As China faces a demographic dilemma with a ballooning number of elderly citizens and fewer newborns, the country's leader, Xi Jinping, has given soldiers and their spouses a new order — lead the charge in childbearing.
The move, analysts say, is aimed not only at addressing the country's population challenges, but also at making the military a more attractive career option for educated urban professionals.
On Sept. 7, China's communist leaders announced a new executive order on family planning and the military. Highlighting the urgency, the order went into effect Sept. 10.
Full details of the 33-item plan are yet to be publicized, but state media say the policy will "standardize adjustments in [planned] births, incentives, related services," and form "a complete chain" from childbirth to child care, "with full technical support."
Posts on the official accounts of China's military forces say the measures include an annual five-day vacation for new parents and the possibility for the newly enlisted to visit their families during the first two years of service.
In one post, a young soldier serving in the Army's 73rd Corps Grouping in Jinan surnamed Li was said to have been granted family leave under the new measures and was shown smiling in pictures with his wife and child.
The five-day annual leave is for soldiers whose children are under 3 years of age, according to a post published Monday on the official Weibo account of China's Strategic Support Force, which is in charge of space, cyber, political and electronic warfare.
Incentives for having children
Since China ended its strict one-child policy in 2016, both central and local governments have shifted gears. They began rolling out incentives for couples to have more children when the bar was raised to two children and again in 2021 — amid the COVID-19 pandemic — when China allowed couples to have three children.
Provinces and cities across the country offer a range of incentives for families to have three children, such as a monthly stipend until children are 3 years of age and a one-time reward.
In Shaoxing, in eastern China not far from the port cities of Ningbo and Shanghai, couples with three children are offered as much as $50,000 in credit toward a home purchase.
So far, however, efforts have failed to change the direction of China's demographics.
Last year, China's birth rate slipped to 1.09 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world. And for the first time in 61 years, China's population shrank in 2022 with more deaths than births.
Steven Mosher, an expert on the Communist Party's family planning policies, told VOA that the new measures for the military are a sign that "China is growing desperate for more children."
Mosher has been following the People's Republic of China's policies for decades and was the first American social scientist to be permitted to do research in the PRC in 1979-80. He now serves as president of the Population Research Institute, an organization that opposes abortion and government programs controlling childbirth.
He noted that the new measures came as part of an order on how the armed forces ought to carry out laws concerning population and planned birth, which was signed by Xi in his capacity as head of the Central Military Commission.
"[Xi]'s the chairman of the Central Military Commission and thus is the commander-in-chief of the Chinese military. Hence his 'suggestion' is tantamount to an order," Mosher said.
Some soldiers skeptical
Despite that, and a flood of videos and articles online to promote the new measures and urge military couples to do their patriotic duty, many online were skeptical.
Some joked on the WeChat social media platform that only if the government were to issue a monthly stipend of 3,000 RMB, equivalent to about $450-$500, might it be worth considering. Many others balked at the costs of parenthood, despite the availability of childhood education and holiday benefits.
One user who appeared to be a military spouse from the western province of Ningxia said there was no way she was having another child.
"I am already on my own taking care of two children. There's little my parents can do to help and my husband, who is on active duty, is rarely home. We've been married for 10 years and living apart for 10 years," the post said.
Others raised the same complaint and noted that extra family leave would make little difference. Spouses of soldiers in China rarely live with their partners on military bases. Soldiers need to be senior in rank to have the privilege of having their spouse and dependent children accompany them on their assignments.
Soldiers usually get a one-time, 40-day leave, but only after the first two years of service are complete.
'Can they deliver?'
Chen Guangcheng, a blind rights activist from China who previously spent more than four years in prison for his advocacy of women's rights and fighting against the one-child policy, said the response is not surprising.
"The government can promise all they want, but can they deliver? That's what people are wondering, and rightfully so," Chen told VOA.
Chen, who now works as a senior fellow and lecturer on contemporary China at the Catholic University of America, said that regardless of whether it's a one-, two- or three-child policy, the Communist Party shouldn't treat childbirth as a part of state planning.
"The arbitrariness of the government's planned birth campaign is so utterly dehumanizing that it has led people to self-deprecate that under the Communist rule, they have become nothing but a 'human mine,'" he told VOA.
"Human mine" or "ren-kuang" is a phrase used on the internet in China to highlight that people feel like they are being treated in the same manner as other state-owned resources.
Military seeks urban professionals
Some see the policy shift as part of a broader effort to make a career in the military more attractive.
"The government is clearly prioritizing resources for the military," Hu Ping, a Beijing-born Chinese writer and editor who now resides in the United States, told VOA in a phone interview.
James E. Fanell, a retired U.S. Navy captain, thinks there's a reason for that.
"The message is: if you join the PLA [People's Liberation Army], you will be able to patriotically serve China and that you can have a family and know they will be taken care of. This is my read on this," Fanell told VOA.
The newly released measures are designed to "make the PLA more attractive to educated, urban professionals, especially important if the reports of the economic decline are correct," Fanell added.
Fanell served as chief of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is currently a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Geneva, Switzerland.
Boosting the armed forces' family welfare is part of Xi's "total force development" which, along with rapid modernization, aims to prepare the PLA for an invasion of Taiwan, according to Fanell.
China's fall recruitment season was well under way when Xi's order was issued. Recruiting wrapped up in Shanghai on Sept. 18, and, according to state media, college students and those holding college degrees made up 97.6% of the city's recruits.
China's military recruitment happens twice a year, usually from mid-February to the end of March, and mid-August to the end of September.