Focus topics

China’s new Reservist Law: preparing for war

China’s Reservists Law will go into effect on March 1, institutionalizing a system for military personnel replenishment. This would represent the country’s newest step in revising military-related legislation.  

Two years ago, the National Defense Law and the Military Service Law were amended. An eye-catching amendment was made to the latter.

  • In the old version of the Military Service Law, the purpose of wartime mobilization is stipulated to be “to deal with sudden attacks of the enemy and to resist invasion.”
  • In the 2021 version, the purpose was changed to “counter threats to the country’s sovereignty, unity, territory integrity, security and development interests and to resist invasion.”  

The significant scope broadening for possible causes of war is by itself telling enough. The addition of “unity and territorial integrity” is clearly putting Taiwan on the radar.  

Who would fight for China?

Who would form the main body of soldiers fighting for China if the country launches a war for Taiwan, and, then most likely, against the USA, and perhaps, Japan, and perhaps more others? Definitely not the Chinese netizens threatening dissidents on Twitter or those ripping down anti-Chinese government posters on Western campuses and those who beat demonstrators before the Chinese embassies and consulates. 

Those sent to the frontline will be young men and women from poor families, mainly from small cities and the countryside. 

The army as a way out of poverty

Despite China’s highly publicized achievement of poverty eradication, more than 40 percent of the population still live on 1,000 yuan (137 euro) per month or less, said premier Li Keqiang in 2020.  The situation wouldn’t be very different now, considering the stagnant economic growth in the past three years and the hardships caused by the Covid-related measures

Higher education in China is mostly not free. For high school graduates from impoverished families but academically strong, the country’s more than 40 military schools are a tempting choice.  Going to these schools are not only free, but allowances are also provided. Graduates from these institutions will be the most important source for military officers. 

For young men who can’t pass the entrance exam or whose families have limited means to pay for their higher education, the usual choice is to work in factories producing all sorts of products for domestic and global markets.  Working and living conditions there are not the best, and workers’ rights are a touchy subject. Their salaries are usually just enough to make a living for themselves. Only the thrifty ones manage to save some for their family or for the future.  

But the army seems to provide another way. Those joining do not have to work in factories, some expect to get good physical and technical training, some take it as their first big opportunity to socialize, and others may even harbor the fantasy of military glory, although, when leaving the active service, they would still face the same difficulties to find a job as the others in the job market.  

Many only children enlist

China doesn’t have a conscription system thanks to its vast population base. But demographics could also show their unfavorable aspects, with the prospects of war becoming increasingly real.   

China’s strict family planning policy was abolished only in 2015. Before that, families in the cities can have only one child. Giving in to the country’s sexist tradition and the need for men for farm work, the country allowed rural families to have up to two if the first one was a girl.  

This means the young men and women joining the military would most likely be the only son, and in many cases, even the only child.  

Joining the army in peaceful times is one thing, but another when a war looks possible.  

If met with difficulties to recruit and to boost morale, China will surely step up its efforts in glorifying the sacrifice that the soldiers are supposed to make.  

The appeal of patriotic fervor

The Chinese Communist Party’s successful nationalist propaganda will also help for war mobilization against Taiwan, the United States, Japan, and even the entire western world. 

The narrative that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory has always been very well received. The vast majority of the Chinese people would even say in their sleep that “Taiwan is part of China“.

Among the Chinese population, the United States has a well-established reputation as a bully trying to keep its hegemony by attempting to keep China down and even attempting its collapse. As for Japan, China never lets go of the history of being invaded by the Japanese during 1937-1945. New films and TV dramas about the China-Japan War, as well as the Korean War during 1950-1953, are regularly produced. Some of them even become blockbusters. The other western countries, if they also openly oppose China’s war efforts, can be easily portrayed as mindless followers of the United States, although that image is at the moment downplayed for economic purposes.  

The patriotic fervor today is of course not as strong as in the previous decades. A growing number of people can see through the political game of Xi Jinping. Some even have the courage to speak out against it. But in the foreseeable future, he will have enough fuel to fan up high enough nationalist fire if he wants the country to go to war. 


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