World News

China’s Ex-Soldiers Join Its Legions of Protesters

BEIJING — They converge from across China, marching in the hundreds, ungainly from lack of training but proudly waving red national flags and wearing green uniforms recalling years of military service. Then they line up in front of government buildings.

Posted Updated

Chris Buckley
, New York Times

BEIJING — They converge from across China, marching in the hundreds, ungainly from lack of training but proudly waving red national flags and wearing green uniforms recalling years of military service. Then they line up in front of government buildings.

But they come to protest, not protect, the officials sheltered inside.

They are the latest discontented group to upset the Chinese Communist Party’s image of imperturbable dominance: People’s Liberation Army veterans who have held protests across several cities in recent weeks over what they say is mistreatment, poor job prospects and inadequate benefits.

The latest erupted last week in Zhenjiang, a city in Jiangsu province in eastern China. Hundreds of former soldiers — some online accounts claimed thousands — rushed there after rumors spread that at least one veteran had been beaten while seeking government help. The precise course of events is unclear, but for many protesters, the episode crystallized their broader anger with officialdom.

“The problem is that there’s too much corruption at the local level,” Chen Wuliang, a former soldier from eastern China who said he had gone to Zhenjiang, said by telephone. “Where the local corruption is bad is also where old veterans who fought in wars are worst oppressed.”

The recent burst of veteran-led protests does not present a dire threat to Communist Party rule, which remains broadly popular and backed by a daunting police apparatus. On Monday, the protests in Zhenjiang appeared to have dispersed.

But the demonstrations show how even under the sweeping dominance of President Xi Jinping, discontent persists, taking forms that can catch the government by surprise. The veterans, coming from across the country and with tight bonds formed in military service, are a particularly stubborn headache.

“We’re comrades in arms and all keep in touch,” Chen said. “Generally, it’s through WeChat and sometimes the phone,” he said, referring to a vastly popular social media service.

Other Chinese cities have been struck by similar protests in recent months. In late May, many hundreds of veterans gathered for days in Luohe, a city in central China, after accounts spread that a former soldier’s wife had been detained by police after she joined veterans who had gone to Beijing to demand better treatment.

In mid-June, veterans protested in Zhongjiang County, in southern China, after rumors spread that a disabled former soldier there had been beaten by police. Websites dedicated to human rights issues in China record many more smaller assemblies by aggrieved veterans, often after they lose jobs or fail to win improved benefits.

Party leaders in Beijing were shocked in 2016 and early 2017 when about a thousand veterans twice entered the capital and sat in protest — the first time outside the People’s Liberation Army headquarters and the second outside the party’s anti-corruption agency. Despite censors, Chinese internet chat rooms for veterans are still lively with talk of the various protests. After the latest one, a message warned that former soldiers were honing their skills in confrontation, just as they had once drilled on parade grounds.

“No matter whether it’s political brains, strategy and tactics, objectives and orientation, organizational means or operational efficiency, it’s all been very much like a successful war of encirclement,” a message said on a website for Chinese veterans. “The self-organized ‘rights self-defense’ by us ex-service personnel seems to have secured another victory.”

Demonstrations and petitions by aggrieved former service personnel go back many decades in China. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping retrenched 1 million troops and from the 1990s, many found it hard to find secure work as market reforms eroded guaranteed government job assignments.

But the sizable protests this year are still striking because Xi has often praised Chinese soldiers, promised better treatment for veterans and this year established a Ministry of Veterans Affairs intended to end bureaucratic buck-passing over their needs.

“The ministry should provide better service and protect the legal rights and interests of veterans so that military service can be one of the most dignified careers,” Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said when the ministry began operations in April.

Despite such steps, many former soldiers feel a gulf between the rhetorical laurels from the government and the practical problems they face. The new ministry has already become a destination for veterans who feel that local officials have ignored their grievances.

Many veterans seem “highly skeptical that the establishment of a new ministry will matter much, and interpret it as a symbolic concession,” Neil J. Diamant, a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who studies protests by Chinese veterans, said by email.

“A new ministry gives veterans an address, but no more power,” he said. “They remain supplicants for state largesse — and this is exactly how the government wants it to remain.”

China has more serving military personnel than any other country and by official estimate it has 57 million veterans, most of them recruited from villages and towns for a few years’ service. That makes for a large pool of potential discontent.

Often, protesting veterans are unhappy that they have been shunted into low-end work or lost their jobs in cutbacks. Other sources of complaint are poor medical care, and pensions and stipends smaller than they believe is their due. Many veterans, using a Chinese saying, liken themselves to donkeys slaughtered after they are too old to work a grindstone.

“The government increasingly proclaims its having ‘arrived’ in the rank of top nations,” Diamant said. “Veterans have noticed this. Naturally, they wonder why should they struggle for medicine and pensions when the government they served is now rich.”

Not all the veterans contacted for this article supported the demonstrations or said that their living conditions were stagnant. Some said that more spending by local governments in recent years had helped. Those who spoke on the record did not want their precise whereabouts described. “Our treatment here has improved,” said Gao Xiangxu, a veteran who lives in a northern Chinese city. “I’m not sure about other places.”

But apart from strained living conditions, discontented veterans said that they had not been afforded the dignity they expected from society after years of poorly paid service and sometimes sacrifice in wars. Quite a number say they fought in China’s war against Vietnam in 1979, when the People’s Liberation Army forces declared victory but suffered ignominious setbacks.

“When we old soldiers were young and went to the front line, we were answering the call of the country and the party to fight Vietnam,” said Zheng Huizu, a veteran from eastern China. He said that he had wanted to protest in Zhenjiang but that local officials had stopped him.

“If we old soldiers hadn’t gone to fight against Vietnam, how could things have gone smoothly for our country?” he said by telephone. “Without heroes to fight a battle, how can a country be at peace?”

Under Xi, Chinese police and security forces have already clamped down on protests and dissent, especially by liberal opponents of the party. Clamping down on veterans presents more delicate complications. They often declare their loyalty to the party and carry pictures of Mao and Xi as proof. The government appears likely to tighten surveillance and perhaps offer concessions to veterans in an effort to douse protests. But some former soldiers warned that they would wait only so long to see if the new Ministry of Veteran Affairs improved their lives.

“If the ministry is just decoration, the same old medicine in a different broth,” a message on a veterans’ internet chat room this month said, “then no number of iron stallions of stability preservation will be able to stop the great army of rights defense.”

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.