30 September 2023

Explainer: China’s new law does not make everyone above 18 a military reserve

Annie Lab looked into the recruitment scope of China’s new reservist law.

A tweet posted on Feb. 7 falsely claims that China has “quietly” passed a new military reserve law that requires people aged 18 or above to report to active service when a mobilization order is issued.

The Twitter user with more than 230,000 followers also questioned whether the new law was a tell-tale sign of China gearing up for war amid escalating cross-straits military tensions between China and Taiwan.

But Annie Lab found the claim misleading. We looked into the legal context surrounding Chinese military laws on personnel recruitment.

We can confirm that the law, composed of 65 articles in 10 chapters, does not require anyone above 18 to serve as a military reserve.

The reservist law was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Dec. 30, 2022, after a two-month public consultation and took effect on March 1 this year.

Reportedly, it was aimed at standardizing military reserve administration and codifying the selection threshold to strengthen the national defense forces.

Image published by the NPC WeChat account seeking an online public consultation over four proposed laws, including the drafted reservist law in October 2022.

However, contrary to what the tweet implies, the new law is looking to narrow the recruitment scope and strengthen the professionalism of reservists, according to professor Zeng Zhiping, a mainland-based military law expert who teaches at Guangzhou College of Commerce.

In China, currently, all men over the age of 18 should register themselves with the government for military service.

But this preliminary registration does not mean every man will be enlisted or end up becoming a reservist.

Women can voluntarily enlist but are not obligated to register for military service.

“Only a very limited group of people, including PLA veterans, can meet the threshold to become reservists,” Zeng told Annie Lab in a recent interview.

We created a flowchart to explain the process of how a man over 18 becomes a reservist under existing Chinese military laws.

In the 1984 version of the military service law, Zeng said all male citizens eligible for enlistment should serve as reservists, but the eligibility criteria have undergone four amendments in 1998, 2009, 2011, and 2021.

The reservist law was introduced specifically to cover reserve soldiers and officers within one legal document.

It specifies that reservists, including officers and soldiers, “shall be selected mainly from veterans, professionals, and technically skilled talents.”

It would also assess applicants’ physical and psychological fitness.

Women who are eligible, such as a retired female PLA veteran, are included as well. Article 49 states that “reasonable position and assignment” would be offered to safeguard women’s participation.

The misleading tweet also claimed that everyone would be “enlisted” once a mobilization order is issued.

But in reality, the order only applies to qualified reservists.

1984 military service law stated that the mobilization order applies to every male aged above 18 who has registered to serve.
The reservist law in 2023 on mobilization orders reads almost identical to the 1984 version, but it only applies to those who are qualified reservists. (Source: National Database of Laws and Regulations)

Meanwhile, some media reports claimed Beijing was using the new law to beef up reservists’ size by delaying the retirement age for senior reservists by five years.

According to Article 52 of the new law, the retirement age for top reservist commanders was raised from 55 to 60 and 45 to 50 for other professional technical officers.

However, the new law lowered the retirement age for reservist soldiers by five years from 35 to 30 meanwhile.

China national census data shows a decline in the number of PLA soldiers between 2000 and 2020.

In 2020, about 2 million people were actively serving in the People’s Liberation Army, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

Their record shows a downward trend in PLA recruitment for both genders in the last two decades.

Meanwhile, Taiwan will be extending its mandatory military service requirement from four months to one year from 2024 onward.