AN ARMY OF ONE CHILD
China's military is unique in many ways, but one of its most bizarre features is this demographic: More than 80 percent of current combat troops were born to one-child families, according to a study by Senior Col. Liu Mingfu of China's National Defense University.
China adopted its draconian one-child-per-family policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With a military age range of between 18 and 49, the People's Liberation Army began to witness a rapid climb of one-child family soldiers in the late 1990s, and the trend has not stopped.
The phenomenon has grave implications for the PLA's combat performance for several reasons. First, China has a de facto voluntary service system, which means fewer families are willing to send their only children to join the PLA. Second, many soldiers from only-child families tend to be spoiled and harder to train and command. Also, much higher social tension is likely to arise if large numbers of soldiers are killed or wounded in combat, as families will grieve far more emotionally.
The uncertainty and anxiety created by the large numbers of single-child soldiers is impacting Chinese military leaders, especially those with ultranationalist leanings such as Col. Liu, who is widely viewed as one of China's most jingoistic military officers.
Col. Liu's recent book "A Chinese Dream: Big-Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning in a Post-U.S.A. Era" calls for the downfall of the United States and defines China's No. 1 national goal as becoming the world's most dominant military power.
To reach that goal, Col. Liu reasons, China needs an army of soldiers who will sacrifice their lives unselfishly for the Communist Party and the country. Hence, he worries about the extraordinarily high percentage of one-child-family soldiers.
China's active-duty military is the largest in the world with an estimated 2.28 million troops.
The arrival in Beijing this week of President Obama's newly minted ambassador to China, Gary Locke, caused quite a stir in the tense calm of U.S.-Chinese relations prior to the visit this week to China by Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Mr. Locke is the first Chinese-American to hold his current post, which has generated enormous public attention in China. Before his arrival, the entire nation seemed to be asking a single question: Is he more Chinese or more American?
Mr. Locke answered with two simple acts. First, he arrived in Beijing on a commercial jet with his wife and three young children, all dressed in casual summer tourist attire, each carrying their own luggage.
Photographs of the ambassador's arrival circulated widely and wowed a nation more accustomed to pomposity and grandiosity of Chinese high officials' travel habits. This is fundamentally un-Chinese.
Second, Mr. Locke held a news conference immediately after arriving at his ambassador's residence Sunday to announce that "[he is] a child of Chinese immigrants representing America, the land of my birth, and the American values my family holds dear. [I and my family] all personally represent America and America's promise as a land of freedom, equality and opportunity. And it is that enduring promise and those values that I will represent in my official capacity serving the president and the American people as the United States ambassador to China."
The statements were circulated widely on China's Internet and are, of course, fundamentally American.
Soon after he made the remarks, China's state-controlled propaganda machine began work aimed at reducing what it feared would be pro-Locke fever. The robustly anti-U.S. newspaper Global Times, part of the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, conducted an online survey asking the question: What do you think about Gary Locke's show of "low key, no entourage, no limo" arrival in China?
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 9,000 had responded and a whopping 72 percent of them expressed disapproval, most of them with vitriolic personal attacks, accusing the new ambassador of being a "Chinese traitor," "shameless showman," and part of a "carefully designed plot with ulterior motives."
The remaining 28 percent expressed few specific reasons for approval. China has the world's largest Internet community, with more than 420 million users. It is also the world's most monitored and controlled, accounting for more netizens in jail for expressing free opinions than the rest of the world combined, with a reported employment of some 30,000 "Internet police."
• Miles Yu's column appears Thursdays. He can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.