China first stealth fighter jet, the J-20, went into combat service in February of this year. A second radar-evading fighter, the J-31 is currently in the manufacturing stage.
The aim is to close the gap on the American airforce. The J-20 is intended as a rival to Lockheed Martin’s F-22, which has a top speed of 2,400km/h. The J-31 is supposed to be similar to Lockheed’s F-35.
But can the People’s Liberation Army find the best people to fly these so-called fifth-generation planes?
The answer, according to National Defence University professor Dai Xu, is “with difficulty”.
One key challenge, Dai claims, is that large numbers of young Chinese are now severely myopic, or short-sighted – a result of long hours studying and too much screen time.
According to a recent government health survey, 47% of school kids aged between 5 and 15 now suffer from short-sightedness. By the time students complete university courses, as many as 86% of them are myopic.
For an army which is trying to recruit educated soldiers capable of operating high-tech weapons this is a massive problem.
“There is no doubt that high rates of myopia are affecting national security,” Dai warned in a Global Times article.
Short-sightedness “cuts like a knife” through China’s huge population, he continued, vastly reducing the pool of people the armed forces can recruit from.
China is currently in the process of upgrading its military to make it more capable of fighting a war less dependent on troop numbers, and more on the application of better technology and skilled personnel.
The problem is that the very group the army wants to enlist– students who have studied to a high level – are the group with some of the worst eyesight.
And it is not only the army which is effected: commercial airlines have also had relax their entry requirements to hire enough pilots.
The government is aware of the problem, with the country’s chief ophthalmologist warning in 2015 that myopia would threaten social and economic development. A government white paper later that year called short-sightedness “a national disease”.
While near-sightedness is a problem across East Asia, scientists largely rule out genetic causes. Instead they draw a connection with urbanisation, rising academic pressure and the widespread use of tablets and smartphones.
China’s older generations don’t suffer from the same levels of myopia and neither do children who live in rural areas (exposure to natural light helps to prevent it). Further studies have shown that ethnic Chinese children living in Australia also have better eyesight.
Since 2015 the Chinese government has tried to promote more outside play in the school day to help give kids more natural light. It also mandates a series of eye relaxing exercises called “yanjing baojian cao” to be carried out twice a day.
Videos of the five-minute routine show school children sitting at their desks rubbing their foreheads, cheeks and noses to a standardised sound recording.
Parents are increasingly aware that too much schoolwork and computer time is damaging their children’s eyesight but they often take the view that the alternatives – failing to get good grades, particularly – are worse.
Glasses can be bought easily and they are seen as little more than a cosmetic inconvenience.
Indeed China is home to 28,000 ophthalmologists – five times more than the World Health Organisation’s minimum requirement – and the country is also the largest producer of spectacle frames.
But doctors are concerned that some Chinese children suffer very severe forms of myopia that can lead to glaucoma, retinal detachment and even blindness in later life. “The early onset of myopia and high incidence of high myopia not only endanger the contemporary population quality, but also affect the future population quality of our country,” warned Li Ling, the lead doctor in the government white paper.
As for the PLA’s pilot shortage, short of a massive investment in Lasik clinics no solution looms.
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