“Train hard. Set high standards. Win honor for the school. ”
Led by their military instructors, chanting the slogan, and wearing navy fatigues, the students participating in the military training quickly assembled into a small formation and marched out of the parade ground. The final military training of their lives ended. In the afternoon, they would be able to put on their normal clothes, get on the bus back to downtown Shanghai, and return to their normal lives.
Mandatory military training in Chinese high schools and universities was first written into the law in 1955. However, due to the political chaos in the ensuing decades, it was not until 1985 that the law actually started to get fully implemented across universities and high schools throughout the country. Under the law, every college student in China has to perform military training in order to graduate.
For some, this was their most anticipated moment since the start of the military training. The quasi-military life they led in the past ten days forms a sharp contrast with the rest of their freshman year. The military training served as an acute reminder for Chinese students that although they could enjoy a little bit more freedom in an American college setting, in comparison to their peers, they are still under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic.
Opinions are widely divided among Chinese students – not only NYU Shanghai students, but the general student populace in China – on the mandatory military training system. Some students view the military training as a time for fun: bedtime ghost stories, outdoor camping, and an endless exchange of gossip between their temporary comrades-in-arms. Some see the military training as as an endless repetition of marching drills, all done under the burning sunlight that will result in an unwelcomed, hard-to-get-rid-of sun tan. Others are more uncomfortable with its political undertones, as the students are also required to go through lectures that propagate the ideologies of the ruling communist party and the state.
All of those varied opinions seem to add to the mystery that surrounds the system of military training, especially for international students. Why do Chinese students have to go through the training? Is it really as awesome (or awful) as someone claimed? Is it really brainwashing? And, probably the most important question of all, what can students learn from the training?
A typical military training itinerary would include both physical training and ideological education. Physical training features exercises such as standing to attention, marching, first-aid, and shooting. Ideological education usually takes place via lectures on current affairs given by army officers. A typical military training course would last 1-2 weeks. At the end of the training, students will perform a final parade, which will mainly feature students marching in squads and walking in goose steps. School officials and local government representatives will be present at the parade to evaluate the training results.
According to the law, the aim of military training is “to promote the spirit of patriotism and improve the idea of defence; to develop good will and character; to benefit later learning”. In recent years, some also claim that military training is a way to boost the strength and perseverance of the one-child generation.
The goals and benefits of military training all sound good. However, in reality, the vast majority of the training in China is far from actually reaching these goals. Instead, it has largely been reduced to marching drills due to Chinese-style bureaucracy. To please local officials who would be grading the final parade, many schools devote much of the training time to marching and goose step exercises. Repetitive marching exercises are not only boring and tiresome to perform, but also pose a threat to students’ health. Every year, there are cases of sudden deaths of students during military training. At least three lives were lost to military training last year alone in different schools in Guangdong, Shandong, and Hunan. The victims were all performing marching exercises when they suddenly fell to their deaths. The causes of death are usually heart attacks induced by the intense exercises. In addition, the overemphasis of marching exercises in training has also left little time for other exercises, such as first-aid training, that might be more useful in the students’ future lives.
Things are even worse on the ideological side. There’s no denying that almost every country in the world educates its citizens to be patriotic. However, being patriotic is one thing, being ultra-nationalistic, or even xenophobic, is another – and, unfortunately, the latter is the typical theme of most lectures one would come across in typical military training. The ultimate idea of these lectures is always predictable: Western countries, led by the evil America, are trying to undermine China. Born and raised in the age of globalization and the Internet, students today have more ways to receive information about what’s going on within their country and around the world. However, the lectures delivered in training assume that its audience is still living in the 1960s or 1970s, when China was at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The lectures seem like a vague reminiscence of Cold War politics rather than something that is relevant to daily life. One can call these lectures an attempt at brainwashing the students – and worse, still, the brainwashers are using expired detergents that are hardly effective on most of today’s students.
As the controversy surrounding military training grows, some schools in China are trying to improve their military training curriculum to address some of these issues. For NYU Shanghai students who participated in military training this year, marching exercises were shortened in length, and students were asked to participate in an array of other activities such as expeditions to nearby watertowns, scavenger hunts, outdoor camping, and first-aid training. Students at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law were even asked to participate in a counterterrorism exercise. However, while all these moves mark attempts to make military training more meaningful, these “reformed” versions of military training still mainly revolve around marching exercises, and they are still plagued with outdated ideological lectures that hardly anybody will take seriously.
To many students, military training is just a mere formality, a ritual of marching that is forced upon them as they enter high school or university. There is no denying that the original intention behind the system of military training is good, but most training courses are carried out in such a bureaucratic way, that it has stripped all the fun and education values away from the training itself. The only way to ensure that military training would not degrade into a ritual of marching and truly achieve its stated goals is to strip away the bureaucratic influences from the training, and make sure that students can actually learn something useful from it.
This article was written by Richard Lewei Huang. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai