Beijing: In a bid to address growing divorce rate among the world's largest military due to long-separation from families, China's PLA has allowed for the first time non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to invite their families to stay in the military camps during Lunar New Year.
Previously, only officers and their families were permitted to stay in the camps.
"The happiness (of family reunions) has come a little bit suddenly," Wang Xingtao, a senior NCO in the 12th Army Group, based in Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, told the PLA Daily, the official organ of the world's largest 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Wang and his wife were among 34 couples in his brigade to enjoy the unprecedented "family reunion happiness" pilot programme this Lunar New Year holiday, it said.
The move is among the first steps in NCO conscription reforms to offer more benefits to help keep military talents in the army.
The steps have come amid President Xi Jinping's call for military leaders to come up with innovative measures to boost the army's morale by solving housing problems affecting grass- roots soldiers such as NCOs.
"The pilot family reunion programme might seem nothing for military officials who are entitled to have their dependents with them, but it is a real privilege to us," Benjamin Sun, an NCO in the PLA's Qingdao garrison, told Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
Sun said the rate of divorce among military officers was higher than those of their peers outside the garrisons because of the long periods of separation.
"The army has never conducted a survey about the divorce rate of soldiers because it is sensitive... But my superiors and comrades with families told me that short gatherings during special festivals would help them to maintain their relationships with their spouses," he said.
The PLA has acquired an array of hi-tech weaponry as part of its military modernisation over the past two decades. But the quality of its soldiers has lagged far behind, forcing it to reform its existing compulsory-service system to attract personnel with higher levels of education and skills to support its modernisation, the Post report said.
In 2000, NCOs comprised less than a quarter of the PLA, compared with almost two-thirds of the US Army. But now, the army intends to increase the number of NCOs to 900,000 - almost 40 per cent of the PLA's current strength.
The maximum retirement age for NCOs is 55, which means that more senior NCOs will remain in the army for longer and away from their families for far longer.
The family-reunion programme during the Lunar New Year, the most important festival for the Chinese - currently underway, allows married NCOs to live with their spouses and children after being on duty besides the annual official holiday.