When Wan Yi turned 20 on Jan 1, it marked not just a new year but also a major phase in his life.
Unlike the past few years when he had celebrated it with his classmates at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, Wan spent his birthday in a remote army barrack in neighboring Hebei province.
The sophomore of Tsinghua's elite department of automation had just disrupted his studies to join the army, one of tens of thousands of other college students across the country attracted by this winter's new military recruitment policies.
"I'm not the only one from Tsinghua, we have two boys and one girl joining the military this year," Wan told China Daily at the departure ceremony for a batch of new recruits leaving Beijing at the Beijing West Railway Station on Dec 10.
"We're very proud of starting this journey to realize our dream," Wan said.
In autumn last year, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) enhanced its requirements for new soldiers. For decades, the army was content on drawing rural junior high school graduates and urban unemployed middle school graduates into its rank and file. But the new requirements were created to attract graduates from colleges, middle schools and vocational institutes as part of efforts to modernize the military.
According to the PLA Daily, more than 10,000 college students joined the army last year, much higher than the figure for the previous year.
The website of the official Xinhua News Agency even put the move among its top 10 domestic news of the military for 2008.
Wan Yi learned of the new recruitment policies on campus in November last year.
"The recruiters arranged several kiosks at Tsinghua to introduce their policies and I decided to join the military as soon as I learned I could resume my studies after serving two years in the army," he said.
"I remember scenes of the PLA battling the flood that swept China in 1998, and saw them devoting themselves to fighting the ice and snowstorms at the beginning of 2008 and relief work after the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province," Wan said.
"I have long dreamed of being a part of these heroes."
That "heroic dream" is one shared by many new recruits China Daily met at the railway platform.
Lieutenant Colonel Ding Zhengquan, head of the publicity team of the Beijing Military Conscription Office, said students from colleges in Beijing who joined the military last year will also get a grant of 10,000 yuan ($1,460) before enrolment and an equal amount after serving two years in the military. Soldiers from urban areas who choose not to rely on the government to find jobs for them when they leave the military will also get an additional grant, depending on the budget of the districts they are from.
The highest amount offered to a Beijing college student is expected to be able to cover almost all of the costs during a typical four years on campus.
"To be honest, the grant is quite attractive to me, as my family is under great pressure from the costs of my study," said a college student, surnamed Chen, who was seeing his friend off at the railway station.
In Guangdong province, local governments have made the incentives for joining the military even higher.
In the provincial capital of Guangzhou, each demobilized soldier will get a gratuity of 70,000 to 80,000 yuan in one-off payments, local media reported.
Sun Yat-sen University, considered to be one of the most prestigious of its kind in Southeast China, has promised that its students who join the army and earn second-class merit in their stints will be able to pursue the university's coveted postgraduate programs, without having to sit for exams.
A senior officer of the conscription office under the Ministry of National Defense (MND) who spoke on condition of anonymity, as required by the ministry, said college graduates with a bachelor's degree and good performance in the military will get a leg up in becoming officers.
"Students with lower education but some skills, such as high school and vocational school graduates, can also follow the route of a senior non-commissioned officer, a life-long position," he said.
That could stand to benefit Jin Bochao, a Beijing native who was also heading for the Hebei army camp.
Jin, 19, worked as a tour guide after he graduated from high school a year earlier.
"My family all believe serving the army will open new doors for me. It'll be a quite promising job if I can stay in the military after two years," he said.
Behind all these moves to beef up the armed forces is the Central Military Commission's move to modernize the military.
"In earthquake relief work, the military used hi-tech equipment such as satellite navigation and life-detection devices. New requirements of the times demand that soldiers are of high caliber, can react swiftly and possess strong capabilities to handle new equipment," an article written by the head of the department of the People's Armed Forces of quake-hit Dujiangyan in Sichuan and published in the PLA Daily on Dec 19 said.
"Low targets previously set for military recruitment have restricted the combat-readiness of the PLA," it said.
A survey conducted by the military last year showed that the PLA requires most new recruits to have an educational level of senior high school or above, but many soldiers recruited in recent years did not meet the standard, the senior official from the MND conscription office said.
The latest reform of military recruitment also impacts society at large, the senior official from the MND conscription office said.
"Many people asked me, 'why do you recruit so many soldiers with higher education? Some of them will just serve as guards during their military service,'" he said.
"But I tell these people that, with a low educational background, our soldiers won't be competitive after leaving the barracks," he said.
Local governments have been facing mounting difficulties over arranging jobs for demobilized soldiers, while many favorable policies such as duty-free items for enterprises started by demobilized soldiers are seldom utilized because of the limited capabilities of the soldiers, he said.
"What if we recruit well-educated people and train them to be brave, hardy and self-disciplined in our barracks? They will become the backbone of society. They will be a valuable asset for modern China," the official said.
The new army recruitment policies are already working, he said. A number of enterprises this winter have held recruitment fairs at the military recruitment sites to "book" the soldiers, he said.
Some cities have also launched favorable policies for demobilized soldiers taking the entrance examination for public servants.
"I'm sure we are on a promising path," the officer said.