PLA veterans stage another protest in Beijing over unpaid benefits

The protest last week comes after October’s demonstration, which was biggest in a sensitive location in the capital since 1999

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 2:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 11:16pm

Two months after thousands of army veterans from across China besieged the military headquarters in the heart of Beijing to demand unpaid benefits, about 500 angry veterans converged on the capital again last week.

A veteran from Hebei who attended the October protest confirmed the latest protest, which was held outside the state petition office.

But he told the South China Morning Post that unlike the one in October, which saw some veterans taken away by the authorities, with their whereabouts unknown, the latest protest, on December 28, was much smaller and protesters were only briefly detained for questioning.

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The October 11 protest outside the August 1st (Bayi) Building took many people by surprise. Thousands of veterans, most aged in their 40s to 60s, gathered outside the building, which houses the headquarters of the Central Military Commission – the People’s Liberation Army’s top decision-making body – and the Ministry of Defence, to petition the central authorities for benefits they say they were promised in lieu of jobs, such as pension payments and social security.

There have been previous protests and petitions by veterans from China’s brief 1979 border war with Vietnam and the Korean war (1950-1953) to demand pensions, social security, jobs and other welfare promised when they enlisted. But October’s protest was the first time such a large number of former servicemen and women had converged to put pressure on the Communist regime.

Clad in camouflage military uniforms, the veterans sang army songs and waved banners beside the military headquarters, watched by hundreds of police officers.

“Thousands of retired soldiers from across the country were there to beleaguer the PLA headquarters that afternoon, with 37 coming from my home county of Qinghe [in Xingtai, Hebei province],” said Huang Huagui, a former PLA officer who retired 18 years ago.

It was the biggest protest by former military personnel since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 and the biggest protest at a sensitive location in Beijing since thousands of Falun Gong practitioners besieged the party leadership’s Zhongnanhai compound in 1999. The central government banned the sect soon afterwards, branding it an “evil cult”.

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October’s largely peaceful protest was a slap of the face for the authorities. A source from the northwestern province of Shaanxi who helped organise it said the line of demonstrators stretched for about 3km and must have incensed an embarrassed party leadership.

“Representatives of the veterans had three rounds of on-the-spot talks with the authorities that day,” he said. The first to meet them was Meng Jianzhu, a member of the party’s decision-making Politburo and the party’s top law enforcer, who arrived in the afternoon with some courteous words but little else. After a second round of talks also proved fruitless, the source said a vice minister of civil affairs arrived at around 9.30pm and met six representatives from the protesters.

“But this official appeared to be in no mood to talk the representatives down and refused to budge an inch during the course of the negotiation,” he said, adding that the meeting ended with the stand-off unresolved.

“After 3am the next morning they made an announcement through a loud speaker that President Xi [Jinping] had ordered the deputy chiefs of governments or party committees in the provinces involved to come and ‘settle your issues specifically’.”

He added that vice-governors from Henan, Hebei and Zhejiang were among the first to arrive, making promises in an attempt to lure the protesters back to their home towns.

The police began a clearance operation when the announcement came to an end, he said, adding that veterans from Anhui province were the first to be taken away.

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The authorities dispersed the October protesters, loading the veterans onto buses and sending them out of Beijing with promises that their grievances would be heeded.

Huang said he was among the last few batches of veterans loaded onto buses at about 6am. They were driven to Jiujingzhuang, on the outskirts of the capital.

“We were told in Beijing that everything would be sorted out when we got back to our home town,” he said, adding that a leading Qinghe county official had pledged their problems would be fixed before November 25.

But some desperate veterans had decided to take action again in December after seeing no progress on their claims. He did not join them, despite claiming he was still owed 480,000 yuan.

Huang said he joined the air force in the former Beijing Military Command as a conscript in October 1987 and then, five years later, volunteered to remain in the army. He retired from the PLA in late 1999.

PLA regulations require local governments to find jobs for volunteer soldiers, who are told to hand in their farmland at home in return. But Huang’s retirement coincided with then premier Zhu Rongji’s campaign to trim the state-owned industrial sector, which resulted in the loss of 40 million jobs and made re-employment difficult.

Today, in the face of an economic downturn and tight job market, securing work for tens of thousands of demobilised soldiers across the country remains a tall order for regional and local officials, especially when Xi has pledged to find jobs for 300,000 military personnel due to be made redundant in years to come and more than 7.5 million university graduates become jobseekers each year.

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Huang, in his late 50s, said he had only wanted the job he had been promised but was now seeking a pension as compensation. He said he had joined fellow veterans in meetings with the head of the county government every Tuesday since returning from Beijing.

At least he made it home unscathed. Some veterans went missing after October’s protest.

Wang Guorong, a veteran from Yiyang of Hunan province who did not take part in the demonstration in October said a fellow townsman Teng Xingqiu, 59, and several other veterans he knew had disappeared afterwards.