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College Students Keen on Army Stint
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Getting into college in China is tough, but some college students are trying something that is considered even harder.


Huang Wenchuan, a sophomore engineering major at Shenzhen University in South China's Guangdong Province, couldn't wait to enlist in the army in an autumn nationwide recruitment campaign.


"I've always wanted to be a soldier," said Huang, 19, whose grandfather and uncle both served in the military. "My parents wanted me to go to college, so I got in. I thought I would never be a soldier; and was so thrilled to know that I could join the army and return to school after that."


Huang was among an increasing number of applicants from universities nationwide to join the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) this autumn. And the army has benefited as well in the five years the policy has been in effect because it gets more educated recruits.


More than 10,000 university students have entered the army, according to Xinhua News Agency. Of them, more than 1,000 have been awarded merit citations.


Shenzhen University is among the first group of schools that have recruited students for the military service. So far, 96 students have been admitted to the army. After serving their two-year stints, 59 returned to school with 57 excellent performance ratings and 26 merit citations.


"The past five years have proved it is a right move to recruit college-student soldiers," said Yang Yangshen, a director of the PLA General Staff Headquarters, who is in charge of the recruits, in an interview with Xinhua. "There are going to be more this year."


The recruitment of college students has a positive impact on the working ability of the army, he added, because "soldiers with higher education are more efficient. They will continue to be key to the improvement of the army."


In return for the two-year commitment, the army tries to help the students find where their talents lie. Every year, after the new recruits complete about two months of "boot camp" training, the PLA assigns them to their posts according to their majors and strong points.


However, in China where military service is voluntary, the army is made up mostly of senior middle school graduates and officers who have received additional training at one of China's military universities. College students remain a relatively small portion of the military's composition.


China is now trying to recruit more.


College-student soldiers all the rage in army



To do that, the government has implemented many favourable policies that vary according to the area from which the soldier comes. Some recruits, for example, will not have to pay their college tuition when they have completed their service.


"The financial support could be a relief for some students from poverty-stricken areas who can't pay the tuition fees," said Yang Ping, director of Shenzhen University's military affairs department.


But for most of the applicants, serving in the army is not money-driven; rather, it is about accomplishing a childhood dream.


When Huang Wenchuan was a lad, he was fascinated by the war stories told by his grandfather, a former soldier who served the People's Liberation War (1945-49).


"My grandpa managed to escape death through the bullets. I just love his heroic stories," Huang said. "In peacetime, to become a soldier is still a man's dream."


For the single-child generation, the military is a place to built characters and temper wills, Huang said.


"I have lived a comfortable life for 19 years," he said, "and I want something that is different, that tests the ability to endure hardship."


On campus, discipline, a quality emphasized by the army, is lacking, said Wang Linfei, a Tsinghua University sophomore, who also applied this year.


"No one orders me when to study, where to go or when to go to sleep," Wang said. "Day by day, I become too loose, undisciplined."


Sometimes Wang, who studies at the College of Software, plays computer games into the night or plays basketball instead of studying.


"I want to steel my will and further discipline myself through military training," Wang said. "When I came back, I will still be a student in Tsinghua. I have nothing to lose, but I gain two years of experience in the army."


In fact, some student soldiers found being in the army a good way to escape job-hunting pressures near graduation.


Zhang Feilong joined the military last November and was sent to the Tibet Autonomous Region as a clergyman for a logistics troop.


"The last year at school, I felt there were just too many graduates but fewer job vacancies," said Zhang, who studied psychology. "I thought the military experience might make my resume look better."


Living and working in the army for two years broadens a student's horizons and builds his character, said Zhang, 23. The military camp is so different from the campus.


"When the commander scolds you, whether he is right or wrong, it is the order, and you have to obey," Zhang said. "Any opinionated person would become a cobblestone in the army."


Zhang will finish his service and be back to school next October. He is planning to be a civil servant, a position that receives special considerations if they've served in the army.


"What I learnt here about dealing with things in the local administration will be considered useful for a government position," Zhang said.


Chen Yiming, a Shenzhen University graduate who joined the army in 2001, looks back at his military experience with appreciation.


"I've changed a lot," said Chen, now 24 and a teacher at Shenzhen University. "I am more tolerant and open to different opinions and values in daily life. I work as team player and know how to discipline myself."


He added that when he joined the army, he considered himself an introverted student who had negative opinions of everything.


"I knew if I kept thinking that way, I would not be able to fit into society after graduation," he recalled. "But at that time, I didn't know how to adjust. When I saw the recruitment notice, I wondered if the army might help me. It turned out to be true."


Chen served in Guigang, a city in Southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, for two years, as a clerk who also was in charge of guarding the weapons.


Chen had the highest education in his division, which always drove him to be the best on a team.


Even during the hardest physical conditioning days - when soldiers were told to run at least five kilometres under a time limit every day - Chen never thought of giving up.


"Everyone had high expectations of me," he said. "I couldn't let them down. Once I got through it, I found my legs longing for the 5-kilometre run. I was the best on the physical conditioning test."


In 2003, Chen returned to Shenzhen University and continued his economics studies. He was awarded 50,000 yuan (US$6,250), and his tuition was waived for the next two years.


He returned a more confident person. "When I saw my old classmates, who were in their final year on campus, I was more mature than they were."


Chen graduated this summer, and the military experience on his resume helped him stand out for many job interviews. At a time when college graduates often get the cold shoulder in the job market, his time in the army made a difference.


Shenzhen University, which hired him, favours graduates who served in the army.


Working as an administrative employee in the College of Economics, Chen is often asked by his students about his experience in the army.


"I told them: 'You have to think thoroughly before making any decision because there's no turning back,'" Chen said.


"But I can guarantee the experience in the army will teach you things you won't learn in school."


(China Daily November 30, 2006)


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