China’s military worries that its only-child recruits are “wimps”

Just taking a little rest.
Just taking a little rest.
Image: Reuters/Jianan Yu
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China’s millions of only children—known as “little emperors” for how they are doted upon by parents and grandparents—may turn out to be terrible soldiers. As much as 70% of the Chinese military (paywall) is made up of men and women who are the only children in their family, according to a professor at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University—a figure that gives some military policymakers reason to worry.

“Soldiers from the one-child generations are wimps who have absolutely no fighting spirit,” warned the Study Times, an ideology-focused government publication.

Defense experts have been debating whether China’s expanding military is much weaker than it looks. For instance, Chinese troops haven’t been in combat since 1979 and officers spend almost 40% of their time in “political training.”

China’s only children generation, born after 1979 when the country’s “one child” policy went into effect, was once viewed as a boon to the People’s Liberation Army. Higher levels of education and ease with technology were supposed to make them “quick to understand modern warfare in a high-tech era.” In general, China’s recently relaxed population control policy was to create a generation of high-quality children with more resources at their disposal. But studies and anecdotes about the detrimental effects of raising Chinese children without siblings have led many to worry that these kids are too pampered, pessimistic, and risk-adverse to handle careers as entrepreneurs, cooperative coworkers, and especially soldiers.

Quartz has previously pointed out some of the holes in this argument. Other studies have shown that only Chinese children showed no personality differences from their peers with siblings and that many use classmates or other family members as surrogate siblings and playmates.

But whether or not there are meaningful differences between the fighting spirit of only children and those with siblings, Chinese military leaders seem to believe so. The PLA reportedly runs special training to toughen up ”spoiled” soldiers. Dean Cheng, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, attributed China’s focus on psychological warfare to the fact that many of its soldiers are only children. “He wrote in July, “because of the one-child policy, young people are pampered and may therefore be more psychologically brittle and less capable of handling stress. Defensive psychological measures are therefore seen as an essential means of limiting the impact of wartime pressures on them.”

Still, as US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “you go to war with the army you have,” and China has big military ambitions. Last year, it spent $131.7 billion (pdf) on its defense forces, almost 40% of total spending in the Asia Pacific region, according to estimates released by IHS Jane’s annual defense review this week. At least for the time being, as China continues expanding its military, it has little choice but to fill its military ranks with more little emperors.