BEIJING — Under the hot September sun, columns of university freshmen in army fatigues march into Tsinghua University's main stadium. The tallest young man in a company of 170 leads with a red flag as his classmates train their eyes forward, trying to keep perfectly synchronized. Patriotic music blares, and an announcer yells, "Make sure to practice the good thoughts, good behavior, and good habits you learned during the military training in your future study and life!"
Crowds of parents and curious locals try to catch a glimpse through the stadium's fence as the final platoon settles into standing formation. Tsinghua University, considered "China's MIT" and alma mater to Chinese President Hu Jintao, is celebrating the conclusion of 20 days of marching, drilling, and adherence to commanders' orders. Across the country, nearly every university is staging the same pageantry -- part of the Chinese government's efforts to keep its citizens patriotic and, perhaps, obedient. In today's rapidly changing China, however, this traditional rite of passage, known as Junxun, seems less relevant for a generation grown used to peace and prosperity.
Since 1985, every school year has begun with the training. Participation is mandatory for every incoming freshman -- young men and women alike -- and a poor performance can blot a record that stays with them throughout their professional lives. Over a speaker at the Tsinghua stadium, an announcer says that military training is "one of the holiest tasks given by the People's Republic of China."
Unlike its neighbors Taiwan, North Korea, and South Korea, which also have mandatory military training, mainland China faces little threat of foreign invasion. Yet it still maintains the world's largest army, with a 2.3 million all-volunteer force. But national defense isn't necessarily the main concern with Junxun, which tends to include very little practical combat education.
Individual schools list their own objectives for the training, but according to China's Education Ministry, the official purpose is "to enhance students' sense of national defense and national security awareness." It also aims to improve "patriotism, collectivism, and revolutionary heroism" and "enhance organizational discipline" so the country can "develop socialist builders and successors of the future."
Some see more nefarious plots. Kai Pan, an American blogger in Shanghai, said on the China blog CNReviews that foreigners who see the training are often "thoroughly constipated with disgust for the nationalism being 'brainwashed' into the innocent but ever-so-impressionable youth." And Peng Guoxiang, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Peking University in Beijing, says Junxun is designed "to train [students] to be sheep."
One mile south of Tsinghua University is Renmin ("People's") University, a top school for aspiring government cadres. In August, a 19-year-old language student who goes by the English name Rachel was preparing for her military training. Just under 5 feet tall and 90 pounds, she'd never done anything like it before. "I'm very nervous," she said.
Rachel was born in 1992 in the east-coast province of Zhejiang, one of China's richest regions. She has traveled throughout the country with her family and hopes her language skills will one day land her a job that'll allow her to see the world. The daughter of a middle-class government official, she, like most Chinese her age, is an only child. "I'm so lonely," she said, laughing about her home life. "But I was very spoiled. I didn't need to worry about anything."
Rachel's upbringing is a world apart from that of China's previous generations. Her grandmother was 9 years old when her future husband was arranged for her in the late 1940s, after years of civil war and the Japanese invasion. Rachel's parents were both born in the early 1960s and bore the brunt of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, eating tree bark at one point to survive. But with the decline of socialist dogma and the subsequent economic explosion that resulted in a 14-fold increase in per capita GDP from 1990 to 2010, members of China's next generation found themselves growing up in a radically changed society. Those like Rachel born in this booming era are referred to (often pejoratively) as China's post-1990s generation. According to the Chinese newspaper Global Times, these kids are routinely labeled "lazy, promiscuous, confused, selfish, brain damaged and overall hopeless."