Beijing, China - For more than 25 years, China’s government has enforced a regimen of military training to instil discipline, patriotism, and physical fitness in the country’s growing ranks of university students.
Each year, more than seven million first-year students in 2,000 universities across China take part in military training.
But as China’s post-1990’s generation comes of age - coddled by indulgent parents from the new middle class and nurtured by the Internet - many have begun to question whether they can survive the rigorous exercise and strict discipline of military training.
Social pundits have long labeled the current generation of young people, particularly freshmen born after 1995, as immature and unfit. In China’s exam-centered education system, long hours of study have left little room for socializing or sports, while children increasingly turn to food and computer games to relax and de-stress.
Everyone is working together, sweating together, all for a common goal. It helps students develop a sense of togetherness and a sense of honour.
The results of such an upbringing are displayed each fall, as a new class of students begins military training. In recent years local media have reported growing numbers of students overcome by heatstroke and exhaustion on the training ground.
At the prestigious Peking University, 3,500 students were treated at the school’s clinic over two weeks of training last year, according to the official China Youth Daily.
The university was quick to dispute the report, claiming only half as many students actually sought medical treatment, but similar anecdotes from campuses across China have underlined the problem of students’ declining physical fitness.
This lingering concern was given a new sense of urgency last winter, when two university students died after racing in a marathon in the southern city of Guangzhou. Only two weeks later, two more students died in separate sports-related incidents in Shanghai.
A growing number of schools are adapting to the apparent physical limitations of the young generation. In 2011, more than 13 universities in eastern Shandong province revised their military training programmes. More strenuous exercises were done away with, and the total length of training was shortened, in some cases to as little as six days.
The country’s Ministry of Education states the purpose of the training is to "enhance students' sense of national defense and national security awareness", as well as "strengthen students’ sense of organisational discipline" and "develop a spirit of hard work and struggle".
"Everyone is working together, sweating together, all for a common goal," said Ba Lele, a student at Shandong Normal University in eastern China. "It helps students develop a sense of togetherness and a sense of honour."
Together with her classmates, Ba spent her training in green military fatigues, marching, jogging, and standing at attention under the watchful gaze of drill instructors from the People’s Liberation Army. Off the parade ground, she and her classmates learned to sing patriotic songs and listened to lectures from army instructors.
|Freshmen of Jilin University attend military training [AP]
Students undergo similar regimens in universities across China, typically lasting from two weeks to one month, held before they begin their freshman year. In most cases, little to no time is spent in actual combat training. Discipline and fitness, rather than actual preparation for battle, are the main focus.
However, many in China are starting to doubt whether military training is still capable of strengthening students’ bodies and minds, and whether or not students are able to meet the challenge.
A handful of universities in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian have moved their training periods from the hot and humid summer to the milder winter months.
Concessions have also been made for students’ anxious, doting parents. At Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, moms and dads can follow a Twitter-like microblog reporting daily temperatures at the school’s training ground, or call a university hotline to inquire about their child’s health condition.
For those who remain concerned, or possibly sceptical, an on-site photographer is available to take a photo of their child and email it to parents.
But as the once-gruelling routines are scaled back and softened, some have begun to ask whether military training has any real value for students today.
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said in an interview with the Beijing Evening News that military training had little real impact on students’ physical or moral development.
"Many students have gone through military training, but in their ordinary student life they still cheat on tests, arrive late or skip class," Xiong wrote. "This tells us that discipline is not something that can be developed in such a short period of time."
It would be better if students could choose. You could decide whether to go or not to go.
Students, too, are ambivalent about the practical use of military training, but some noted the physical exercise was beneficial.
"The strenuous drills definitely put students in better physical shape," recalled Ba, now in her third year of university. "In my first semester of freshman year, I didn’t get sick once."
But in the long term, she said, the impact starts to diminish. "There’s a real enthusiasm, but it doesn’t last long. Over time, you just forget those feelings. It just becomes a pleasant memory."
In poll conducted last year by the popular microblogging website Sina Weibo, more than 70 percent of respondents said military training should be abolished. Others have suggested making the training optional, the equivalent of an elective course.
"It would be better if students could choose," said Lu Yang, a student a Jinan University. "You could decide whether to go or not to go."
For those who were willing, she suggested a more complete programme similar to that undergone by China’s actual soldiers. "They could take us to an army camp to train for a month. This is the only way to give students a real experience."
But China’s government has made it clear that mandatory military training is here to stay. Last January, a document jointly issued by eight central ministries reaffirmed that military training was required for all university students, and ruled the training period could be no shorter than 14 days.
Some schools have already begun to reform their training with more pragmatic disciplines.
Beijing’s city government announced last year that disaster relief and first aid courses would be added to military training in all of the capital’s universities. This year, colleges in the nearby port city of Tianjin included lessons in fire safety.