For new recruits, PLA is their one true love
University graduate Qi Youpeng decided to break up with his girlfriend two years ago - as soon as he was recruited by the PLA as a non-commissioned officer.
'I was only 22 when I joined the army,' Corporal Qi said. 'As an aggressive, young army man, I had to make a choice between career development and planning for a family.
'In the army, all NCOs are only allowed to go home for a one-month holiday every year, which makes it very difficult to maintain a relationship,' he said.
Qi, a Dalian native who graduated from Liaoning Normal University, will be promoted to the mid-level NCO rank of sergeant next year and plans to stay in the army at least four more years.
'It's unfair to her. I can't force her to wait for me so long,' he said of his ex-girlfriend, also 24 and a former university classmate. 'In our hometown, if girls aren't married by 25 they're seen as spinsters.'
Like other NCOs, Qi said he hoped to be promoted at least to senior NCO - staff sergeant or above - before demobilisation. 'I don't want to be distracted by missing her. I want to concentrate on my career development in the army,' he said.
Qi, an only child from the city, said he had a tough time in his first year in the army, finding it difficult to adjust to the harsh physical training early every morning and the complete isolation of army life.
'After a hard day's work, I'd hide under my blanket and cry, missing home and my girlfriend,' he said. 'But I've finally integrated with the unit after nearly two years' tough training.'
Corporal Lu Wei, a new NCO, said that with just 5 per cent of People's Liberation Army soldiers being female, he suffered a 'very common' condition when allowed home for his first holiday last year.
'I was so excited to see so many beautiful girls on the streets of my hometown, Chongqing ,' Lu, 23, said. 'I almost lost control as I was gazing at them. They gave me dark looks and I felt very embarrassed.'
Lu says he doesn't plan to marry until he's in his 30s, though he's still keen to meet girlfriends. 'I want to improve myself in the army. I think it will help me to find a better job in the future,' he said.
In 2000, NCOs comprised less than a quarter of the PLA, compared with almost two-thirds of the US army. But Beijing is seeking to move away from its old, Soviet-style military model and instead become a nimble, knowledge-based fighting force. To do that, it intends to increase the number of NCOs to 900,000 - almost 40 per cent of the PLA's strength - with all university graduates recruited eligible to become NCOs.
The PLA recruited 130,000 university graduates last year and will bring in another 150,000 this year.
It has hand-picked first-year university students since 2001 to take part in the National Defence Student Scheme, which offers military training to potential recruits. After graduation, new recruits go to military academies for one year of formal training to become an NCO.
Since 2003, enlisted university students who finish at least two years of study can also be sent to PLA NCO schools for another two years of military training. Previously, all NCOs were promoted from the ranks of outstanding senior soldiers.
The change is also seen as part of Beijing's efforts to ease high unemployment among university graduates after the global financial crisis. Another attraction for graduates is that recruits are reimbursed for four years of university fees.
Junior NCOs like Qi and Lu are on monthly salaries of about 3,300 yuan (HK$3,800) - comparable to the incomes of many people with fresh master's degrees in medium-sized mainland cities.
A senior NCO receives at least 120,000 yuan in decommission pay if he doesn't ask for a job placement after being demobilised. 'The decommission pay is enough for a retired NCO from a rural background to build a new house and get married in his home village,' Qi said.
Since 2008, senior NCOs have also been eligible for housing and retirement benefits previously offered only to regimental commanders. Senior NCOs are entitled to a 72 to 92 square metre flat in their garrison, which they can share with their family.
The new system has made NCO jobs keenly sought-after positions for graduates, especially those from rural areas, according to a report in Army Wives, a magazine under the PLA Daily. Becoming a senior NCO is not just the target for the 280,000 new NCOs recruited in the past two years but also for more experienced soldiers from remote mountainous areas. The competition is intense.
Sun Haichao , a PLA navy NCO, told the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Weekly that: 'The promotion path from a normal soldier to a senior NCO is much more difficult than for a senior colonel to be promoted to a general ... I joined the army with more than 200 teenage boys from our hometown, a mountainous village in Shiyan , Hubei , 10 years ago. Now, only two dozen of us are left.'
Those that do make it to NCO are all in their late 20s by the time they do.
And their time in the army changes them. Army Wives said that most declined to return home after demobilisation, preferring instead to court well-educated urban beauties instead of simple country girls.
'They joined the army because they didn't want to stay in their poor and remote villages,' the report said. 'That's why they spare no effort to perform well in the army.'
But while NCOs might be gaining increased recognition in the PLA, city girls seem to prefer higher ranks like lieutenants, leading to many disappointments in finding love, it said. That's led some NCOs to mock themselves as 'tigers in war, but mice in love', according to Army Men's Life, a semi-official online PLA magazine.
In order to help older NCOs find spouses, the army has, since 2008, allowed male NCOs over 28 and females over 26 to marry residents of the cities in which they are based.
The relaxation in the rules has seen matchmaking parties held by barracks during long public holidays, with local authorities and organisations keen to introduce unmarried young women to NCOs, the PLA Daily said. More then 85 per cent of NCOs find girlfriends through such blind dates, a survey of troops in the Guangzhou Military Command by Army Men's Life found.
But successful matches are very rare, with 40 per cent of couples having problems, and more than 10 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, it said. That might not seem high, but because of the difficulties faced by army families, including infrequent home visits, mainland law says that divorces in military marriages are up to the PLA partner, not their spouse.
'Times have changed, and young girls are now almost always the only child in their families and get used to being spoiled,' it said.
'Even for successful matches, urban girls all complain their NCO boyfriends are not romantic. Some decide to say goodbye in the second year after failing to cope with long-term separation.'
As a result, many NCOs have experienced 'falling in love in the first year and heartbreak in the second', the report said.