BEIJING -- China's military is accepting recruits who are heavier and have more visible tattoos, conceding to rising prosperity and individuality among the nation's young.
In keeping with a drive for better-educated recruits, the military is also opening up to university students willing to take time off to serve, offering them an additional 6,000 yuan ($944) annually to subsidize their educational costs and guaranteeing that their university places will be there for them when they return to campus.
The changes announced by the Defense Ministry on Wednesday took effect during the People's Liberation Army's current winter recruitment drive. The People's Liberation Army is the world's largest, with 2.3 million people in uniform.
The ministry said would-be recruits will no longer be rejected for having face or neck tattoos as long as the body art doesn't exceed 3/4 inch.
The changes also allow for body weight up to 25 percent greater or 15 percent lower than the military's standard, in contrast to the former limits of 20 percent greater and 10 percent lower.
Prohibitions on ear piercings will also be eliminated, as long as the holes are not too obvious.
The reforms reflect how China's educated youths are becoming increasingly selective about jobs at the same time as the military rapidly modernizes. As in the West, increased food consumption and more sedentary lifestyles are producing recruits who are less fit and more choosy about the physical activities they engage in.
With China's enormous population and huge amounts of excess rural labor, the army in the past could afford to be highly selective in whom it admitted, requiring recruits to meet strict standards for height and weight and automatically tossing out those with less than perfect vision or other slight physical defects.
While China's growing economy offers numerous alternatives, military pay and benefits have been improving in line with double-digit annual percentage increases in the defense budget. The armed forces also retain a privileged position in communist society, and a military background can lead to careers in security, local government, and other areas, so serving remains a relatively attractive choice.
While China maintains a draft, the army has been essentially all-voluntary for many years as so many young men sought to join. Rejection rates among those taking the basic physical exams have run at about 70 percent in past years.
The U.S. military changed its policy for recruits in 2006 to ban any tattoos above the collar, including on the neck, head, or face, as well as those anywhere on the body of an extremist, sexist, racist, or indecent nature. The rules set no limits on piercings, but forbid earrings and other such body decorations except in some cases for female soldiers.
Chinese soldiers are required to be slightly taller than U.S. recruits, with a minimum height of 5 feet, 3 inches for men, as opposed to 5 feet for Americans.
While American male soldiers can weigh between 97 and 259 pounds, depending on age and height, the People's Liberation Army calculates its standard weights only by height, starting at 115 pounds.