Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu on Friday struggled to contain growing protests by at least 1,000 People's Liberation Army (PLA) veterans enraged at the beating of a fellow veteran earlier this week.
Hundreds of former armed forces personnel clad in military-style clothing gathered on a major road in Jiangsu's Zhenjiang city, shouting slogans and waving national flags, in the first major public show of strength since a mass protest in Beijing in October 2016.
Arranged in neat rows, in blocks according to region of China, and carrying ruling Chinese Communist Party flags and banners identifying their time and place of service, the veterans waited as organizers patrolled the protest, issuing instructions through megaphones.
Twitter user Yijian Piaochen, who is described as a writer and poet, posted video from the scene, drawing a parallel with 1989 student-led protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
"These veterans are exceptionally well-organized, even more so than they were in 1989," the user commented.
Online videos had earlier showed protesters working together to pull down street barriers placed in their way, and surging past riot police to join fellow protesters on Nanmen Square.
Reports posted to Twitter said that "hundreds" of veterans were converging on Zhenjiang from elsewhere in China on Friday in a show of solidarity, and that local taxi drivers were ferrying them around the city free of charge.
Citizen journalist Cai Chu tweeted that security guards had beaten up PLA veteran Wang Yihong and his companions near the Zhenjiang municipal government on Tuesday, sparking "outrage and solidarity" among former PLA personnel across China.
Another Twitter user called for local residents to donate blankets for veterans encamped to the west of the new government building, "desperately needed to avoid the cold tonight."
Protesters at the scene told RFA that veterans had arrived in Zhenjiang from Shandong, Hebei, Henan, and Sichuan provinces during the past four days.
Provincial leaders have also been dispatched to the main protests, which center on Nanmen Square, outside the southern gate of the government compound.
Veterans beaten up
"The veterans went to lodge a petition, and were beaten up," a veteran surnamed Wang, who is currently under house arrest at his home in Shandong, told RFA on Friday. "After the beatings, the whole country rose up in solidarity."
"There were about 400 people there for the first four days, but there were more than 1,000 there yesterday evening, and they are still arriving," he said. "They stopped them from leaving at a train station in Anhui; they refuse to sell them tickets, so the whole lot spent the night in the waiting room; more than 400 of them."
"I wanted to go too, but they got in touch with my [grown] child, telling me not to go," said Wang, who is now under surveillance.
A fellow veteran surnamed Chen said the local authorities have tried to enforce an information blackout of the protests.
"This incident is being very strictly censored," Chen said. "We have found some things on [social media] but the video clips won't play."
"They are afraid people will come together ... so all they can do is try to maintain stability or cover it up."
An official who answered the phone at the Zhenjiang municipal government on Friday acknowledged that there had been protests by veterans.
"Are they out there? I think so; I don't think they have left yet," the official said. "But I can't give you an official response; I'm just the duty officer, and I don't know what's going on outside."
"You reporters need to speak to the propaganda department," he said.
But an official who answered the phone at the Zhenjiang municipal party committee propaganda office on Friday hung up as soon as they were contacted by RFA.
Police and "stability maintenance" personnel have been dispatched from elsewhere in China to try to contain the protests, a veteran who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Wednesday.
"It's not a run-of-the-mill event, the suppression of PLA veterans," the veteran said. "And this has happened a number of times now ... even veterans of the [World War II] war of resistance against Japan have been detained and rebuked."
"Of course they are going to take this road if they are unable to defend their rights and interests," he said.
Fighting for benefits
In October 2016, thousands of demobilized PLA personnel converged on Beijing from across China, staging a vocal protest outside the headquarters of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission (CMC), which is chaired by President Xi Jinping.
Singing "In Unity is Our Strength" and other Chinese military choruses, the veterans, some of whom had fought in the Korean War (1950-1953), wore their old uniforms and stood peacefully, calling for pensions, healthcare and other demobilization benefits they said were promised but not delivered.
Any bid to organize has since triggered nationwide security alerts via the "stability maintenance" system, which targets peaceful protesters, petitioners, and critics of the government.
The veterans are calling on the authorities to abide by promises made to them before they signed up to fight in China's short border war with Vietnam in 1979.
Clause 3 of the Military Pensions Priority Regulations requires governments to ensure that the standard of living and social situation of demobilized PLA soldiers doesn't fall below the national average.
Other veterans are citing official document No. 75 issued by China's cabinet, the State Council, in 1978 promising to find jobs for demobilized military personnel.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.