers of productivity improvement such as free thought and creative solutions. Marching rank and file and obediently following orders do nothing to pacify these critics. This outdated conscription policy can devalue free thought at the outset of college.

University life should encourage creative and critical thinking, two skills in high demand. My host university instructed me to foster these skills because they realize that on a macro level, the absence of them could prove to be damaging to China’s hopes of rising as an international superpower. Specifically, college should be training its students to look at a situation with a critical eye and find ways to improve it. My students are more than willing and capable meet this challenge, but boot camp doesn’t encourage this atmosphere.

Photo Credit: danielfoster437