China’s ‘One-Child Army’ Suffers From Low Morale, Lack of Combat Experience

Part 2 of the 2-part series: US-China Troop Comparison
November 26, 2021 Updated: November 26, 2021

News Analysis

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is weakened by low morale and lack of combat experience. “Good steel does not become nails,” so goes the Chinese saying, which means good, talented people do not become soldiers.

The one-child policy, a cultural lack of respect for soldiers, poor pay, a deficiency of combat experience, and a need to protect the borders makes the PLA much less effective than the U.S. military.

Low Morale

Japanese and American military experts speculate the PLA troops suffer from low morale. This is partly due to the low status of soldiers in Chinese society. And also owing to the country’s long-standing one-child policy. More than 70 percent of PLA soldiers are the only children in their family, making the PLA the world’s leading “one-child army.” Chinese parents are more protective of their children, in general, than are American parents. Additionally, the Confucian culture puts tremendous pressure on an only-child to care for his/her parents.

The PLA is a conscript army. Those who join may be doing so against their will.

The U.S. army, by contrast, has been purely voluntary since 1972, with roughly 150,000 volunteers joining each year. In terms of education, 67 percent of U.S. soldiers have completed a high school diploma and/or some college; 8.9 percent hold an associates degree; 13.6 percent have a bachelor’s degree; and 8.3 percent have attained an advanced degree. As for salary, an infantry sergeant earns around $36,000 per year, while an officer earns about $83,400 per year, and an intelligence analyst can earn up to $71,000 per year. While many jobs in the U.S. forces do not pay as well as their civilian equivalents, the difference is not as dramatic as it is in the PLA.

Through 2019, a colonel in the PLA only earned about $24,000 per year, while his counterpart in the U.S. Army earned up to $124,000. Early this year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced a 40 percent increase in salary for the PLA. One colonel told the South China Morning Post that after the raise, he will earn just over $36,000 per year. A PLA recruit, who gets paid around $1,876 per year, will earn about $2,600 per year after the raise; while a U.S. Army private earns about $20,000 per year.

Higher salaries may be of some help in attracting talent, but they will also drive up the cost of maintaining the army. Under Xi Jinping, around 300,000 military personnel were removed.

Lack of Combat Experience

Another significant difference between the PLA and U.S. forces is that 2.77 million American military personnel have served in combat over the past 20 years. Since 1991 Desert Storm, the U.S. military has been in almost constant combat operations.

China’s military, by contrast, doesn’t have as much combat experience. A few examples include the following: the PLA defeated Tibet in 1959, a country about .21 percent the size of China; the Chinese troops were thwarted during their invasion of Vietnam in 1979; China fought a minor, naval skirmish with Vietnam in 1988; and the PLA engaged in brawls with Indian forces in the Galwan Valley in 2020.

U.S. Marines in Philippines
U.S. Marines arrive in an amphibious assault vehicle during the amphibious landing exercises of the U.S.-Philippines war games promoting bilateral ties at a military camp in Zambales Province, Philippines, on April 11, 2019. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

The last major battles the PLA took part in were against the United States, in the Korean War, which ended in 1953. And it is unlikely that many Korean War veterans are still serving in the PLA.

This lack of combat experience even shows during peacetime. In 2018, a Chinese submarine on a covert patrol in Japanese waters, near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, was detected by the Japanese Self-Defense Force. The submarine immediately surfaced, raising the Chinese flag. This confirmed to Japan, and the world, that a Chinese war boat had violated Japanese territory, leaving Beijing no plausible deniability.

The Japanese speculate the reason why the PLA boat surfaced so quickly was for fear of being attacked with depth charges. Under International law, the Japanese Maritime Self-defense Forces have the right to attack an “unidentified submarine” intruding in their waters. By raising the Chinese flag, the submarine averted being destroyed, but divulged their secret mission.

Not all of the PLA’s 2.1 million active troops are available to deploy into combat with the United States. Two million of China’s soldiers serving in the ground forces protect China’s 14 borders. And roughly 80 percent of those troops, according to the U.S. Pentagon, lack equipment and ability to move about within China.

The CCP needs to maintain troops on its Afghanistan border to protect from possible terrorist incursions. China also needs to keep a large number of troops stationed on the Indian border. In the past, China fought two limited border wars with India and has recently fought several skirmishes. Additionally, India is part of the Quad, a U.S.-led defense pact designed to counter the Chinese regime’s threats. So the CCP cannot take troops from that border.

The CCP has fought a war against Vietnam, and Vietnam is a U.S. ally—so China cannot take troops from there. Although Pakistan is a relative client-state, the CCP still needs to keep troops on that border, because of the threat of terrorism. Russia is only a sometimes-ally, one that China has never trusted. Therefore, the troops on the border with Russia must remain. Furthermore, China shares maritime borders with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, all of whom are U.S. allies.

The United States, by contrast, has two largely undefended land borders, leaving the vast majority of its forces available for overseas deployment. Additionally, the U.S. troops are better educated, the officer corps have more command experience, and the U.S. military has more combat experience than the PLA.

Read part 1 here.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent more than 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Graceffo works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."