China’s government has revised its conscription laws, allowing retired service people to re-enlist and increasing recruitment focused on expertise in space and cyberwarfare.
The amended regulations, approved by the state council and the central military commission, came into force on Monday, and covered all aspects of China’s military recruitment and personnel deployment processes, for domestic emergencies and wartime.
The changes aim to provide “institutional guarantees for consolidating national defense and building strong armed forces”, reported state media.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone a major overhaul and modernization under the leadership of Xi Jinping, which has accelerated Beijing’s expansionist activities in the region and long-held ambitions to annex Taiwan. US intelligence has reportedly said Xi has instructed the PLA to be capable of a full-scale invasion by 2027, although that does not suggest the intention is on the same timeline.
About 35% of China’s 2 million military personnel are conscripts serving for two years.
The new amendments include specific wartime provisions, including measures to quickly boost troop numbers. “According to the needs, retired soldiers can be recruited mainly to be supplemented by former active service units or similar posts,” said one new wartime regulation.
Returning soldiers will be prioritized in recruitment, and are expected to rejoin their original unit or something similar, in order to take advantage of their experience, it is outlined.
“You are bringing back a degree of experience, and you fill in positions and posts that will free up younger manpower for positions towards the front,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in east Asia at King’s College London.
The amendments also enhance the PLA’s focus on recruiting people with skills relevant to space and cyberwarfare, two areas in which Xi has pushed for greater Chinese dominance. Recruits from top universities will be prioritized “to help the PLA to increase overall quality and build a professionalized force”, the Global Times said.
In January, the administrator of Nasa, Bill Nelson, said the US and China were in a “space race” which was intensifying. US and Japan defense figures have also expressed concern over potential Chinese attacks from and in space.
Last month the Center for Strategic and International Studies released its annual space threat assessment, warning China was making progress towards its goal of becoming the world leader in space, and that the lines were “blurred” between commercial and government/military endeavors.
China’s cyberwarfare capabilities are also increasing. In 2021 the office of the US director of national intelligence said China presented “a prolific and effective cyber-espionage threat, possesses substantial cyber-attack capabilities and presents a growing influence threat”.
The changes are the latest in a series of updates to Chinese military recruitment processes. In 2021 recruitment intake periods were doubled to occur twice a year. Previous changes have sought to improve conditions for recruits, refocus promotions to performance instead of time served, and complement military skills with strategic assessment skills.
However, the success of reforms – including the quality and retention of recruits – won’t be seen “until a generation from now”, according to one recent military analysis.
Patalano said in recent years the private sector – backed by a booming economy – had provided more enticing job prospects for young people than the PLA.
“What this law suggests is that domestic economic conditions in China are changing and the military might be actively becoming a more appealing line of work,” he said.
“But against that, what you really have is the sense that the Chinese authorities feel that the job of a military that would be able to afford the higher standards is not quite finished yet. These laws feel very much like accelerating a process of transition towards a professional military force.”
The amendments allowed space for further changes, saying authorities could make adjustments to recruitment and conscription “within the scope of law” during wartime.
The changes were first announced last month, around the same time that the PLA was staging major military drills in retaliation to Taiwan’s president meeting the US speaker of the House in Los Angeles. It also coincided with a naval base tour by Xi, where he called on the PLA to “strengthen military training oriented towards actual combat”.