CAOSHI, China--While China's military prowess has long been a source of concern for other nations, there are signs that all is not well within the armed forces.
The posturing by China on the Senkaku Islands issue, for instance, suggests a state of readiness that could result in a call to arms at a moment's notice.
But an incident in late 2011 that was never publicly disclosed by China but uncovered by The Asahi Shimbun suggests the central leadership is being forced to re-evaluate recruitment to the People's Liberation Army/Navy.
The facts of the matter are this: Four soldiers deserted from their unit armed with automatic weapons and stolen ammo. A dragnet was set up and a fatal shootout followed. It emerged that the soldiers had racked up sizable gambling debts and armed themselves so they could rob a bank and become solvent again.
But as often happens in reporting on China, the gravity of the situation faced by security authorities at the time was not immediately apparent until long afterward.
On the morning of Nov. 9, 2011, police in Jilin province, northeastern China, issued an emergency notice to all financial institutions in the province.
It said, "Four soldiers armed with model 95 automatic rifles have stolen 795 rounds of ammunition and deserted their unit."
The soldiers, aged between 19 and 24, belonged to a unit based in Jilin city. Photos of the four men, along with their physical characteristics, were issued.
The notice went on to say, "Contact the police if you have any information."
The four deserted from their base early that morning and were trapped by police some eight hours later when they were stopped at an expressway toll booth in Caoshi town of Fushun city, about 200 kilometers from their base.
A booth worker, recalling that day, described the fast-moving events as "like a scene out of an action movie."
The four deserters approached the toll booth in a taxi. They fired at a police officer who tried to question them. They were quickly surrounded by dozens of members of a special police unit. Gunfire raged, and three of the deserters were killed. The fourth was taken into custody.
Neither the military nor the police ever made a public announcement about the incident, suggesting a deep level of shock took hold in the military establishment over deserters going on the run with stolen weapons.
According to a source who was involved in the joint investigation by the military and police, the four men smuggled a tablet computer to their base quarters and became heavily involved in an online gambling site. They were unable to pay off their losses with their monthly salaries of 2,000 yuan (about 30,000 yen, or $323) and began piling up debt.
Their gambling activities came to the attention of their superior officer only a few days before the incident, and they were severely chastised.
According to the source, the lone survivor who was taken into custody said, "We wanted to take revenge on our superior officer." He also revealed that the group had planned to rob a bank.
"The incident revealed some serious problems, including a low sense of morale among military personnel and the lax oversight structure," said the source.
At one time, a military career was considered the passport to a better life as it provided entry into becoming a Communist Party member or finding a job at a state-run company after completion of military service.
But that no longer appears to be the case for those born in 1979, when China implemented its one-child policy, and in the years that followed. According to several military sources, things changed when those born under that policy began joining the military.
The ratio among all military personnel of only children rose from about 20 percent in 1996 to more than 70 percent in 2006.
These pampered children began quitting the military for all sorts of frivolous reasons. "I don't want to get a tan" and "I hate military quarters with no air conditioning" were among excuses cited.
In March 2011, Xuexi Shibao (Study Times), the organ of the Central Party School that teaches party ideology, ran an article that said, "Soldiers from the one-child generation are wimps who have absolutely no fighting spirit."
According to a source at a military think tank, an internal study found that 26 percent of soldiers who are only children quit because they found military training too tough.
So now, the military is focusing on recruiting members with proven academic achievement. And that means college graduates, as many are having difficulty landing a job. In 2009, only 68 percent of college graduates found employment.
In the past, the military only recruited among junior and senior high school students. But it was flooded with applications when it expanded recruitment efforts to cover college students.
In Beijing city alone, about 120,000 college students applied for military service in 2009.
A high-ranking officer in the Beijing Military Region said, "Having more outstanding soldiers allows us to respond more effectively to information technology as well as advanced weapons."
However, it remains to be seen if recruiting college students will alleviate the problem of desertion.
In early 2011, nine members of a unit with about 400 members in Wuhan, Hubei province, deserted. Three refused to return to their unit, so commanders implemented an administrative measure that prohibited the three from finding work at a state-run company or leaving China.
A high-ranking officer with the Wuhan security district, which decided on the disciplinary measure, said, "We were prepared for criticism (that the measure was excessive). We had to set an example in order to secure adequate staffing levels."
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