Does boot camp have a place on campus?

Hong Bing considers whether compulsory military training in Chinese universities has a place in the modern world

September 18, 2014

Last month, a conflict between a group of Hunan high school students taking military training and their drill instructors left 42 people hurt and 22 hospitalised. Shortly before that incident, a Liaoning high school student took her own life after being criticised by her class teacher for not showing good military posture.

These students had been receiving in-school military training. The two stories, from the south and the north of China, have triggered a heated public debate: does military training – standard in many schools and universities – have a place on campus or is it an anachronism?

According to media reports, the Hunan incident escalated from a minor disagreement: during a break, a student asked the drillmaster where he was from. After twice failing to get an answer, she sprinkled sand under his collar. That led to misunderstandings, corporal punishment and angry outbursts that spiralled into serious violence.

Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, made a comment on his microblog in the immediate aftermath. He asked if these drillmasters “have the credentials to train the students, or have they received any training to be qualified? Do they have any knowledge in pedagogy and psychology?”

In a recent press conference, a Ministry of National Defence spokesman said that those military training-related accidents had been noted with concern, and the relevant military authorities would take measures to improve the training and the management of drillmasters.

A pilot programme to give first-year university students military training was established in 1985 and has since grown to cover 2,000 Chinese institutions. It usually lasts for a few weeks before classes start each year.

Training focuses on the “Old Three” of military posture, quick march and goose-stepping. Occasionally there are singing competitions and even competitive quilt-folding exercises. Instructors hope that after two to four weeks of such activities, their charges will be fired with collectivism, bravery and persistence. In reality, they are more likely to be frustrated by the formalism of the enterprise.

In 2007, two Ningbo University scholars conducted a survey at four Zhejiang-based universities with military training programmes. Asked if they took the “rigorous” approach of military training into their lives afterwards, just 13 per cent of student respondents said “always”, 45 per cent said “occasionally”, 26 per cent said they “just can’t”, while 16 per cent answered “I don’t care”.

In his microblog, Wang Tianding, the head of the journalism school at Xi’an International Studies University, put it this way: “The effect of military training could be almost zero. And if you don’t believe it, take a quick look at the students’ dormitory one week after the military training finishes.”

Two years ago, a South China Normal University student learned that she had to have her hair cut for the training. As the university was doing a survey about the training policy, she initiated a “no-haircut” campaign on her microblog and gained a huge number of supporters. One of her reasons for proposing a haircut boycott was: “Freshmen spend only half a month receiving military training, but it takes more than a few days for the hair to grow.” I guess it is the same with bravery and persistence.

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