"China's One-Child Generation
Will Weaken Its Military."
Probably. The PLA's hardware is improving, but what about its recruits? China's one-child policy is widely perceived as creating a generation of spoiled, overweight boys, dubbed "little emperors," who are doted on by four grandparents while their parents toil to support them in fields, factories, and offices. Although accounts are sometimes exaggerated (in practice, many families, particularly in rural areas, have managed to have more than one child), the dramatic demographic shifts brought about by this policy, started in 1979, certainly impact the PLA. By 2006, "only-child soldiers" made up more than half of the force, up from just 20 percent a decade earlier, giving China the largest-ever military with a majority of only-children.
In a nod to the fact that enlistees are often the sole support for aging parents and grandparents, the PLA has shortened service commitments. In 1998, China reduced the time conscripts must serve to two years, lessening the economic and social burdens on rural families dependent on an only son. With a significantly shortened time to train conscripts and participate in exercises, many units will likely maintain low levels of readiness. Only-child officers are also more likely to leave the PLA to enter the private sector, where they are better able to support their parents and families.
Of course, it's difficult to really assess whether an army made up of only-child soldiers will be an effective fighting force, as the PLA has not been tested in combat since the late 1970s. The PLA has found that such soldiers have better communication and computer skills than their peers with siblings. However, they haven't performed as well in other ways. Only-child recruits are not as tough; they don't like to go through the pain of intense training; they call in sick more frequently; and they struggle to perform some simple chores like doing their own laundry. If too much hand-holding is required for these recruits, the PLA could well find itself all suited up for modern warfare -- but without the soldiers ready to fight it.
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