The symptoms of an “only-child” society had appeared by the 1990s and were affecting the PLA by the end of the decade. According to defense analyst Zhang Zhaozhong, the PLA has many soldiers who grew up without siblings. In the early 1990s, the only-child soldiers began to serve in the PLA. Their numbers have increased ever since. They made up 20.6 percent of the Chinese forces by 1996, 31.2 percent by 1997, and 42.5 percent by 1998. A frequently asked question is whether these soldiers’ combat training and fighting ability are in any way affected by their only-child status. A study done by the political department of a group army in Shenyang Military Region yielded mixed results. It found little significant difference between only-child soldiers and soldiers with siblings, especially those from rural areas, in their personality, training records, and service achievement. In technological training, only-child soldiers seemed to outperform soldiers with siblings in verbal tests, communication, and computer skills. The study attributes these findings to two factors. First, as only children became the norm in the late 1990s, social attitudes toward them may have changed, and so these young men may have been less spoiled than those who grew up in the 1980s, the beginning stage of the one-child policy. Second, in the “furnace of revolution” and in a “teamwork atmosphere,” the army may have reduced parental influences and any feelings of self-importance through political works and education provided by division, regiment, and battalion, and through group-oriented experiences in their company, platoon, and squad. The study did identify some problems in the “only-child army.” Some of the only-child soldiers were less cooperative with peers and more egocentric than soldiers with siblings. In some units, their performance in personal drills and detachment training was good, but their performance in tactics coordination training was poor. Some were reluctant to participate in high-risk training because they were afraid of injury.
The Hebei Military District survey provided a mixed report on only-child officers as well. In general, it found that the only-child officers were better educated, with at least a high school diploma, and had broad knowledge. Believing in competition and self-improvement, they were eager to learn and open to new ideas. Many of them were interested in technological improvement and military reforms. The survey also found that some of the only-child officers were liberal and democratic, emphasizing individual competition and equal opportunity. Some disliked political control and described the party system as “controlling,” “demanding,” or “oversimplified and crude.” They projected a new and contrasting spirit. Nevertheless, their retention level has been lower than that of officers with siblings in recent years.
The low retention rate of only-child officers may be partially the result of the aging of the Chinese population and the new four-two-one family-household structure (four grandparents, two parents, and one child). The task of supporting aging parents and even grandparents falls directly on the shoulders of only children. In today’s China, children, spouses, and kinship ties are still seen as primary sources of economic support for the elderly. The urban elderly are, however, less financially dependent on their adult children than are those in rural areas. Although the Hebei Military District survey does not explain why the only-child officers have a low retention rate, it is reasonable to assume that the lack of a social welfare and retirement system pressures only-child officers to retire early and accept a better-paying job outside the military in order to support their parents and grandparents now and themselves later.