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March 5, 2010

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Soldier girls march straight to World Expo

AROUND 2,000 young women have traded their fashionable civvies for combat fatigues, hand bags for duffle bags. They chopped off their long locks and hung up their cell phones and iPods.

Now they spend their days drilling and training in preparation for some missions at the upcoming World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

"Welcome to Shanghai." "China Pavilion is on your right side." They repeat these lines in perfect English - and also in Shanghai dialect and in international sign language for the hearing-impaired.

The women in baggy green battle fatigues with red epaulets and identical boy-haircuts are the females recruited for the Shanghai Armed Police.

After long hours in the sun, their faces and hands are tanned and they look strong and fit - quite unlike most young women who shun the sun, constantly strive for a white complexion and seldom break a sweat.

They are now in basic training, a three-month boot camp (but not too rigorous) for females, before deployment at the Expo opening on May 1. Officials decline to specify their assignments or where they will be posted around the site.

The young women have higher academic qualifications than most recruits, and many already have studied English. More than half are university seniors or fresh graduates from 60 colleges and universities around China.

They will serve for two years and then be able to resume their studies if they wish. They will receive preferential treatment, including tuition reimbursement and help in finding jobs.

"Attention," shouts a female squad leader at the armed police garrison. The women stand in formation, all serious.

"Three months in military camp are very different from campus life," says Chen Juhong, a 20-year-old freshman from the Medical School of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She is flushed and perspiring a bit from exercise.

"Describe your life in camp to the reporter," says a male officer.

"Yes, sir," Chen says.

Her day, and that of all recruits, begins with 6am bugle wake-up - if she were still in college, she would be asleep at that hour. Then she washes up in 15 minutes and runs to the field for morning assembly.

The first exercise is to run 500 meters on the track, a big change for young women who seldom exercised or broke a sweat before.

"We hated running at the beginning," says Chen. Some recruits gulp down a popular energy drink before the run.

After building their muscles and endurance, a 3,000-meter run is a piece of cake.

Hard training brings a hearty appetite and the recruits wolf down their breakfast, some eating as many as 10 steamed buns.

"Almost all of us have gained several kilograms since entering the camp," says Chen.

Morning training - fitness and armed police skills - begins at 8:45am. They get breaks every few hours.

One of their exercises, to strengthen the lower back, involves bending from the waist with straight legs to pick peanuts up from the ground. This is repeated dozens of times, rapidly and at a steady pace. Each recruit is expected to pick up around 3,000 peanuts by the time the Expo begins.

Lunch begins at 11:30am, they can nap at noon and begin afternoon training at 1:15pm. At 4pm there's more physical training, including long-distance running, walking races and "four people racing with five feet."

At 7pm they watch CCTV news, especially like the channel's military affairs report.

After dinner, the evening is free. The recruits eat snacks, play games, chat with instructors or read in their dormitories.

Six recruits live in each dorm room in neat, military fashion. Clothes are hung in an orderly way, beds are made military-style, quilts are folded in perfect, regulation cubes. In the bathrooms, all the towels, toothbrushes and cups are neatly lined up, as if measured by a ruler.

Each room has a long desk, air-conditioner and a 20-inch LCD TV on the wall.

The camp has a library with many books for the university undergrads on economics, international trade, business, law and other subjects.

It's lights out at 9pm.

"My biggest reward in the last three months is the improved relationship with my dad who was a PLA Air Force pilot for more than 30 years," says Wang Hangyu, a junior at Shanghai Normal University. Her name Hangyu literally means "navigation" and "space" - apparently he wanted his daughter to be a soldier.

"We had a bad relationship because he always treated me sternly, by military rules," says Wang.

"We had fewer than 10 conversations since I was born," she says, her eyes brimming with tears.

That changed dramatically after Chen entered training.

Once she was criticized by her squad leader for not folding her quilt perfectly and called home because she was depressed. Though no cell phones are allowed, recruits occasionally use camp phones for very short calls.

"My father picked up the phone and told me he also was always criticized for the same reason when he entered camp," Wang recalls. "I felt the gap was suddenly bridged. From then on we have had endless things to talk about, mostly about military life, of course."

The young women form close bonds with each other.

One weeps because her friend has been moved to a different camp.

"Looking at her empty bed, I was filled with sadness," says Zhao Qi, 21, from Shanghai International Studies University.

The recruit used to tell Zhao and others to dress warmly in the cold, eat more fruit when they caught cold and generally tell them what to do - she could be quite annoying, but now everyone misses her.

"When the recruits first arrived, they would only think of themselves," says Ma Yundi, a monitor responsible for some training. "Take eating. At the very beginning, if they liked a dish they would eat much of it, not thinking that others might want some too."

Now the situation is different and the young women are learning to share and to be more considerate of others.

One recruit wanted to make sure that Ma had warm milk to drink, so she took some extra and kept it wrapped in her quilt until midnight when Ma returned late from work.

"I was touched," says Ma. "They even called my parents over the Spring Festival, calling them 'mom' and 'dad'."

"The barracks is our home now, and we're sisters," says Xie Licheng.

"Monitor, have a rest. We are going out to exercises. Don't worry," said a note left by the recruits next to the pillow of monitor Zhang, who was sick.

In training days, the young women have also become more caring about their parents, though before they entered camp they often paid no attention.

"I'm always worried about my parents since I joined the army," says Zhang Han, a senior from the Shanghai Institute of Technology.

Some of the young women send their first month's subsidies home, says Ma.

"The camp is a place to learn how to be an upright person," says Chen Tong, a sophomore from the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade.

Chen had a highly desirable major, business management, but she found it difficult to adjust to college life and she had a bad temper that offended classmates.

Her parents pressed her into recruitment in hopes that she would learn discipline and become more considerate of others.

"I was always the one to be criticized at first because I was lax in discipline and had a bad relationship with the squad leader," she says.

After three months, she is the one who is consistently praised, her squad leader says.

The camp has also changed a lot because of feminine influence.

A shelf in the canteen displays around 30 pieces of handicrafts made by the recruits - sketches of training, a paper-fold house, a clay sculpture of a fashionable young woman and an eye-catching red-paper replica of the majestic China Pavilion.

The young women are also proud of their monthly English-language newspaper, Olive-Drab Dreams, referring to their uniform combat fatigues with camouflage pattern.

On weekends the recruits take part in hobby groups, including photography, journalism, literature and basketball.

Last December, most of the recruits had to take two English-language tests, the CET-4 (College English Test 4) and CET-6, a national English test, which are considered a proof of one's English-language skills in China. They had applied before they were accepted as recruits.

But soldiers are not allowed to leave the barracks without special permission.

"It would have been a pity if they missed the tests," says Jiang Guangwang, secretary of the Political Office of the camp. The camp studied all the city's test venues, driving routes and arranged for dozens of buses to take the recruits to 80 exam locations and pick them up.

As visiting reporters left the camp at around 4:30pm, the recruits were returning to their dorms, singing military songs, loud and clear.

Here's one of their own:

"Army girls also like to be beautiful,

But we do not need to dress up,

Our olive-drab uniform makes us beautiful.

One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four!"

Their faces are tanned and flushed after training, their short hair a bit tousled.

Many young women prize long hair, a white complexion and an easy life, but these recruits have no regrets.

"Our hair will grow out," says one recruit with a smile. "Our skin will again be white."

Everyone nods and smiles.


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