China veterans' protests for pensions pose test for leaders

For Yu Shuiping and other Chinese veterans, the country they served has yet to show its gratitude.

Fed up with paltry pensions and benefits, they're taking to the streets, hoping to shame the government into recognizing what they say is its obligation to those who battled in harsh conditions along the country's borders.

While largely peaceful, the sporadic protests amplify concerns over labor unrest and threaten to undermine rank-and-file support for Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's campaign to modernize the world's largest-standing military by attracting better qualified and more highly motivated soldiers.

"We support the party and the government, and we don't oppose the party or hate society," Yu said in a phone interview from his home in the central province of Hunan. "We just want better treatment." Yu has for years been petitioning the government for more benefits, although he declined to discuss the specifics of his efforts.

Activist Huang Qi, who tracks unrest in China, estimates that veterans have staged as many as 50 protests this year, highlighted by a demonstration last week outside the Defense Ministry in central Beijing, where such actions are extremely rare.

Surrounded by police and plain-clothes officers, roughly 1,000 veterans from across the country, many dressed in their old uniforms, sang and marched for hours before being taken away in buses.

Behind the heavy security response lies the specter of street action by laid-off workers that has long haunted China's communist leaders, obsessed with preserving social stability at all costs. Following a wave of worker protests in the early 2000s, China faces a new round of cuts in coal mines, steel mills and other state firms, throwing millions of workers on the scrapheap.

Such veterans' protests go back decades and are now facilitated by adept use of social media. The government censors information about them and veterans are highly reluctant to discuss their plight with foreign media for fear of being accused of disloyalty.

Thus far, however, their actions have borne little fruit. According to most accounts, the central government's response has been to fob them off on local authorities, who then fail to act on their complaints.

The authorities work to ensure some veterans are satisfied, thus keeping them from forming a united front, said Neil Diamant, a professor of Asian law and society at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, who studies the veterans' issues.

They also arrest emerging veterans' leaders, infiltrate the groups and monitor their communications, detaining large numbers if necessary, he said.

"So far, this has allowed them to muddle though. My guess is that they just wait them out, hoping that age will eventually prevent many from becoming overly feisty," Diamant said.

Veterans also lack high-level contacts or powerful advocates, while the wars they fought in have never been particularly popular. Their status in society doesn't come close to matching the prestige the ruling Communist Party bestows on them, and most Chinese are more likely to sympathize with causes such as pollution and corruption that affect their daily lives.

Their appearances outside government offices are met with a firm though non-confrontational response from the security forces, who in Beijing tend to load them onto buses and drive them to the outskirts of the city where they are detained until agents from their local governments arrive to take them home.

"Having served in the army and taken part in war, we hope only that the government not treat us harshly," said Yu, who added he did not take part in the recent protest in Beijing.

In a written response to a question from The Associated Press, the Defense Ministry said resolving veterans' concerns were taken very seriously and that a new set of policies were being rolled out to address them at the local level.

"The temporary living difficulties of a portion of retired soldiers will gradually be resolved," the ministry said.

For the military, the immediate priority is finding work for the 300,000 soldiers being cut under an order issued last year by Xi. While demobilized soldiers used to be given jobs in state companies, that possibility no longer exists. And with a slowing economy and tightening job market, there's no certainty that the private sector will be able to absorb them in such numbers.

While reemployment poses its own challenges, for older veterans such as Yu, pensions and benefits are the main concern.

Despite operating the world's largest standing army, with 2.3 million personnel, China doesn't have a central government body to handle veterans' affairs, such as the U.S. Veteran's Administration. Instead, cash-strapped local government offices are responsible for their welfare, and treatment varies widely across the country.

While the government requires that their incomes be marginally higher than the average in their home regions, that's often not the case, especially in the countryside where most veterans live and are provided as little as 400 yuan ($60) per month, according to Yu. Urban dwellers suffer from a huge disparity depending on where they live, ranging from a token amount to something closer to the local average income, he said.

Given the lack of centralized information, it's difficult to tell how many veterans are now receiving pensions, including those who fought in the 1950-53 Korean War, the 1962 border war with India and the 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

The localized and scatter-shot nature of the system also precludes any unified figure on what the government spends on veterans. Meanwhile, China's fast-growing defense budget hit $146 billion this year, making it the world's second largest after the United States, and includes significant expenditures on welfare for troops currently serving.

In the military's quest for excellence, shoddy treatment of veterans could harm efforts to attract the best recruits. That's part of the reason protesting veterans aren't harshly treated, said Gao Wenqian, senior policy adviser for Human Rights in China, which has been monitoring the protests.

"Stable morale among the military is one of (Xi's) biggest concerns," Gao said.