Undergraduates in China grumble about compulsory boot camp

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IN A concrete stadium in the north of Beijing, some 2,000 men and women are rehearsing a military tattoo. They march in a circle to music pumped from loudspeakers, while footage of tanks and helicopters plays on a screen above their heads. One group armed with rifles heads to the middle of the arena to practise basic drill. After some square-bashing, they lower their barrels and charge, bellowing, “kill, kill, kill!”

These are not soldiers but students: teenagers about to begin their courses at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities. Their rifles are wooden replicas, capped with rubber for safety; their uniforms are ill-fitting. Military training is compulsory for first-year students at universities in China, as well as for entrants to senior high schools. It is also commonly given to students at junior high schools. Courses are usually between two and three weeks long.

Some educational establishments began requiring this in the early years of Communist rule in the 1950s. After the army was deployed to crush student-led protests in 1989, the government became more enthusiastic about instilling military discipline at schools and on campuses; training of new students has since become universal. The National Defence Education Law says that one goal is to develop “patriotic enthusiasm”.

The students at Tsinghua are lucky, for they do most of their training on campus. But some universities pack freshers off to grim camps in the countryside, where they have to stay up all night on sentry duty and endure embarrassing communal showers. Drill takes up much of the schedule. Some students get weapons training, but few get to fire more than a couple of shots. Lessons in military strategy and history round off the experience, as do choruses of revolutionary songs.

Boot-camp boosters argue that a spell in fatigues can help to toughen up children who have been spoiled by doting parents and grandparents. As they see it, the country’s erstwhile one-child-per-couple policy created legions of pampered softies. But there are many critics, too: parents who fret about leaving their little darlings in the hands of ornery sergeants, and students who complain (occasionally on social media) about long hours of standing still and unpalatable rations.

The army may be heeding such objections. Some Chinese lament that courses are becoming cushier. But in recent years several cases of bullying and brawling have come to light. This year state media reported on a punch-up between a student and instructors at a south-western university. One fight in 2014 left more than 40 people injured.

Some students eventually grow wistful about their weeks in camouflage—a period when lasting friendships are often forged by having to cope with “crappy things together”, as a recent graduate puts it. That is just as well, because the government is unlikely to scrap the scheme. It is trying to tighten ideological control on campuses in order to curb the spread of liberal values. That fits well with the Chinese army’s mission, which is above all a political one: to keep the Communist Party in power.