China has unveiled details of a new law to honour and support veterans of the People’s Liberation Army. Veterans have long campaigned for better treatment but for years they had little to show for their efforts. In 2016 thousands of veterans staged a rally outside the Central Military Commission in Beijing, which prompted the commission to promise it would act. But it was not until 2018, when further protests happened in cities around the country – including a five-day rally in the eastern city of Zhenjiang that was violently broken up – that the authorities announced that work had started on the draft law. Last week it was announced that the National People’s Congress had finished a one-month-long public consultation period on the proposed legislation. The draft, which contains 77 articles, aims to improve former service personnel’s social standing by designating military service as a “respectable profession”. Veterans have long blamed local officials for denying them benefits, and they hope that a law that highlights their standing will help them to push for action. The law also includes measures to provide vocational training and support for veterans wounded in combat or training. But the proposals particularly favour senior officers – retired cadres from combat units with battalion commander rank or above will be given priority for getting jobs in government or state-owned companies. Military commentators warned that soldiers from poorer backgrounds may lose out as a result and called on the government not to give senior officers too many special privileges. China’s new veterans’ law to be reviewed at National People’s Congress next week There are currently 57 million PLA veterans, many of whom could be called up again if the need arises. According to mainland media reports around 10 million of these veterans make up the country’s reserve forces. Hundreds of retired soldiers were recalled to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic, and others have been recalled for disaster relief or to help the navy expand its fleets. But the prospect of a recall to active military duty is increasing as China’s relations with the United States and neighbouring countries such as India deteriorate. Since 2018 all retiring service personnel have had to promise to “be ready for a call-up to prepare for war” in a farewell ceremony. China’s leadership has placed increasing emphasis on the military’s importance in recent years. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also head of the Central Military Commission, has promised to give soldiers a greater sense of pride in their service and has increased pay and improved welfare services over the past seven years. Arthur Ding, an honorary professor of international relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said the ongoing tensions the border dispute with India and the Covid-19 pandemic had not only pushed the leadership to place more emphasis on the army’s status, but even to consider the North Korean “army first” policy. Honouring of wounded PLA mine sweeper triggers poignant memories for Sino-Vietnamese war veterans This policy, known as Songun in Korean, was introduced by the late leader Kim Il-sung in 1994 and designates the military as the “supreme repository of power” with control over resources. “Compared with his predecessors, Xi has preferred to highlight his title as the chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission since he took the helm of the PLA [in late 2012],” Ding said. “Compared with the Kim family in the North, Xi prefers to use nationalism to support his ‘army-first’ policy, because he understands the army will not only help him to cope with a crisis, but also consolidate his political power.” But Zeng Zhiping, a military law expert at Soochow University and a retired PLA lieutenant colonel, said he had submitted a report to the NPC and called for an amendment to treat everyone fairly. Economic problems such as the rural-urban disparity and bankruptcies among state-owned enterprises have also taken their toll on veterans, with many from rural backgrounds or with poor levels of education being pushed into poverty. He said he had asked the NPC to delete the references to a “respectable profession” and measures that favoured officers, saying they did not accord with the principles of “division of labour and occupational equality.” “All retired servicemen and servicewomen should be respected, no matter whether they were commanders, senior officers, or grass-root soldiers,” Zeng said. Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong warned Xi’s “army-first” policy could generate unrealistic expectations among veterans that threated to cause further social instability. “It’s very dangerous to over-rely on the military, especially using benefits to win support,” Wong said.